Elder respect: Grant Hill's health, wisdom help Suns rise

May 21, 2010

By J. Michael Falgoust, USA TODAY

PHOENIX — Sometimes, in the midst of responding to an inquiry, Grant Hill will lose track.

"I don't know if that answers your question," he says politely, so careful to address every detail that he'll quip about his age when he forgets. "Wait, what was the question?"

He's 37, which by NBA standards is ancient, especially for this Phoenix Suns forward, a seven-time All-Star who missed significant portions of four seasons during his prime because of six surgeries to his left foot and ankle for stress fractures and a life-threatening staph infection.

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The patchwork rebuilding effort included skin grafts, six screws, a titanium plate and cutting a wedge from the foot to realign it. The foot has restricted Hill's jumping ability, but not his sense of humor or purpose.

As he thought of the Western Conference finals, with the Suns trailing the Los Angeles Lakers going into Wednesday night's Game 2 in Los Angeles, "No one is talking about my health. They may be talking about my age or what I can or can't do, but they're not talking about my health.

"That is something I'm proud of."

Hill isn't just with the Suns. He started 81 regular-season games — and all 11 in the postseason — and he's their best one-on-one defender. His 6-8 frame disrupted Andre Miller in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers and Manu Ginobili in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs.

His assignment got significantly tougher with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who scored 40 in Game 1, as Hill tries to inspire the Suns past last year's champs and to their first NBA Finals since 1993.

"He's the best player in the game. He's going to get points," Hill said of Bryant, 31. "You're just ... trying to prevent him getting the ball."

The role is a major adjustment for Hill, once considered the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, the baby face of the NBA when he was drafted third overall by the Detroit Pistons in 1994 out of Duke.

Hill became the first rookie voted to start in an All-Star Game. He averaged 21.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists in his first six seasons.

But he played hurt during the playoffs, the impetus for his physical deterioration, before going to the Orlando Magic as a free agent in 2000. He missed 199 games from injuries in his first three seasons and 93 games in his last three.

He has missed 13 games in three seasons with Phoenix, averaging 12.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Hill credits Duke University Hospital with the turnaround after he went there voluntarily seven years ago.

With All-Star point guard Steve Nash, 36, Hill has shown invaluable leadership. Phoenix is loaded with young talent, such as center Robin Lopez (second season), point guard Goran Dragic (second), forward Lou Amundson (fourth) and forward Channing Frye (fifth).

"The youth on our team has played such a big part in our success," Suns general manager Steve Kerr says. "But you've got to have a mentor. That's why our young guys have played so well. (Hill is) an unbelievably smart player, a clutch player. He just knows what he's doing."

Despite being so accomplished, Hill had never advanced past the first playoff round. He shied from being the story, especially after the Portland series. "I was embarrassed there was all this talk about me. I've always been about what we've accomplished as a unit," he says.

He is more comfortable with how he's viewed today than in previous seasons.

"When I was in Detroit, it was almost too perfect. I didn't even like it, with these perfect parents, this perfect childhood," says Hill, whose father, Calvin, was an NFL running back — a "Renaissance man" to his son — and whose mother, Janet, is an attorney. "Everything was just easy. Going through those struggles ... and now being on this stage where everyone's watching, I think that might've won people's respect.

"I kind of like who I am now. In terms of my career, the injury was horrible. In my development as a human being, it's been good. I am better than who I was."

A man of strong character

Hill will take the lead to help players even on the opposing team so they don't experience his regret by rushing back from injury.

In the opening playoff series, Portland guard Brandon Roy returned for Game 4, eight days after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Hill was amazed. Before Roy would spark his team to victory in that game, Hill offered words of caution.

"We saw each other at the beginning of the game as captains, and I said, 'Hey man, just make sure you're being smart,' " Hill says.

"I don't know if that was the right thing, or an inappropriate thing, to say. ... I always feel like if someone's coming back from an injury, wait another week to be safe. I wish there was somebody who held me back."

Hill's words are as honest as his efforts, as many will attest. The diligent person off court is reflected in his determination on it.

"He's one of my favorite people I've ever been around, athlete or non-athlete," says Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who coached Hill in Orlando. "I just had so much respect for him. People were killing him (for not playing). There was no way he could play. He showed up at every practice. He went on every trip.

"He swam. We called him 'Mark Spitz' because he was in the pool for hours a day trying to rehab, knowing there was probably no chance he was going to play. But he just wanted an opportunity."

Hill didn't develop these qualities when he attended Duke, where, as an underclassman, he helped deliver the first national championships for coach Mike Krzyzewski in 1991 and '92.

Hill already had them, which has served him well in keeping his career afloat amid turmoil.

"He didn't want to take money and go. That's just not who he is," says Krzyzewski, who regularly speaks with Hill and considers him a friend even as his three daughters see Hill as a big brother. "He owed it to himself and the people he made agreements with to do his best. He doesn't have to be 'the show.'

"He knows what it means to say 'please' and 'thank you' and wait in line. There's nobody like him."

Hill reminds Kerr, who won three NBA titles as a role player with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, of former teammate Ron Harper, who once averaged as many as 23 points with the Los Angeles Clippers. He lost much of his athleticism because of a knee injury and morphed into a defensive stopper who averaged 7.6 points.

"It's rare for a former superstar to subject himself to a role that is maybe less glamorous," Kerr says. "I'm sure the injuries over the years have made him appreciate what he has here."

Player agent Lon Babby went to Yale with Hill's dad, who persuaded the former litigator to represent his son. Sixteen years ago, Hill was the $100 million man. In the offseason, he re-signed with the Suns for two years and $6.2 million. This season, he won the NBA Sportsmanship Award for a record third time.

"Talent opens doors. But strength of character keeps those doors open," Babby says of Hill's continuing attractiveness to sponsors such as Nike, Clorox and LifeLock. "It's such a remarkable story."

Teammate Frye says Hill's contributions to the Suns are just as valuable as they were to his former teams.

"He has a bigger role outside this court, just being a leader," he says. "Look at where he is and look at this team. We couldn't be here without him."

Giving back to his alma mater

Hill has interests far beyond basketball. He's a 20th-century African-American art collector, a passion passed from his parents, and has staged exhibits.

Now Hill is pursuing a film project with Amy Unell, a teacher at Duke, about the school's former track and field and Olympic coach, Al Buehler. Hill and Unell took a sports history class at separate times under Buehler.

Hill came on board as executive producer for Starting at the Finish Line this year and has helped raise funds from Duke alumni. When Unell asked Buehler about his favorite students, Hill was among them. "The reason Coach admired Grant and Grant admired Coach is they honor commitment, integrity and hard work," she says.

If all goes well, Hill would like to pursue another film with Unell on his two Duke championship teams. He also thinks it would be "neat" if he can continue playing basketball until he's 40.

"Everybody already calls me old anyway. I might as well embrace it," he says.