Back in the spring of 1994, I asked then-Charlotte Hornets coach Allan Bristow who would be the best point guard in that draft.
“Grant Hill,” Bristow replied.
“Hill is a small forward,” I shot back.
“Grant Hill is anything he wants to be,” Bristow concluded.
Bristow meant that in a basketball sense, but the description applied more broadly. Hill was and is one of the more eclectic and intellectually curious athletes I’ve met. To define him purely as a basketball player disregards what made him so interesting.
The former Duke star announced his retirement from the NBA Saturday at age 40, nearly 20 years after he left Durham for the Detroit Pistons.
Remember that “SportsCenter” commercial where Hill was playing a grand piano? It was funny because it was also accurate. Hill could diagram a pick-and-roll as well as anyone, but he was just as interested in studying music or language or art. That didn’t detract from his basketball; I think the fact that he had other interests kept him mentally fresh to play as long as he did.
We never got to see all that Hill was as a pro because early in his career one of his ankles broke down. Ankles are to leapers what elbows are to pitchers – the one body part that absolutely must work right to perform.
The Orlando Magic signed Hill away from the Pistons, along with Tracy McGrady from the Toronto Raptors, in one of the first truly bold moves in NBA free agency. The Magic understood its advantages – no state income tax in Florida, year-round warm weather, abundant golf courses – and created the salary-cap space to sign two stars.
Neither panned out. Hill was seldom right physically with the Magic and McGrady generally wilted under the pressure. (For all his gaudy statistics, it took McGrady forever to play on a team that won a round of the playoffs.)
The times I was around Hill in Orlando, he seemed to feel guilty over his inability to perform as billed. I felt bad for him – it wasn’t his fault his body broke down – but he was clearly uneasy taking a paycheck that so exceeded his contribution.
Slowly, he healed. He would never again be crazy athletic, the way he was as a Blue Devil, but what he did regain physically, along with his understanding of the game, gave him longevity.
When the Magic dropped into rebuilding mode, Hill moved to Phoenix. When the Suns dropped into rebuilding mode, he moved over to the Los Angeles Clippers. He went from a star to a complementary player to a mentor. He took each of those steps with a sense of dignity you often don’t get from the rich and privileged.
I was looking around Twitter Sunday morning to see what Hill’s fellow players thought of him. Three words kept coming up: “Teammate,” “professional” and “integrity.”
No better way to be remembered in retirement.