Commentary

Hill finding peace of mind

Once dubbed the "next Jordan," Grant Hill finds new role, outlook in Phoenix

Originally Published: April 29, 2010
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Grant HillRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesGrant Hill blends into the crowd more than he used to. But he's found happiness in a Suns uniform.

Stick around anyplace, as Grant Hill has for more than 15 years in the NBA, and you begin to see earlier versions of yourself, the way Hill can't help noticing the parallels between Brandon Roy's speedy return to the Portland Trail Blazers' lineup and Hill's own insistence on participating in the playoffs a decade ago.

Hill knows it's not his place to meddle with an opposing player while he's in the midst of a playoff series, and realizes he doesn't have any insight into the state of Roy's surgically repaired knee. But if there were anything he would say to Roy it would be the same advice he gives any teammate dealing with an injury, the same counsel he gave Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson in a phone call last year when he heard Nelson was making an earlier-than-expected return from shoulder surgery to play in the NBA Finals: Be sure there's someone within the organization who is looking after your best interests.

And above all, "Make sure you have peace of mind."

If a player doesn't have peace of mind now, he could be looking at a lengthy odyssey to find it, just as it took for Hill, now 37.

Hill's story needs to be heard by any player fighting his way through injuries just because it's the playoffs. No one wants to end up the way he did, with an appendage filled with metal and a giant what-if hanging over his career. But then, every player -- from superstar to garbage-time reserve -- should look at the long, bungee-cord timeline covering Hill's career. It's not just a cautionary tale; it's a case study in how to cope with the misfortune of injury and deal with the inevitability of age.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Roy
y P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty ImagesGrant Hill knows all too well what Brandon Roy is going through.

It's rare to find an NBA player who can reinvent himself midstream, who can go from superstar to role player during what are supposed to be the prime years. Even beyond that, Hill's story is amazing for both the timing of his comeback and the time he's invested to play at such a high level at his age.

We tend to overlook what a difficult transition Hill has made because it's been so long since his dominant days in Detroit. Some fans don't even know that the pre-injury Hill wore the "next Jordan" tag before Vince or Kobe or LeBron did. Or they've become so accustomed to him as just another player, chugging along for the Suns, they don't realize he's still finding ways to improve -- he even set a career best this season (in 3-point percentage).

Hill couldn't sustain the career trajectory that brought him comparisons to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. But he could serve as the model for what happens next to Kobe, Kevin Garnett and eventually LeBron James, a graceful path to the latter stages of a career rather than the violent ejection that sent Allen Iverson out of the league.

Hill once shared the rookie of the year award with Jason Kidd and made the all-NBA first or second team the next five seasons. He finished third to Karl Malone and Jordan in the 1997 Most Valuable Player voting. He had two seasons of averaging better than 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Twenty and nine as a small forward. Not that he was limited to any one position.

"When I had him there I played him as my point guard," said Doug Collins, who coached the Pistons from 1995-98. "I'm not saying he was Magic Johnson, but he did for us what Magic Johnson did: triple-doubles, it was 21, eight or nine [rebounds], seven to eight assists every single night."

Hill averaged a career-high 25.8 points per game in 1999-2000, but near the end of the regular season he began to feel pain in his left foot. He attributed it to the usual wear of the NBA. He kept playing. Then, during the first half of the Pistons' second playoff game against the Miami Heat, something felt very wrong. He tried to play through it in the second half but couldn't function.

When the team plane landed in Detroit after the game Hill went straight to a hospital at 3 a.m. for X-rays. The image shocked Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour. If you think of the bulbous ankle bone as an orange, Hill's ankle looked as if someone had sliced off part of the orange.

The result over the next five seasons included multiple surgeries, six screws, a plate and a giant staple in his left foot and 292 missed games. At one point he developed a near-fatal staph infection.

Hill can describe surgical procedures and body parts using words that make sense only to a podiatrist or an orthopedist. There were more injuries in different places, including a career-threatening hernia, due to the awkward gait caused by his altered foot. (It still doesn't feel right to him when he walks around barefoot.) And it was all on the $93 million contract the Orlando Magic took on when they acquired Hill in a sign-and-trade deal with the Pistons in 2000, hoping in vain that his foot problems were behind him.

Dobbs You go from having the ball and having the green light, and you adjust. Here you're more of a role. [...] I took pride in making the adjustment.

-- Suns small forward Grant Hill

But since signing as a free agent with the Suns three years ago, Hill has been one of the better bargains in the league, a double-digit scorer who can grab a few rebounds, make the extra pass, even sneak in the occasional blocked shot. And he's done it for a total of just under $7 million, less than half the salary he made his final year in Orlando. He plays the game with a dignity that has made him a three-time recipient of the NBA's sportsmanship award.

Now Hill and the Suns are one victory away from the seemingly simple step that has always eluded him: a trip to the second round of the playoffs. When asked, Hill was uncharacteristically robotic in his response to questions about the possibility of advancing. "I'm not even thinking about that," he said.

During an earlier in-depth conversation, however, he was so effusive and descriptive about his career journey that I'll simply allow him to tell the story:

You go from having the ball and having the green light, and you adjust. Here you're more of a role. Sometimes you get two or three shots; sometimes you get more. I took pride in making the adjustment, doing little things, playing defense, rebounding -- things that maybe I didn't have to do before or wasn't appreciated for before, I guess. To be able to change, that's not an easy thing.

Someone like A.I., I think he had a hard time accepting that he's not what he was six, seven years ago. I think we all have a hard time accepting that. But you either don't accept it and you move on, or you accept it, change and you still try to be effective. I still want to play.

It's a different role. It takes thinking different, being a little more crafty. I don't have the luxury of missing seven shots in a row.

I was watching a game this past summer [of] my last year in Detroit. We played against Vince [Carter] in Toronto. I popped it in and was watching it. I missed my first nine shots. I was 1-for-10 going into the second quarter. I ended up with 37 [points], [shooting] maybe 50 percent.

That was a whole 'nother lifetime ago.

Hill couldn't bring himself to watch his old games until the past five years. It wasn't the sight of those unfortunate teal Pistons jerseys of the mid-1990s. It was the difference between the player he was then and now.

It was too hard to do. I understand what's happened. I understand … I don't know if accepting is the right word, but what's happened has happened. And I'm at peace with it. I'm not bitter. I'm not mad at doctors or teams or anything like that. It happened.

If I could do it again, I wouldn't have played in that series in Miami. I had never really been seriously hurt before, didn't understand the consequences of playing. I would have demanded X-rays and films and things of that nature just to have peace of mind. But it happened. I've learned from it. I've gone through a lot of growth as a result of it, and in a weird way I'm kind of glad it did happen.

I like who I am now. I like what it's revealed out of me, what it's forced me to take a look at. The values. This is who I am. I think I grew a lot stronger going through that. I feel a lot of good things came from that.

It humbles you a little bit. When you're in this fantasy and you're on top of the world, it's hard to get a dose of reality. It hit me, smacked me right in the middle of my prime. So I had to fight, had to fight to resume my career. When something's taken away from you and you get a second chance, or get a fourth chance …

Even the feeling of dejection after [losing] Game 1, the extremes after Game 4, or after winning [Games] 2 and 3, how excited you are, I'm glad I'm doing it. At least I am experiencing that. I very easily could be watching and not experiencing.

I don't think before 2000, before all the injuries, I would have looked at it that way. But you know what? I'm living. I'm living this dream, I'm living in the NBA and having fun. It's not easy, it has challenges, but at least I'm going through it.

You [look at] from my last year in Detroit, Monty Williams, who's coaching in Portland. I played against him when he was in Orlando. The last game I played against him I scored 40 against him. Then when I went to Orlando and was not right, playing against him in practice he's dominating me. This all happened in five or six months.

Most people look at guys. You look at Kobe as he's getting older or KG or Jordan or [Scottie] Pippen, whoever. As you get older, certain things athletically, physically start to change. But it's a gradual thing, and you're kind of able to adapt and figure things out. When you're 35 you're not the same as when you were 25. But it happens over a period of time. For me it happened like that.

Since then, I've learned to regain some of the athleticism, regain some of the confidence in my body and adapt. I'm crafty now. You pick and choose your spots. You kind of figure it out. That was the hardest part, those two or three or four years when I was trying to play and wasn't right. It's like my body wasn't right, my ankle wasn't right; mentally and emotionally it was tougher than the physical part. It was like, man, things I'd taken for granted, things that were so natural and easy, now, you know, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

We can see now it's not about weakness at all. It's about toughness. The tough aspect isn't playing through an injury. The toughness is in playing after an injury.