Bickley: Hill's story great amid tough season

February 23, 2009

Play long enough, and you'll hear the strangest things. Like young opponents trying to pay respect to Grant Hill.

"Hey man, you're playing great!"

And before Hill can smile or even respond, the caveat appears.

"I had your shoes when I was in seventh grade." Or: "I didn't know you had gray hair!"

"I don't know if it's an insult or if they're being genuine," Hill said. "But I know what I'm thinking when I hear that stuff: I'm going to beat them downcourt every time."

Look hard enough, and you can find some great stories inside this turbulent basketball season. Hill is one of them. He will turn 37 in October. He was the team's best defensive player during the Terry Porter train wreck, often guarding players 10-15 years younger.

"The perception when Grant Hill signed with the Suns was, 'Can he keep up?' " Hill said.

Keep up? For the first 50 games of the 2008-09, he was one of the few Suns who actually were playing hard, running fast, trying to make it all work. Behind the scenes, he was the guy trying to get Porter to loosen the reins.

Now that the last gasp of an era has begun, Hill will have another platform on which to shine. His playing time had diminished under Porter, down almost three minutes a game. Hill is best in the open court, when the game becomes a sprint. The return to a "breakneck" style can only help. So will his relationship with new head man Alvin Gentry.

Hill was with the Pistons in 1998 when Gentry took over as interim coach for the fired Doug Collins. They've done this dance before.

"I've known Alvin my entire professional career," Hill said. "He recruited me when he was at Kansas (as an assistant under Larry Brown). And he's partly responsible for me being here in Phoniex, with the recruiting he did."

When this season is over, Hill will have given the Suns two excellent years for less than $2 million annually. That's a steal. After Wednesday's game against the Clippers, he has played in 53 consecutive games; he and Amaré Stoudemire are the only Suns to play in every game this season.

Don't look now, but who would have thought the brittle Hill would ever be an ironman?

"I think I played in 50 consecutive games during the lockout season in 1988-89, so I'm kind of scared to even talk about it," Hill said. "But I'm proud. I had a period when I didn't know whether I would ever play again, and I had to get through those years where you begin to doubt yourself. To get back has taken a lot of hard work. I've put my time in."

Hill is the former Duke Blue Devil whose career is best symbolized by a blue cross. He's had umpteen ankle surgeries, a sports hernia and a staph infection that nearly cost him his life. Last year, he played in 70 games for the first time in ages. He also had an emergency appendectomy in January 2008, which led to a recurring groin injury that ruined his playoffs. Alas, this whole mess on Planet Orange might never have occurred if Grant Hill had been healthy and ready for the Spurs, and here's a telling anecdote:

Hill left US Airways Center on Tuesday with two Team USA jerseys he had signed at the 2000 NBA All-Star Game in Oakland. Hill was scheduled to play in the 2000 Olympics later that year and had chosen No. 15 because that's the number Magic Johnson wore in Barcelona in 1992.

Those jerseys were supposed to be coveted memorabilia. They were returned to Hill over the weekend, when the All-Star Game came to Phoenix.

Now they are a reminder of what could have been.

But Hill is not a man consumed with regret. He's all class and grace. Last season he won the NBA's Joe Dumars Trophy for outstanding sportsmanship. When it comes to all-time great guys, few cities can match our trio of Hill, Kurt Warner and Shane Doan.

"There have been a lot of good times and bad times over the past year and a half, but at least I'm living it," Hill said. "A lot of guys who came in with me would love to be in the position I'm in. I may have a different attitude and approach to things, but I understand it's a privilege to do what we do. And I've been fortunate enough to have a second chance."

These Suns have a second chance, too. Hopefully there's a happy ending for everyone.