When people see ESPN personality Jemele Hill sitting among a sea of male prognosticators, effortlessly spewing her valued opinions on current and compelling sports topics, not everyone may agree with her—but you have to respect her gangsta.
Although she was raised humbly in crime-ridden Detroit at a time when poverty was protocol, jobs were leaving town and drugs were rampant, Hill’s love for sports and the encouragement of her mom shielded her from turmoil and sharpened her focus as she worked her way up the sports-TV ranks by being deeply knowledgeable, thoroughly experienced and undeniably original. Not yet 40, Hill enjoys a well-earned celebrity status at ESPN as one of the most recognizable faces and unique personalities working for the sports media empire.
I can’t pinpoint an age, but I remember specifically how and why I developed a love of sports. Baseball was my first love. And in those days, you had to read the newspapers to follow your favorite team and players. Now, we couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription. My mother was on welfare, and to earn extra money, she would clean houses.
One of her clients was an elderly guy, and he subscribed to both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. Since my mother couldn’t afford a babysitter, I would have to tag along when she cleaned his house. The reward was that I got to read his newspapers and follow what the Detroit Tigers were doing. I loved the language and how conversational sports columnists were. I’ve loved newspapers ever since.
I always loved writing and was a voracious reader. My parents had a lot of drug issues when I was growing up, and the one thing I loved about writing is that if you don’t like your reality, it allows you to create a new one. I was also a natural athlete. So I was sold once I figured out I could combine sports and writing, my two passions.
I grew up in Detroit, specifically on the west side. I endured a lot of upheaval and uncertainty growing up. My father and I were estranged early on because of his drug addiction. My mother also struggled with addiction and the psychological trauma of being a victim of sexual abuse.
Despite their struggles, I knew they always loved me. And my mother always made it clear that she expected me to achieve. Things weren’t always easy, but I appreciate my upbringing because I never would have made it this far without it.
I always loved baseball. I was a natural at it. I had a good arm. I played fearlessly and probably was more competitive than a lot of the guys. I knew that because I was often the only girl out there, the boys were going to come at me. I welcomed the challenge, which is part of the reason I’ve never been intimidated in my journalism career.
Anyway, I would watch This Week in Baseball with Mel Allen and all the games that came on Saturdays. My stepfather bought me a bat and glove, and I couldn’t be separated from either. I would imitate players’ swings while watching MLB games. I would play baseball with the guys in my neighborhood. I started playing softball at a local recreation center and then played fast-pitch softball in high school. I would dabble in basketball and football, too. I played basketball in a rec league in middle school, but I was never as good at any sport as I was at baseball.
If I had to rank the sports I was good at, it would be fast-pitch softball, bowling and dodgeball. I’d blast folks in the face when we played dodgeball. But since I loved baseball the most, pretty much every Detroit Tiger was my favorite player. I loved Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris. I can still name the entire 1984 World Series team.
I also loved Isiah Thomas (sorry, Knicks fans) and Steve Yzerman. My favorite NFL player of all time is Joe Montana, followed closely by Jerry Rice.
I attended Detroit public schools for most of my life. I went to Newton Elementary, then Beaubien Middle School, before graduating from Mumford High School. I briefly attended a private school for two years, from fifth to seventh grade.
I knew in high school that I wanted to do this. I worked for my high school newspaper. Once a month we would go down to the Detroit Free Press and produce the paper, since that’s what all Detroit high schools did. I just loved the energy of the newsroom. I loved the chaos. I loved the passion. On Thursday and Friday nights, I started working at the Free Press, answering phones and taking down high school sports scores. I was a classic tomboy. The first time I wore a dress and heels was for my high school prom.
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