Washington Post Staff Writer
PHOENIX -- You wouldn't think a team with serious postseason aspirations would turn to a 37-year-old to help rescue it physically, but that's exactly what the Phoenix Suns did after losing Game 1 of their first-round playoff series to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Nobody on the Suns could do anything with Portland's Andre Miller, who torched Phoenix for 31 points, so they threw Grant Hill, the third-oldest starter in the NBA, at Miller the next game. And Hill, nearly 20 years removed from his championship days at Duke and seven years removed from contracting a potentially fatal infection after a major surgical procedure, answered with the kind of flashback defensive performances that once upon a time helped make him one of the best players in the league.
Hill held Miller to 12 points in Game 2 and 11 points in Game 3, both Phoenix victories. And if the Suns are going to win this series, now tied at 2-2 with Game 5 to be played Monday night here in the desert, Hill -- an All-Met Player of the Year at Reston's South Lakes High in 1990 -- may have nearly as big a role as Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash.
To contribute that heavily to winning a playoff series would be fitting, because even though Hill won consecutive NCAA titles at Duke (1991-92), is a seven-time NBA all-star, and recovered from ankle and related hernia injuries that destroyed what should have been the prime of his career, he has never won a playoff series.
With the national media once again paying attention to the Suns, Hill increasingly gets asked whether he's obsessed with getting out of the first round.
"No, I'm not," he said recently. "I stopped doing that a long time ago. When you're young, you think about your legacy, about perhaps making the Hall of Fame. But when you lose the things you had before, when you face something life threatening . . . the things that obsessed you once don't any longer. I'm thankful to be here, to still be playing, to contribute to the team and hopefully help these young guys develop."
After 15 seasons of play and the wear and tear of nearly 900 career games (including the playoffs), Hill is no longer the player who twice averaged more than 20 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in a season. Hill tells a story about how his wife pulled up some YouTube clips one night and Hill was astonished to see just how great he was during his first six years in the league, playing for the Detroit Pistons. The real stunner is that Hill played in all 82 games last season (for the first time in his career), then 81 of 82 games this season.
Nash, Hill's closest friend on the Suns, said recently: "I've been amazed. Forget the intelligence and skill level . . . For him to be this athletic and durable and this fast from baseline to baseline and jump like he does at this stage of his career, given what he went through . . . Even at 37, he's one of our more athletic players. Obviously, he had to be a superior athlete before. I'm not just completely impressed, I admire him."
The man who coached Hill for much of his time in Detroit, Doug Collins, now gets to watch Hill in his role as a TNT analyst. And what Collins notes now is how "Grant has become a voice, a leader. He says what's right, the truth . . . Grant, remember, was a protocol kid. He's the only child of two only children [Calvin and Janet Hill], and he was taught to always, always do the right thing."
But as his coach, Collins would tell Hill, " 'Grant, you're going to have to ruffle some feathers to be a leader, to say what's on your mind . . . I want to hear your opinion, what you really think.' He started off as a sure-fire Hall of Famer. People forget, when he played for me he was a point guard or point forward. He was third in the MVP voting one year . . . He was just so good."
Told of Collins's comments, Hill nodded. "I didn't get it then," he said. "I do now . . . But it's also something most people need to grow into . . . But I'm more secure now. My role is different. It's more fulfilling, more gratifying."
Hill could have gone to the Boston Celtics last summer but didn't. Something felt good about the Suns' direction to him, even though most prognosticators picked them to miss the playoffs or finish eighth in the Western Conference. They finished third.
"When I re-signed here this summer," he said, "part of it was the mentor thing. Conventional wisdom in July was that I should go to Boston and get a chance to win it all." But the Suns had a much better season than the Celtics; Hill averaged 11.3 points and 5.5 rebounds along the way, not that it's easy.
He arrives at the gym around 3:45 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. He didn't stretch at all when he was a young Piston, but now does about 20 minutes of table work before every game with one of the trainers. He lifts weights the mornings of games. He shoots. He does 15 minutes or so of what he calls "corrective exercises." He spends an hour with heat packs in front of the television, usually watching that night's opponent.
He could have been three years into a career split between television and business ventures right now but wanted to give it one more chance. And what most would consider a surprisingly good season leads him to say, "Like anything else, anything that is taken away from you . . . you appreciate it more when you get it back . . . And, maybe I shouldn't put it out there like this, but there's a chance . . . It's like we're figuring it all out. Everything kind of kicked in."
It's a small club he's in now, players nearing 40. There's Shaquille O'Neal in Cleveland, Juwan Howard opposing him in this series with Portland, Kurt Thomas in Milwaukee, Jason Kidd in Dallas. If it seems like a long time ago that he starred for South Lakes, that's because it is. Asked if there was ever any real chance for him to play before folks at home, Hill said, "I talked to Michael Jordan back when he was president of the Wizards . . . I think it was in April of 2000 . . . We talked about me coming home, playing for the Wizards. But I didn't do it for the same reason I wouldn't go to Georgetown . . . too close to Janet and Calvin."
Hill laughed and headed for the arena exit. Players say all the time they're happy to be with a team, happy to still be playing. It's difficult to imagine any could mean it more sincerely than Grant Hill does. He's still needed; the Suns aren't going to win this series without him slowing down Andre Miller. And there's the chance that even at 37, Hill could get out of the first round, and 16 years into a career of distinction, realize a first.