You remember this guy, don’t you? Number three overall pick from Duke. Coach K prodigy. Two-time national champion. Chucked the 75-footer to Laettner. Throwback hightop cut. Million dollar smile. Impeccable image with the game to match.
Lanky, 6-foot-8 with gangly arms. Played with Joe Dumars. Could score, pass, rebound, guard your best player. Posted 20, 6 and 5 as a rookie. Jumped through the roof. Obeyed his thirst. Motor City savior. Fila’s Michael Jordan. Led the league in All-Star voting.
Only guy besides Wilt to lead his team in points, boards and assists more than twice?
Look, Grant Hill doesn’t blame you if none of this rings a bell. He probably doesn’t remember that version of himself very well either. Fact is, though, that the Suns age-defying old man used to be a sure shot 22-year-old with a fresh face and all the talent in the world.
Hill was a Rookie of the Year, a can’t miss, a legend in waiting. Twenty-four months into his NBA career, he’d transformed a 28-win Pistons squad into a playoff team, led the league in triple-doubles, defeated Shaquille O’Neal and Air Jordan at the All-Star ballot box and won his country gold to boot. He was the present and the future – The Second Coming.
Basketball had great things in store for Grant Hill. And Grant Hill great things in store for basketball. That damn ankle had other plans.
In his 16th year in the league – more like 10 if you’re counting by 82-game seasons – the Phoenix forward hit a pair of notable milestones that might strike other famous vets as ho-hum, but couldn’t be any more rewarding for this 37-year-old. January marked Hill’s first full calendar year in which he did not miss a game due to injury. Now, on Monday night, he’ll lace up for the second round of the NBA Playoffs, making him the only player in history to do so for the first time after at least 15 seasons in the league.
It shouldn’t have gone down like this. And had the Pistons’ superstar been privy to a crystal ball, he probably wouldn’t have tried to gut out that first round series against Miami in 2000. He had sprained his ankle a week earlier, but his team needed him. The Heat might win this series, but the critics calling him soft would not.
The ankle didn’t hold. Hill was yanked during the second half of game two. The Heat swept. Thirty-Three was shipped to Disney in the would-be prime of his career in a should-be one-sided trade. Orlando sent Chucky Atkins and no-name forward Ben Wallace to Detroit for one of the faces of the league.
Of course, Hill’s next several seasons look like the numbers from “Lost” – 4, 14, 29, 67, 21. There’s actually a zero in there, too, between the 29 and 67, which you forget about because his ’03-04 season doesn’t exist on most statistical sites. Grant Hill didn’t step foot on the court.
To save you the arithmetic headache, he played a grand total of 47 out of a possible 264 games in one 5-year stretch. His Magic tenure was anything but, and his name became one with the term “freak” – not in the LeBron James sense, but in the accident-waiting-to-happen sense. Things got so bad with the gimpy ankle that Hill went under the knife once again in March 2003, this time for a reconstructive operation in which doctors re-fractured his ankle to align it with the rest of his leg.
Hill has always been one of the special few professional athletes that doesn’t need a reminder that there are other, more important things in life. The deadly infection that swallowed his post-surgery wounds didn’t know this. His fever spiked to 105. His body pulsed in violent shivers. Six months later, he was still hooked on intravenous antibiotics.
“The main thing is that it’s not a sprint but a marathon – life is a marathon,” Hill told NBA.com in January. And while these words would sound cliche coming from just about anybody else, they ring with a dramatic poignancy should you consider that, the following year, Hill staved off retirement urges to remind people of the player he once was… and the player he should have been all along. He posted 20 points a game on 51 percent shooting and started for the East All-Stars.
Now Grant Hill is in an unfamiliar position – he’s a role player, he’s on a good team, he’s healthy. He’s one of the last vestiges of an era of basketball that has long been upstaged by flashy, young superstars who didn’t stay in school, who love to play three on one, who can’t wait for the next free agency. Though he’s not a winner in the traditional NBA sense, he’s going to end his career with his money, with his wife of 11 years, with his three sportsmanship awards. He’s going to end his career with his dignity.
Root for Grant Hill tonight. He’s a great story. And a better man.