Hill thrilled but not satisfied

Updated: April 9, 2005, 11:15 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Whatever the doctors were going to say about his infamous left leg wasn't going to change Grant Hill's stance. The stance wouldn't change even if Hill doesn't play another minute this season, as the doctors formally ordered Friday.

Sixty-seven games in a single season, in Hill's circumstances, equates to 82. Better than 82, actually. He will consider 67 games a full season, and a wild success, even now that the decision has been made that he will be held out of the Orlando Magic's final seven games with nagging soreness in his left shin. Even if the Magic -- whose first-half fairy tale has receded into a serious second-half slide -- miss the playoffs as it increasingly appears.

"On a collective team level, of course it does matter, and it'll be a downer if we don't make the playoffs," Hill said Tuesday night in Dallas, reflecting on his first season of five in Orlando that didn't end in January or sooner.

"But without trying to sound selfish, on a personal note it doesn't matter. I hate to say that, because making the playoffs always matters, but just the fact that I've made it this far, to know I've overcome something pretty big, it's one of the biggest feats I've ever accomplished.

"I've done some things in my career that are probably sexier, and I know the story's kind of been talked about over and over again, but going into the offseason feeling good about this past year – and feeling optimistic going forward on a personal level and a team level – that's like my championship."

Agreed. And understood. For if anyone deserves to be a little selfish, after five surgeries on the same ankle, it's this good guy.

Orlando's chaotic, injury-filled collapse will almost certainly deny Hill the opportunity to return to the playoffs for the first time since his final season in Detroit. Next season, then, is the soonest Hill can try to advance in the playoffs for the first time as a pro, after four first-round eliminations with the Pistons.

However ...

It'd be awfully cold to overlook what Hill has achieved in those 67 games. He's averaging nearly 20 points, five rebounds and four assists on 51 percent shooting from the field, and he quickly won back his popularity to the point that Hill was voted in as an All-Star starter.

What could be better?

It'd be nice, of course, if Hill wasn't presently plagued by the shin soreness, which had Magic officials urging the 32-year-old to sit for the rest of the season to make sure the discomfort doesn't evolve into a stress fracture in that vulnerable left leg.

Not that Hill is overly concerned. He insists this injury is "just a speed bump in the grand scheme of things" and speaks excitedly about what he'll be doing this summer.

Playing basketball, namely. Working on his game, once he works through the latest setback, instead of living in rehab.

"Because of my history, because of what I've been through and because it's the same leg, there's going to be concern," Hill said. "But regardless of what happens, whether it's one or two more games [out] or the rest of the way, this is just a speed bump. I will be back [next season].

"I haven't had a summer in years where I've been able to work on my game and improve. I look forward to that."

Tuning up his ball handling and his post-up moves are high on Hill's priority list, as well as any drill he can concoct that helps with timing.

Yet he has already received significant encouragement from his new mentor. On the surface, you might struggle to imagine what Hill has in common with a 7-foot-3 Lithuanian, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas' own foot travails in Cleveland led Hill to seek out Big Z as a sounding board during their All-Star Weekend together as East teammates in Cleveland. Now they're pals and confidantes.

"Coach Ekker, he was always saying Z was in worse shape than I was when he first came back," said Hill, referring to former Magic assistant coach Ron Ekker, who worked closely with Ilgauskas in Cleveland before coming to Orlando.

"And when I talked to Ilgauskas, he said everything was off that first year. There's uncertainty about your timing that wasn't there before. But it was really encouraging for me to talk to him. It all starts to come back."

Not just the rhythm. It's the confidence, too. It took a while this season, Hill shared, to believe in his left leg sufficiently to start driving right again. "If I had to pull up quick, I'd have to plant my left foot," he said. "So for the past four years, I'd always go left [on drives] to avoid that. I've had to recondition myself to go right."

Dare we say his game's in fine condition, even though this latest scare will certainly spook folks in Orlando until Hill makes it back onto the court. The Magic's recent fortunes, furthermore, have only added to the angst, with lingering questions about the future of Steve Francis (who might be on the trading block), the identity of the next coach (Eric Musselman's ranking as the early favorite to replace interim coach Chris Jent) and the job security of rookie general manager John Weisbrod ... as well as ongoing fears about Orlando's ability to keep the Magic in town without a new arena.

"We're all responsible for what's happened," Hill said. "It's the combination of a lot of different things. I thought maybe we'd start a little slower and get better as we went along, but it seems like we kind of peaked in November. I'll leave that to the media and the barber shops and management to figure out, but I truly believe that, as a unit, you have to go through something to get to the next level, and we've gone through something. We've had a lot go on this year."

Just don't forget the good stuff. Orlando's 13-6 start is a memory, but Hill's progress and the surprising double-double production of rookie Dwight Howard straight out of high school is meaningful stuff. Especially when Hill keeps insisting that he's "got the body of a 29-year-old," in mileage terms, so long as you exclude that "ankle of a 42-year-old."

Hill swears he's not afraid of one more ankle snap that would surely end his career. "I'm falling everywhere," he says, "running into camera people."

He's also vowing to be even sturdier and more productive next season, no matter how anticlimactically this one is ending.

"Maybe it's not fair to myself to do this, but I constantly compare myself to what I used to be," Hill said. "I'm driven to get back to that. It may never happen. It may not be fair to be that tough on myself.

"But as good as things have been this [season] – and I'm very thankful for that – I'm not satisfied."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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