Thursday, January 18, 2007

What About Grant Hill?

Rewind your mind to the summer of 2000 and try to recall the commotion that surrounded the Magic’s signing of Grant Hill, the prize of the free agent class.

Six years prior, as a Pistons rookie in 1994, Hill was already part of the national consciousness after a career at Duke which featured two national titles, a third appearance, and the most famous lob pass in NCAA history. In February of that season he became the only rookie in NBA history to lead the league in All-Star votes. Four months later he was co-Rookie of the Year with Jason Kidd.

Twelve years later Jason Kidd is among the league assist leaders and a perennial All-Star. Grant Hill is a perennial afterthought. But as this season approaches the halfway mark, Orlando is currently slotted as a playoff contender, Hill has barely missed a game and is the team’s second leading scorer behind the man-child Dwight Howard. Averaging less than fifteen points per game isn’t exactly noteworthy, unless it’s viewed in the proper context. This isn’t a matter of how good Hill is now that he’s finally healthy, but rather his reclamation of a piece of the greatness that has been taken from him so habitually.

21.5, 7.5, 6. That’s points, boards, and assists per game over Hill’s first six years in the league. He was a triple-double waiting to happen every night. In those six seasons, his best running-mates were a past-his-prime Joe Dumars and an immature Jerry Stackhouse who hadn’t yet gone long enough without a championship that he was willing to subjugate his game for the betterment of the team. Allan Houston also made a two-year appearance to shoot and do nothing else. Under Alvin Gentry, the guard situation was so bad that Hill regularly brought the ball up the court. Replace his effervescent attitude with a scowl and he would’ve been the original KG.

Of course that attitude is what makes his setbacks that much sadder and his persistence that much more understandable.

When something happens with regularity it is human nature to tune it out, to let it fade to the background of your consciousness. In the NBA no player has incited this kind of conditioned apathy like Grant Hill and his non-compliant ankles.

Think back to the hype that surrounded those Magic signings of Hill and McGrady. It was going to be the beginning of a new era after four hapless and Shaq-less years. Remember, Orlando was thought to have a shot at Duncan too. That summer must have injected that city with the kind of hope and excitement and eager anticipation that only six year-olds experience on the way to its theme parks.

Then came the first broken ankle and the first rehab. Actually, it was the second rehab. Hill had in fact injured the ankle in the previous postseason and spent that free agent summer getting better. At the time it was considered minor; no one mentioned it much and it was rarely listed as a possible concern for his long list of suitors. This attitude persisted even when he missed 78 games that year with the same injury. Why wouldn’t it? Who could have imagined the next five years?

Year after year it was the same song with a different verse. These were the lowlights: six surgeries (including deliberate re-fractures), a staph infection which necessitated a life-saving trip to the ER, and a total of 357 missed games.

Imagine the strain that each injury must have put on his personal life and his family. He must have been a broken record to his wife and kids. Imagine the strength it took to not only to commit to recovery but to have asked your family to support what must have seemed like a lost cause.

For years, one of the pre-season’s top stories was about Hill’s rehab. The tone was hopeful and anxious each time. It was a hope fueled by his past success and compounded by the anxiety that came with the Magic’s $93 million investment.

It looked like he might have turned the corner in 2004, playing 67 games, putting up 20 points per. But just when the ankle seemed OK, the constant tweaking, and favoring of his other foot, began to affect the rest of Hill’s body. The constant overcompensation brought on hamstring, shin, and foot problems in the previously healthy leg. Thus Hill devoted this past summer, just as the six before it, to doctor visits and rehabilitation.

Of course the aforementioned tune-out syndrome is accelerated and intensified when an investment of emotions is involved. It’s hard to be let down for six straight years. That’s why Grant Hill’s current season is a non-story. Like the quiet hum of an air conditioner, he’s become ambient noise. After all, there’s still plenty of time for him to get hurt, or so it seems is the popular thought process.

Don’t you think Hill remembers what kind of player he was, the kind of ability he had, how bright his star had shone? It’s easy to see him on the verge of depression with each successive medical analysis. And yet every time it happened he braced himself mentally for the physical therapy marathon and re-upped. Hill’s story is unprecedented. His persistence and commitment are admirable.

For all those athletes that everyone ends up rooting for just because they get old and have been around long enough, here you have an even more compelling case. This isn’t someone who “deserves it” just because he’s been around a while, but because he’s had to fight harder than anyone else to stick around. Its not just playing on bad teams or for bad coaches, it’s a refusal to quit.

Grant Hill is 34. So far he’s healthy, the Magic are on the playoff path in large part because of him, and no one seems to have noticed. Perhaps this will be proven the right way to think, perhaps its naïve to expect a full season from Hill.

I suppose it’s even better to have it as a non-story, to be able to think about it independent of any sort of media crush and to appreciate persistence and a refusal to quit without being told to do so.

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