It was back in the 1970s, a decade that saw Manhattan College basketball flourish while playing before packed houses at Madison Square Garden and earn three straight trips to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). It was a time when the NIT was college basketball’s most prestigious postseason tournament and Manhattan was the talk of the town in college basketball.
It was also the time when “a guy from the neighborhood,” all 6-9 and 235 pounds of him, stood in the in the middle of all that success and hoopla in Riverdale. That guy is Bill Campion.
All Campion did at Manhattan during his abbreviated career was set school records for rebounds in a game (30), rebounds in a season (419) and rebounds in a career (1,070) and he did it all in just two and a half seasons. He posted career averages of 16.5 points and 14.5 rebounds a game, numbers that would have NBA scouts salivating these days.
He won the coveted Haggerty Award as the top college player in the tri-state area following his junior season and was eventually drafted by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, played professionally in Europe for a year and even had a rather enjoyable eight-year career with a professional basketball team known more for losing and laughs than victories.
But for a long time Campion, who grew up near the reservoir on Giles Place, never felt comfortable returning to his alma mater, even after the school awarded him its highest athletic honor back in the 1980s.
“It’s funny. I got inducted into the Manhattan Hall of Fame in 1986 and then I hadn’t been back there until last fall,” Campion said. “I just kind of felt I was like an outcast. I did a lot of things up there, scoring and rebounding and things like, but I felt like they never appreciated me.”
Campion feels differently now as he will be the Manhattan representative, along with former women’s player Stacy Jack Edwards, who will be inducted into the Honor Roll in the MAAC Experience Exhibit at the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts on Saturday. It’s an honor Campion said he never dreamed would come.
“For an old guy it was really nice,” Campion said. “I’m 64 years old. But I was ecstatic when I found out about it. Totally surprised.”
Campion’s association with Manhattan goes back to his very early days and thanks to his mom – and his growth spurt – it became the perfect marriage of player and college.
“I’ll tell you what, my first class at Manhattan was when I was about 10 years old,” Campion said laughing. “That’s when Manhattan Prep [high school] was still there. My mother put me in a reading program at the prep on Saturday mornings so I was up there all the time on Saturdays. One day when me and a couple of the guys I used to go up there and play ball with were the court and the Manhattan Prep coach said to me, ‘What school do you go to?’ And I told him, ‘I go to junior high school 143. I’m just going into eighth grade.’ But I was 6-foot-2. He was shocked.”
But it wasn’t until after a stellar career at Rice High School in Harlem that Campion finally landed at Manhattan as a player.
Due to some academic problems, then-coach Jack Powers told him he’d have to sit out his first year and then have three years remaining in which to compete. Campion did as Powers advised.
“All that rebounding stuff, I never really paid any attention to it,” said Campion, who set his records playing just two and a half years at Manhattan. “I had to sit out the first year because I was academically ineligible so my freshman year I couldn’t play. So I did that. But my objective always was that I wanted to get a degree and that opened the doors for me to a lot of things. When I was a kid I was never home and I was always on the street. So I wanted that degree.”
Campion recalls a time when he was taunted by fans on the road because of his early academic difficulties which only made him more determined to earn his degree.
“My problem was I was a street kid, I was always on the street doing stupid stuff and I didn’t have the grades,” Campion said. “But as far as basketball goes, I didn’t care about it that much. All I wanted to do was get a college degree and I got it and it helped me out a lot in my life.”
After his Manhattan career came to a close, after a bad back sidelined him for most of his senior season, Campion was a fourth-round pick of the Bucks in the 1975 NBA Draft but he opted, instead, to go play professionally in Europe.
“I played in Italy with a bunch of guys from the Italian National Team and we wound up winning the European championship,” Campion said. “But after one year I came back to the States because, like I said, I wanted my degree. So I went back to school that summer and in the fall I did a little student teaching.”
But basketball wasn’t done with Campion just yet and the professional basketball career that he thought might one day include the NBA or a long stint playing in Europe took a decidedly different and unexpected turn.
“I hooked up with the Washington Generals, the team that always plays the Harlem Globetrotters,” Campion said. “I played with them for eight years. I thought in the beginning that I’d only do it for a couple of years and enjoy myself. But we did a lot of traveling and we had a good time.”
About the Washington Generals: They were a basketball team that basically played the role of foil to the talented and entertaining Globetrotters, who featured such basketball luminaries as Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and Geese Ausbie.
From 1953 until 1995, the Generals played against the Globetrotters over 13,000 times in countries all over the world, and in that time the Generals won just six times.
“I started playing with them in 1978 and ended my time with them in 1986. It was great,” Campion said. “We all became good friends with the Trotters. One guy, Geese Ausbie, played at Arkansas State and he was in college at the same time as [future NBA legends] Oscar Robertson and Cazzie Russell were playing in college, and he was the No. 2 scorer in the nation. So that’s the type of guys they had playing for them. I had a good time. Listen, I was making good money, I was young and I was traveling. I’ve been all over the world. I can’t tell you how many countries I’ve been in.”
The basketball life took its toll on Campion’s body and he was unable to continue playing the sport he loved.
“Because of basketball I’ve had two knee replacements, two hip replacements and I have pins and rods in my back and a bad left ankle,” Campion said. “It beat me up.”
So, the next logical move for a former professional basketball player, once he hangs his sneakers up? Beginning a career behind bars, of course.
“I took a job with the Bureau of Federal Prisons,” Campion said. “I started when I was 34 and I stayed there until I was 57.”
More than 40 years since he last pulled on a Manhattan Jaspers uniform, basketball will once again be the focal point of Campion’s life when he gets the long-overdue recognition for all he’s meant to Manhattan College.
“[Former Manhattan teammate] George Bucci is going and a lot of other guys are showing up for the ceremony,” Campion said. “I’m 64 years old and when something like this pops up, it’s great. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m going to see a lot of guys I haven’t seen in years.”
Best of all, Campion no longer feels like an outcast at the school he loves, the school he helped put on the basketball map all those years ago.