- Justin Verrier, NBA
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The excitement Grant Hill feels on the precipice of a new season of basketball has often been tempered by a clear reminder of his own mortality within the game.
Born on Oct. 5, 1972, Hill has spent the bulk of his past 18 birthdays in an NBA training camp, running through layup lines, being led through stretching exercises, and working his way through the routine levied upon all 30 franchises this time of year. It's a setting, he admits, that is not ideal for celebration.
This year, however, his new Los Angeles Clippers teammates used a trip to Las Vegas for their preseason opener to ring in his 40th birthday with a bit more gusto than usual. They gleefully -- and in Blake Griffin's case, goofily -- cheered on Hill as he was presented a three-layer cake at the popular "Tao" nightclub.
But Hill seemed just as content the day before he officially joined the "over the hill" club, snacking on a chocolate energy bar at the Clippers' Playa Vista, Calif., practice facility after the sixth day of training camp with his fourth, and most likely final, professional team. That's because Hill never expected to be here, not even before a vicious ankle injury and the ensuing litany of complications from it effectively cut down one of the league's brightest stars in his prime. He didn't expect to be in L.A., first of all, suiting up for a franchise that Jamal Crawford recently called "one of the laughingstocks in the NBA" before its recent reinvention into a Western Conference contender, and he also didn't expect to be playing at such an advanced age.
Although he didn't become the next Jordan as some predicted when he came out of Duke, Hill has found satisfaction in his second life as a supporting player. Simply playing in the league has become a victory, and the sense of accomplishment he has for still being able to lace up his Nikes in the twilight of his career beams from his deep-set, dark eyes when he speaks about the promise of one more new season, one more new journey.
"I think the fact that I missed some time, I'm making up for it in some respects," Hill says in a tone as comforting as Mr. Rogers'. "You still have that desire. Maybe if I had played during those years I wouldn't be here, maybe physically I wouldn't be able to be here at this point. I still love the game, I still love to compete and the opportunity to win. I still feel like I can play.
"I think when I got hurt those years, part of it was coming back, part of it was to prove that you can physically still play. I think that mindset still exists: 'This guy is 40 years old. He shouldn't be out there.' Maybe part of that plays a role in motivation. But it really boils down to, 'If you don't love it, you're not gonna do what you need to do to make sure you're ready to play.' So, I enjoy it, I have fun. I enjoy my teammates here, the challenge of the season, and the potential of this particular team."
During his Detroit days, when he was lacing FILAs onto his feet and occupying a two-deep crowd of reporters like Griffin and Chris Paul do now, winning was everything to Hill. He not only wanted to satisfy the desire every athlete feels to come out on top, but he wanted to win for his legacy, and for his ego.
Time, particularly time spent on the sidelines, has since provided perspective. Winning a title, while still his ultimate goal, no longer defines his basketball life.
"Had you asked me that 14 years ago, I might have had a different answer. But the fact that I overcame a lot of adversity and was able to have a second act -- almost 10 years ago [I] was dealing with all that ankle stuff -- that to me was more of an accomplishment than any team or individual awards," Hill says.
"Saying that, I'm not content. I want to go out there and win. But if things were to end right now, I'm more than fulfilled and pleased with the career that I've had. It's been a little bit of up and a little bit of down," he says while raising and dropping a flat hand, "but it's been an unbelievable, long journey."
Although eight years his junior, Crawford has found a similar clarity as he enters his 13th season in the league and first with the Clippers. Proving himself and carving out a place in the league came first for the 2-guard when he joined the Bulls in 2000. But like Hill and fellow offseason import Lamar Odom (and to a lesser extent, Matt Barnes), the 32-year-old Crawford has entered a different phase of his career as he enters middle age. Now he embraces that he's needed to supplement more than star.
"You're not playing with a lot of young guys who need to prove themselves," Crawford says. "All these guys have a body of work. They're all proven in the NBA. They've all been successful. It makes it a lot easier to sacrifice, knowing that we can lean on each other to get through whatever storm we face.
"We understand that Chris is going to have the ball, he's gonna make decisions. We understand that Blake Griffin's a superstar in this league. But that doesn't mean two guys can win a championship. It takes a team, and that's what they went out and [got]. Everybody understands that, and we understand our roles."
That was me. That was another lifetime. It was fun. A lot has happened since then. So you're happy to see Chris [Paul] and Blake [Griffin] and other teammates go through that. Not that they need it, but if they ever need help with dealing with the pressures, I've been there, I've been in their shoes.
”-- Grant Hill on being a superstar
The addition of such proven players has been particularly welcomed by incumbent veterans such as Caron Butler and Paul, who spent their first season in L.A. surrounded by a roster similar in age outside talented youngsters like Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe but lacking in similar career success, particularly once Chauncey Billups was lost for the season. After eight seasons' worth of wear and tear, including major knee surgery, Paul has made it clear that he's sick of waiting for a chance to make a legitimate championship push.
"I'm glad that we have other guys in here that are like, 'That's enough,'" Paul says.
The 27-year-old point guard has talked glowingly about all of the Clippers' major offseason acquisitions since their arrivals, often unearthing stories about games past that turned Paul into an admirer from afar. But there's a deeper sense of appreciation when he speaks about Hill. On his new teammate's 40th birthday, Paul, whose amiability off the court is reminiscent of Hill's gentle demeanor, tweeted from his @CP3 account: "Happy 40th Bday to one of the BEST people I know @realgranthill33...I hope and pray that I can be as successful as u one day on and off the court...#2niteThoWeAreYouuung."
Even now, after nearly two decades in the NBA, you can look at Hill and see the player who once had the superstar status that Paul now enjoys. The finely trimmed hair that sat atop his head and the dark goatee that outlined his strong jawline have been weathered down to stubble, but his long arms still have the same light definition of a natural athlete. And his feet, when wrapped inside his high-tops without any braces or tape, show no sign of the arduous rehabilitation that lifted him to this point.
Hill, however, can clearly see a difference.
"That was me. That was another lifetime," Hill says. "It was fun. A lot has happened since then. So you're happy to see Chris and Blake and other teammates go through that. Not that they need it, but if they ever need help with dealing with the pressures, I've been there, I've been in their shoes. But I'm so past wanting that or desiring that. [There's no] 'Why me?' or whatever feelings or emotions that may come. I'm content with who I am and what I am and what my status is -- if you want to call it that -- in the league.
"Obviously, when you get older there's some perspective. It's appreciation, it's perspective, it's wisdom. And I think that can be applicable in life and also in the game. So you appreciate the two-a-days and the little things, because you know you won't [always] be going through that."
Once one of the league's brightest young stars, Grant Hill has embraced his second life in the NBA.