The young Goleta boy would ride his bike to the convenience store on Encina Road every chance he got, but not just for the snacks.
Little Ben Howland also wanted to talk basketball with the teenage clerk.
“I met Jay Hillock when I was 7, hanging out at the 7-Eleven store where he used to work,” said Howland, who has since guided four different schools to the NCAA Tournament.
That meeting of the young minds resulted in two of the most respected careers in basketball.
Howland won national coach of the year honors at Pittsburgh in 2002 and again at UCLA in 2006 when he took the Bruins to the first of three straight Final Fours.
He had just guided Mississippi State to its first NCAA Tournament in a decade when Hillock, now 71, called it quits last year after his own 42 seasons in the sport.
Hillock spent 17 of those seasons as a collegiate coach and 25 in the NBA. That included a dozen years as Director of Pro Personnel for the Chicago Bulls and then two more as a scout before he settled down for good at his Ventura home with wife Cindy.
His lofty ascent in the game of basketball came as no surprise to those who knew him during the 1960s as Goleta’s King Gym Rat. He was the first of four Goleta Boys Club members to become NCAA Division I coaches, with Howland, Larry Lessett (Maryland-Eastern Shore) and Shantay Legans (Eastern Washington) following in his footsteps.
“I met Jay when he was 15 or 16… He was friends with my brother Greg,” said Sal Rodriguez, another Boys Clubber who became its long-time director. “He knew basketball and he wanted to learn more.”
That was evident even when Hillock was on the bench as a senior during San Marcos High’s run to the CIF semifinals in 1967.
“I made it a point to sit next to Jay to listen to him wax poetic about what was going on the floor — match-ups, who should be substituted, what kind of offense should we run,” said teammate Laird Hayes, who would continue on to a long career as an NFL referee. “Jay was a basketball savant. He saw things on the court that I never saw.”
Classmate Jeff Nelson, the star of those 25-4 Royals who would become a two-sport athlete at Cal Poly, saw “both passion and smarts” in his San Marcos teammate.
“We called him Pops as he seemed like a middle-aged, Midwestern basketball coach in high school,” Nelson said.
Hillock was actually born in Hoosier country. He moved from Indiana to California at age 12 when General Motors transferred his father to Goleta’s Delco Electronics. His parents, Jesse and Ann, became major figures on the Santa Barbara tennis scene. Jay, the eldest of their five children, was more set on a life in basketball.
He earned his bachelor’s degree at Gonzaga University and his master’s at Cal Poly in 1975 before volunteering to help Santa Barbara City College’s new coach, Ed De Lacy.
Howland’s family had moved to Cerritos when he was a sophomore in high school, but Hillock recruited him right back to Santa Barbara to play for the Vaqueros. Within the next three years, they became the top-ranked community college team in California.
“We went 33-2, and 10 of us from that team went on to play at four-year schools,” said Rich Alvari, another former San Marcos star who played at SBCC from 1977-79. “Jay and Ed had a lot to do with that.”
The late Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga’s coach and athletic director at the time, brought Hillock back to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1979. He’d seen enough within two years, promoting him to be his successor. At age 32, the Goleta gym rat had become one of the youngest head coaches in Division I basketball.
The Zags, who now rein among the college basketball elite, were a barebones program in those days with a recruiting budget of just $7,500. They toured California’s high school gyms in an old, battered car that they warehoused in San Francisco. They’d even sleep in it when they ran out of hotel money.
Fitzgerald knew he needed a work horse to take over his program.
“The Hillocks did a lot of good things raising their kids,” he once said. “But more than anything else, they taught them to work.”
John Stockton, Hillock’s star player and a future NBA Hall of Famer, remembers the young coach doing much of the grunt work around Gonzaga’s old gym.
“Jay and our trainer, Steve, would get out the scrapers and redo our floor every year,” he said. “They’d varnish it themselves.”
He brought another hard-working Hillock — his younger brother Joe — onto his staff. Joe spent a dozen years at Gonzaga and is still coaching basketball at a high school in Utah.
“Joe and Jay came hand-in-hand,” Stockton recalled. “You talk about basketball rats, if those two weren’t in the gym, they’d be together looking at game film.”
Hillock also hired Howland — the kid who liked to talk basketball over Slurpees — to be his first graduate assistant. He brought Alvari into the same position a few years later.
He had a vital assignment for Howland after his backup point guard left school, asking him to match up against Stockton in practice.
“I fouled him a lot,” said Howland, who had been Weber State’s top defensive player just two seasons earlier. “He probably thought I was a jerk.”
Stockton thought nothing of the kind.
“He was very physical and very verbal, but it wasn’t unpleasant,” he recalled. “He made things hard but also rewarding for me.”
Hillock took the same approach with the future Utah Jazz star.
“Jay was very high-energy and a speedy talker,” Stockton said. “I remember once when he was trying to get my attention, he had both hands on my cheeks and was slapping them. I can’t remember the lesson he was trying to teach, but he wanted to make sure I heard it.
“I appreciate that in a guy — someone who cares about the game and is as involved in it as much as you are.”
Gonzaga posted a 60-50 record during Hillock’s four seasons as head coach. They even upset DePaul in Chicago when Ray Meyer had the Blue Demons ranked among the nation’s top teams. But a rash of injuries kept the Zags from continuing on to the NCAA Tournament.
“I thought we had a great chance my senior year, but literally everybody except me in that senior class got hurt,” Stockton pointed out.
The frustrations, Hillock admitted, were difficult to handle. He stepped down after the Zags, who had started the 1984-85 season with a 13-5 record, finished at just 15-13.
“I have a lot of positive feelings toward Gonzaga,” he said. “I just caught myself in a situation where I was so down, I didn’t know if I wanted to coach again.”
But that changed after Hillock was recruited to be the top assistant at Loyola Marymount. He played a key role in the Lions’ 1990 run to the NCAA Elite Eight, implementing the man-to-man press that complemented coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun offense.
“We started from scratch,” Westhead said. “He was an extremely knowledgeable basketball person who I relied on. What I learned later was (that) he’s extremely reliable.”
Hillock took over the program when Westhead and the team’s top players moved on. He was fired after posting a win-loss record of 31-28 over two seasons
“We couldn’t sustain it,” Hillock admitted, “but Loyola never knew what it wanted to be.”
But he still knew what he was meant to be: that basketball savant that Laird Hayes had once identified in 1967. The Utah Jazz hired Hillock as a scout in 1994, beginning a quarter-century odyssey in the NBA that included stops in Washington and Vancouver.
Scott Layden, then the general manager of the New York Knicks, eventually lured him to Madison Square Garden in 2002 to be his Director of Pro Personnel.
“What always strikes me about Jay is how incredibly humble and modest he is, especially considering what he’s accomplished in the game of basketball,” Layden said. “He has always been dedicated to the profession, as a student and teacher of the game.
“His excitement and passion for coaching and scouting isn’t just obvious, it’s contagious. He reminds me why we are all so lucky to do what we do.
“His greatest quality by far, though, is his loyalty, which makes him a winning coach, a stellar scout and the best friend I know.”
That never wavered, whether he was tending counter at a 7-Eleven or taking his final tour of duty with the Chicago Bulls.
“Jay had a great career,” Howland said. “He was highly regarded and so well-liked in the league.
“As for me, I’ll be forever indebted to him for getting me into basketball coaching… and for being such a phenomenal person and friend.”