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Jacobs: Former Duke star Grant Hill understands what Bryant, Manning face

Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill watches from the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Tuesday, April 24, 2012, in Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz won 100-88. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)
Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill watches from the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Tuesday, April 24, 2012, in Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz won 100-88. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart) AP

Two of this era’s most accomplished pro athletes, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and Peyton Manning in Denver, are approaching the ends of their careers. Like many stars before them, neither will leave the competitive stage in full command of the skills and abilities that elevated each to championships, records, riches and fame. Instead, hounded by injuries, each has struggled, no longer able to direct body and mind to their accustomed heights.

Bryant, 37, recently announced his retirement effective at the end of the current NBA season, his 20th since jumping straight from high school to the pros. Manning, 39, was benched a few weeks ago amid a barrage of interceptions and the boos of Denver’s own fans. The job as the Broncos’ starting quarterback ostensibly remains Manning’s as he recovers from a foot injury. How much longer he’ll play in and beyond his 18th season is unknown, perhaps even to him.

Bryant is a five-time NBA champion. Manning is a five-time NFL most valuable player and the record-holder for most career passing yardage. Both will be inducted into their respective sports’ Halls of Fame at the earliest moment they’re eligible.

After recently shutting down his own Hall of Fame-caliber NBA career, Grant Hill empathizes with what both men are going through. Hill doesn’t claim special insight into what Bryant and Manning face individually, but offers his own experience and observations regarding retirement.

“There’s an expression that an athlete dies twice,” says Hill, a visitor last week at Cameron Indoor Stadium to take in his alma mater’s matchup with Indiana in the Big 10/ACC Challenge. “So much of who you are, so much of what validated you, that you devoted your life to, that’s consumed you, it’s now about to end.

“I always say the longer you do it, the harder it is. Some people end in high school, some people end after college, some people end after a brief career in the professional ranks whether overseas or in the NBA. I think at any point it’s tough, but the longer you’ve done it…”

Hill retired in June 2013 at age 40, after playing basketball since he was 14. He said at the time he wanted to “get out feeling good” after struggling for years to overcome debilitating ankle injuries, a dangerous staph infection and a sports hernia. The 1995 NBA co-rookie of the year didn’t need to be told when the end was at hand. Hill played for the Pistons, Magic, Suns and Clippers.

“I think to continue to play, there’s a certain fight that you have to have,” he says. “I think there’s a certain fight, no matter who you are, to make it as a professional. Every day is a competition. Every day you’re judged on your performance. And the person sitting across from you, whether on the opposing team or on your team, is competing. Wants your job. Is competing for time, for points, for wins, for losses. There’s always a fight.”

Erosion, limitation

But gradually – and that’s if a player is lucky – yesterday’s gifts became today’s memories. “The last few years, even as you’ve gotten older, you were still able to be effective,” Hill says. “Now you can’t do things. It’s not about jumping high. I like to say you mentally know what’s going to happen, but physically you just can’t respond.”

Hill, a member of Duke’s 1991 and 1992 NCAA championship squads and a 1994 consensus All-American, was amazed when he reached the pros to find his competitors weren’t as gifted as he’d expected. In fact, the seven-time NBA all-star had not grasped just how talented he was.

Inevitably the years brought erosion, limitation. No lucrative salary, chance at a championship, medical machination or congenial group of colleagues could change that. “As you get older, you have the mileage, the wear and tear on the body, the injuries,” Hill says. Finally realizing that the natural gifts and the will to fight had diminished brought “a kind of a calm and a peace of mind knowing it was time,” he recalls of deciding to retire. “I can’t say that’s the case for anyone else.”

He did notice, however, a similar air of acceptance during a brief chat with Bryant shortly before the fiercely competitive Laker announced his retirement. Just the fact that Bryant paused to “exchange pleasantries” during pregame warm-ups was a giveaway something had changed.

“Once you realize it’s over, you get a different perspective,” says Hill, himself the son of a 12-year pro football player, Calvin Hill. “Making your mind up that you’re done, but still having a season to play or having a half a season to play, now you look at every aspect of the game differently. You still compete, you just kind of try to savor every moment. Getting in at 3 in the morning, the banter in the locker room, and just all the little things that you kind of took for granted and you never really learned to appreciate.”

It’s about fulfillment

While that intimate experience of the game is missing, Hill hardly stepped away from basketball. The Orlando, Fla., resident goes to his daughter’s high school games and to some of Duke’s. He provides network commentary on pro and college basketball telecasts. In June, two years after he retired, Hill joined principal owner Tony Ressler, a private equity fund billionaire, in purchasing the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. He serves as vice chairman of the franchise’s board of directors.

“A lot of people struggle with what is going to replace the thrill of playing,” Hill says. “It’s not always about money, but it’s just about fulfillment. Depression is big (among retirees), not just with retired athletes but across the board. So I think you try different things to figure out what you like, what you don’t like, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at.”

Hill’s interests start with being a full-time father, but extend far beyond family and basketball. He and his wife, R&B singer Tamia, established the Tamia and Grant Hill Foundation, largely supporting children’s and educational charities. His business interests have delved into providing affordable housing and relieving urban food deserts. He’s also an avid collector of African-American art.

Hill, worth $180 million according to celebrityworth.com, owns a marketing and management company, a production company that makes short films and a private equity mezzanine fund. (According to investopedia.com, “Mezzanine funding is basically debt capital that gives the lender the rights to convert to an ownership or equity interest in the company if the loan is not paid back in time and in full.”)

“I’ve erred on the side of maybe being too busy,” Hill says. “My problem is that I want to do everything, I want to do it all at once. I’ve enjoyed being able to pursue other interests that I’ve had to sort of suppress or not pursue because of my career. It’s fun.”

Perhaps the kind of fun Peyton Manning, reportedly worth $165 million, and Bryant, worth nearly twice that, can enjoy upon concluding journeys similar to Hill’s. “I was one of the few who went as long as I did, through all the ups and downs,” Hill says, speaking with a measure of pride. “But even then you retire, and you’ve still got a whole lot of life to live.”

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