The first time Bill Cartwright climbed these stairs was some 41 years ago, when the long-limbed freshman out of Elk Grove High School didn’t just walk up the steep incline.
The 7-footer glided up the stairs – seemingly bounding over the skyscrapers that paint the horizon – reaching “The Hilltop” and USF, where Cartwright was a prized basketball recruit ready to carry the Dons to even loftier heights. USF was an easy sell to Cartwright, America’s top high school player in 1975who came from a quiet farming community south of Sacramento. He wanted to be defined by academics and leadership as much as scoring and rebounding.
Four decades later, Cartwright is back on the hill in a new role. He pitches all things USF, promoting a campus that continues to identify him. Cartwright, 58, is in his first month as the director of university initiatives. He meets with students, coaches, faculty, alumni and community members to discuss the Dons, the university and its athletic and academic aspirations. He reaches out to those who are disconnected from the school. He wines and dines. He charms and informs.
Cartwright’s life has come full circle – back in Northern California – and he feels complete. His 85-year-old father, James, is still in Sacramento. The apartment Cartwright shares with his wife of 36 years, Sheri, his high school sweetheart, is at the foot of the hill of USF, barely three football fields from his office. He walks to work, still those long strides, if not a bit more labored from decades of basketball wear and tear. Cartwright’s 16 NBA seasons were highlighted by the Chicago Bulls’ three-peat championship in the early 1990s when he was the starting center.
I’m here to re-engage. I tell people here, ‘Look, I’m here for you.’
Bill Cartwright, USF’s new director of university initiatives
When Cartwright reaches his office, his legs stretching into the hallway, he doesn’t hesitate to kick off his shoes. A relaxed body makes for a relaxed mind. And his motto just as well might be: “If you can handle this hill, you can handle USF and anything.”
“That hill,” Cartwright said last week, looking down at it and laughing, “is a climb. First time I tried it when I returned here, it was bad. Felt out of shape. Then I looked around. Everyone else was winded, too, so I thought, ‘Ah, this is all right.’ But some kids run up the hill. OK, I see you!”
Cartwright never saw his return coming. He was the Cal-Hi Sports Player of the Year at Elk Grove in 1974 and ’75, and he was on the NBA radar as a first-round pick out of high school decades before it became customary.
But Cartwright was sold on USF, on education, on growing as a man and an athlete. He was a three-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year and still holds USF’s record for career points with 2,116. In January 1977, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as he led the Dons to a 29-0 start and a No. 1 ranking before USF lost its last two games of the season. A certain one-and-done player in today’s college basketball game, Cartwright played all four years at USF. In the summer of 1979, Cartwright was the third overall pick in the NBA draft – behind Magic Johnson and David Greenwood – going to the New York Knicks.
Cartwright was a key contributor to the first half of the Bulls’ 1990s dynasty. He retired after the 1994-95 season with the Seattle SuperSonics. Now what?
“I wasn’t sure,” Cartwright said. “Maybe get into insurance, or the restaurant business, something to do with people. I was ready to rock and roll. Then (Bulls executive) Jerry Krause called me to see if I wanted to get into coaching. Wow. Really?”
Cartwright was a Bulls assistant coach from 1996 to 2001, winning two more rings and wincing at the swift post-Michael Jordan decline. Cartwright became the Bulls’ head coach in 2001 and compiled a 51-100 record with young, inexperienced players before being let go 14 games into the 2003-04 season. Cartwright had NBA assistant gigs with the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns from 2004 to 2012. While conducting a basketball camp in Iowa in 2013, Cartwright fielded a call from a friend. A team in the Japan Basketball League – Osaka Evessa – was struggling. Could he save the ship?
Off he went.
“Wow, never been to Japan, so why not?” Cartwright said with a laugh. “The team started 5-19, but we won 10 in a row. Terrific guys. Four Americans, the rest Japanese. Great experience, great time. But it was too far. It was morning here and night there, and there’s always a disconnect. But it was fun to do. I mean, who does that?”
Cartwright does, that’s who. He said he hasn’t given up the idea of coaching basketball. He keeps a pulse on the NBA, and basketball keeps a pulse on him.
“Bill cares and enjoys people, and really loved his time at USF as a student-athlete,” Phil Jackson, Cartwright’s former Bulls coach, said in an email. “He is missed in the NBA, but will find a place where he fits with a basketball program. He was a good coach but had to deal with some knucklehead high school kids (with Chicago) that didn’t have the chance to develop as basketball players due to the NBA allure.”
Part of the disconnect with some USF alums, Cartwright said, resulted from the shameful collapse of the basketball program soon after he left. In 1982, USF dropped the men’s team for three seasons because of recruiting violations and the Quintin Dailey saga. The star player was charged with assaulting a female student, and he was paid $5,000 a month by a school donor for a phantom job. USF said then the program was stalled to preserve “the school’s integrity and its reputation.”
“There was a lot of disengagement after that,” Cartwright said. “I’m here to re-engage. I tell people here, ‘Look, I’m here for you.’ I’m getting to know people. People want to be connected. I meet with them, talk to them. We have the No. 1 university on the planet. We can be a great academic school and great in athletics. We can do both. But it starts with education.”
2,116 Bill Cartwright’s record career points at USF
Cartwright’s parents, James and Marie, stressed education to their seven children. The alternative loomed outside, in the sweltering sun, 10 miles south of Sacramento, near Walnut Grove and Thornton. That’s where the Cartwright clan was raised. Cartwright’s eyebrows rise and he sighs in recalling summer days of harvest. Twelve-hour sessions hoeing down weeds to reach sugar beets, his back and legs aching, his hands blistered.
“All the other kids were on vacation,” Cartwright said. “Smart kids. You chop all day to get to those sugar beets. Do anything to occupy the mind. There was a life lesson, and that lesson was that you don’t want to do labor work. If you can do that, you can do anything.”
Such as climbing “The Hilltop” and taking USF to new heights – again.