Injuries, and little else, slowed Grant Hill

lkeeley@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2013 

Bobby Hurley remembers playing pick-up games with Grant Hill while they were in the midst of winning back-to-back titles at Duke. Hill was a popular pick, Hurley said, because his presence greatly increased the odds that his team would hold the court.

Those games occurred more than 20 years ago, in the early 1990s. Hurley is about to begin his first season as Buffalo’s head coach, 15 years removed from his last professional game. Hill just retired a few weeks ago.

“The way my body feels on a day-in and day-out basis, I can’t believe that he was still playing at that level,” Hurley said. “It brought me back to the times that we played together, so I guess is was kind of living through him, to a degree, watching him play and rejuvenate his career.”

Hill was valued in those pickup games, and throughout his 18-year NBA career, for more than just his on-court skills. His positive energy was contagious, and, even as a teenager, people gravitated toward him.

“Duke has had some unbelievable players and great guys,” said Jay Bilas, a graduate assistant during Hill’s time at Duke. “Of the guys I’ve known there, two guys have had the combination of that kind of talent and still be incredibly nice people – you never heard one bad word about them. There were two guys I came into contact like that, and that was Johnny Dawkins and Grant.”

It’s hard to pick one best metric when evaluating Hill’s career. His longevity is impressive on its own. So is the list of players who, like Hill, averaged at least 16 points, six rebounds and four assists in 500 or more games. Of the 14 players to accomplish that feat, 11 are in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. The others are Hill, Chris Webber and LeBron James.

Taking the long view, though, does a disservice to Hill’s talents when he was fully healthy. Ankle injuries robbed him of what should have been the prime of his career, limiting him to 47 games during 2000-2004, when he was 28-31 years old.

When Hill had his health at the beginning of his career, few were better. In NBA history, only six players have averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists through their first six seasons: Oscar Robinson, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Grant Hill.

“One of the things I hate is that a lot of the young guys now have no idea how good he was because they see the reinvented part,” said Jeff Capel, one of Hill’s close friends and teammate in 1993-94. “If you look at his first six years in the NBA, there have only been five other guys in history that have done what he did. Out of those five, four are the all-time greats. The fifth one, LeBron, is one of the all-time greats, too.

“That’s the course he was on, of being in the same breath as those guys. It’s just unfortunate what happened.”

Just as his basketball career is tough to describe succinctly, Hill, himself, defies a simple label. He’s a high-level athlete, a seven-time All-Star. He’s a piano player, as demonstrated on the Late Show with David Letterman and in a mid-90s SportsCenter commercial. He’s a real-estate investor, both residential and commercial. He’s a collector of African-American Art. He’s on President Barack Obama’s Council of Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. He’s a philanthropist.

“Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) says this now, and I think it’s so true, the world better watch out, because you will see all of his talent now,” Capel said. “Basketball was just a very small part of how unique he is.”

Hill arrived at Duke as a freshman prior to the 1990-91 season. Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner had just led Duke to the 1990 national championship game, where they were thoroughly beaten by UNLV. Hill was undoubtedly talented, and he started 31 games. He was the ideal teammate.

“Grant was a prime example of someone who was willing to sacrifice part of what he could have done individually,” Hurley said. “He could have come in there and been a 20-point scorer right away. He allowed Christian to be as good as he needed to be. He allowed me to have my space to do what I needed to do. To a large degree, he incorporated himself and his talent into the team concept. That was what was important to him: winning.”

Hill was on two championship teams in his freshman and sophomore seasons, throwing the inbounds pass to Laettner against Kentucky, the one that turned into the greatest college basketball shot of all time.

By the time Hill was a senior, Hurley and Laettner were gone. There was a new group of Blue Devils on campus. Capel was among them.

“He was one of the reasons why I wanted to come here,” Capel said of Hill. “I admired him so much from afar. Obviously his game, how exciting he was as a player, how talented he was, really just the way he carried himself, he was just, to me, he was so cool.”

Tommy Amaker, now the coach at Harvard, was Capel’s main recruiter at Duke. Amaker made sure that Capel ran into Hill on all his unofficial visits and had him host Capel when he came for his official visit.

On the court, Hill mentored Capel and sophomore Chris Collins, the other backcourt starter. He had a way of calming them, eliminating the worry of making a mistake and simultaneously boosting their confidence. Duke went 28-6 in 1993-94, losing to Arkansas in the national title game. It was Hill’s third championship appearance in four years.

That spring, the Detroit Pistons drafted Hill with the third overall pick of the NBA draft. He signed an eight-year, $45 million contract. He was an All-Star every year he was in Detroit. In 2000, he went to the Orlando as part of a sign-and-trade deal, inking a contract for $93 million. That’s when his left ankle problems started, though, culminating in five surgeries in four years and a life-threatening staph infection.

“A lot of guys in Grant’s position, and I really and truly feel this way, they would have just packed it in,” Capel said. “At that time, when he had the injuries, he had already made a lot of money and was very well taken care of.

“And the thing that I always admired is that here is a guy that kept working and kept fighting because he wanted to play so badly.”

Hill left Orlando in 2007, reviving his career in Phoenix. He played there for five years, averaging double figures in points each year. Hill ended his career after one season with the Los Angeles Clippers and announced his retirement June 1 on TNT.

“The injuries were disappointing only in that it took away our ability to marvel at him day-to-day throughout his time,” Bilas said. “What he went through, I marvel at him more for what he overcame.”

Bilas recently published his first book, Toughness, and drew on Hill for inspiration. He had expected his longtime friend to be thoughtful, but Hill’s contributions surprised even Bilas, who had mentally set the bar high.

Hill, recently published his own work, a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times. He penned an eloquent response to Jalen Rose’s comments in ESPN’s Fab Five documentary, calling all black Duke players “Uncle Toms.”

“I caution my fabulous five friends to avoid stereotyping me and others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger,” Hill wrote. “I wish for you the restoration of the bond that made you friends, brothers and icons.

“I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five.”

Hill’s Duke coaches teammates, from Hurley at the beginning to Capel at the end, are proud of him, too.

“I know, with me, I have children now,” Capel said. “I have a son, and I would love for my son to be like him, and I would love for my two daughters to marry someone like him one day.”

He laughed.

“That’s saying a lot.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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