Grant Hill had waited so long to start a season like his first with the Phoenix Suns.
He was happy. Healthy. Playing long minutes and playing every night, contributing to a winning, veteran team on both ends and running the floor like he was turning back a clock.
But that same season ended with an all-too-familiar script — with his team bounced in the first round of the playoffs, and with Hill injured, in pain and unable to contribute.
“I don’t even like talking about it,” Hill said, biting at his lower lip. “I worked my tail off to get ready, I felt the best I had in a long time and then … my old friend came back.”
An emergency appendectomy not only ended a string of 34 straight games played — his longest in eight years — it aggravated a sports hernia injury that required surgery in 2006 and had him contemplating retirement. He tried to play through the pain against San Antonio in the playoffs before shutting it down in Game 3.
Hill went back to Duke University for an MRI on his abdomen, which was negative. After a few weeks of rest, he went to Vancouver to work with Steve Nash’s friend and trainer, Rick Celebrini, strengthening the area through a series of exercises instead of shooting jumpers and playing pickup games.
Hill feels that the work has paid off, and now he just has to get into basketball shape.
“We know the appendectomy and cutting into the stomach wall was certainly a catalyst and threw things off a bit,” Hill said. “It was just a freak thing. But the good thing is we know what it takes to keep things in check now and we can stick with the maintenance program and go from there.”
Hill admits that he was so happy just being able to play last summer that he overdid it before camp.
“By the time training camp came, I had been going for four months and I was already mentally tired,” he said. “I have to be smart. This is a long season, and the things I did in November and December really didn’t matter much in April.
“At the end of the year, I had a long talk with (general manager) Steve Kerr and (senior vice president of operations) David Griffin, and the first thing we agreed was not to get back on the court so fast and be smart.”
That means playing less minutes, and it might mean coming off the bench behind Matt Barnes at small forward to save himself for later in the game.
“We’ve added some really good depth with people like Matt and Goran (Dragic) and Robin (Lopez), and we should all be a fresher bunch as a result,” Hill said. “I’ve started and I’m used to starting, but it doesn’t matter. What makes us the best team? What gives us the best chance?
“I want to be at my best at the end. Whatever it takes to get me there, I’m in favor of.”
Coach Terry Porter said he’s nowhere close to making any decisions with training camp still a week away.
“Grant wants to play, and it’s important he has quality minutes every night. But not to the point where we overwork him,” Porter said. “We have to look at the big picture, and he understands that. Whether he starts or doesn’t start … when do you want to use those minutes?
We’ll be experimenting with a lot of that.”
BONUS SHOTS: Porter said everyone on the squad is healthy. The Suns have 14 players ready for camp after former Iowa State center Jiri Hubalek signed a guaranteed contract in Europe. Griffin said the Suns could add another big man to replace Hubalek, who like invitees Robert Hite and Trey Johnson, wouldn’t have been expected to make the team.