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By Jerry Brown

He is rich beyond his wildest dreams, with the kind of business mind to keep it growing and growing.

His battered left ankle, which had screws and plates inserted before the joint was finally fused together, has been through so many surgeries that he’s needed skin grafts and vein transplants to keep the area viable.

He’s happily married to a Grammy-nominated R&B singer, has one child with another on the way, and his future could include careers ranging from broadcasting to politics.

So why was Grant Hill at US Airways Center on Wednesday, accepting a Suns No. 33 jersey and a paltry $1.83 million salary to chase his dream of being a vital cog in an NBA championship team? Why is he ready to move his family across the country and ask a soon-to-be-35-year-old body — one that has betrayed him for most of this millennium — to stay in the game and rewrite the ending to what was a Hall of Fame career before it veered wildly off course?

“I’d better have a good reason to do this. Otherwise I’m crazy,” Hill said. “I guess I don’t need to play, but I want to. I feel better than I have in a long time. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, and I think I have a lot left if I take the necessary steps.

“Athletes die twice, and the first time is when they retire. I have been around athletics all my life and I want to give it everything I have right now. I don’t want to look back and wish I’d have hung on a little longer, because once it’s over, there is no going back.”

After six superstar seasons in Detroit, Hill was nearly on par with Michael Jordan, popularity-wise, and poised to carry the NBA into the 21st century. But his seven years in Orlando will be remembered for six surgeries (five on the ankle, one for a sports hernia) and missing 70 percent of the Magic’s games from 2000-06.

After the hernia, a product of overcompensating for his ankle troubles, Hill spent the entire summer of 2006 in Vancouver with celebrated physiotherapist Alex McKechnie. Carrying his regimen of core strength and balance exercises back to Florida, Hill played in 65 games last season and feels he could have played more if not for the cautionary game plan of the understandably gun-shy Orlando medical staff.

“At different times, I can count on one hand the number of people who thought I would ever come back,” Hill said. “I’ve had to fight to save my career, gone through a lot to prove to cynics I can still play and to my teammates that they can rely on me. I’ve grown from all the adversity. I’ve become a better person, and it’s given me a different perspective on life. It’s not all about sports and winning.

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to reach that ultimate goal. I haven’t been in a championship situation since my years in Duke (two national championships, three NCAA title games). But just the short time I’ve been around the Suns organization, this environment is invigorating. I can’t wait for practice to start.”

A strong work ethic is in Hill’s blood. His father, Calvin, played 14 years in the NFL and represented the Dallas Cowboys in four Pro Bowls. His mother, Janet, shared a dorm with Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a special assistant to the Secretary of the Army (1978-81) and is vice president of a Washington D.C. consulting firm.

Watching her only child struggle with career and lifethreatening injuries — a 2003 staph infection around the ankle almost killed him — has made Janet Hill wonder whether enough was enough.

But she also knew that Grant wouldn’t quit until every avenue was exhausted.

“He spent a week in the hospital (with the infection) and a month in a hotel near Duke (Medical Center) for checkups,” Janet Hill said. “If you look at his arms, you can see the scars (from the grafts and vein transplants). He can do a lot of other things, but he’s driven to succeed and coming to Phoenix is a great opportunity. He’s very excited about this new chapter.”

Hill met with Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson and Mike Clark, president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine. The duo have been instrumental in the rehabilitation and maintenance programs in the comebacks of players such as Antonio McDyess, Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire, who went from missing the 2005-06 season to playing all 82 games last year.

“He’s a positive, intelligent guy who knows his body well,” Nelson said. “Any time you can play 65 games coming off the injuries he’s had, it’s a good sign. We feel we can get him where he wants to be. Our goal with everyone is to play 82 games and hopefully, he plays somewhere between 65 and 82.

“It’s more of a challenge with guys who have had issues in the past. You need great communication. He understands a lot about his body because he’s been through so much. He wants to be the best he can be, and he’s willing to do what it takes. And if there isn’t a dysfunction, there is now reason why he can’t get there.”

After a standard assessment and evaluation, Hill left a recent 90-minute meeting excited and impressed with a therapy game plan and a list of corrective exercises to work on until he returns to Phoenix for good next month.

“There really is a difference in the emphasis organizations put on their medical staffs. The assumption (that) everyone has first-rate care isn’t really the case,” said Hill’s agent, Lon Babby, who said Phoenix’s approach was a major factor in Hill’s decision to come here. “We spent a lot of time researching, talking to teams, doctors, and players. We asked every team that had interest in Grant to kind of lay out (their medical plan). You could tell from the response what kind of priority they put on it.

“Grant is fond of saying, ‘People practice medicine, that’s why they call it practice: It takes a while to get it right.’ Hopefully, now we’re getting it right.”

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.

One More Hill to Climb

July 12, 2007