- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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Grant Hill's life intersects with almost every major basketball story for the past quarter century. He's the only active player with ties to all of the last legendary college squads: Tark's Runnin' Rebels, the Fab Five and the dawn of the Duke dynasty. He's one of only eight players who can say he beat the Dream Team, a list that's as exclusive as living men who walked on the moon. When Shaquille O'Neal signaled a new NBA era by dunking on David Robinson in the 1996 All-Star Game it was Hill who gave him the pass. And whom did LeBron James need to pass to move into second place on the list of active career triple-double leaders? Grant Hill.
It's only natural to think of Hill's journey at this time of year, since he's intrinsically linked to March Madness. That became his fate as soon as Christian Laettner caught Hill's pass 79 feet down the court, turned and made a jump shot that sent Duke to the 1992 Final Four and the two collaborators into a permanent NCAA tournament highlight loop.
Only that play didn't pop into Hill's head when I asked him to look back on the highlights of his 22 years of playing basketball on the national stage. In fact, he didn't mention it once in more than 20 minutes of conversation. At age 40, what stands out most on the journey here, to what the Los Angeles Clippers forward says is "probably" his last season of playing basketball, are the people he shared the experiences with, most of them away from the spotlight. An elevator ride with Larry Bird. A workout with Karl Malone. Dinners with his incredibly close Phoenix Suns team.
Here are the highlights of Hill's highlights, as he reminisced about his incredible basketball journey. It reaches so far back it precedes the days of the Blue Devils as hated overlords of college basketball, all the way back to his freshman year when they were underdogs facing a powerful UNLV team that smashed them in the previous NCAA championship game.
"The things that stick out, obviously that first Final Four, in '91. Vegas. Because of what Vegas had done the year before, they were undefeated that entire season. I really don't think anybody thought we had a chance. They were so dominant. In a seven-game series, I'm not quite sure we win that.
"Not only was it a great memory, but I thought it was like a turning point of the program at Duke.
"We had been to the Final Four and the final game and we had been embarrassed we couldn't quite get over the hump. In a lot of ways I feel there was still a large segment of the population who really loved Duke, who wanted to see them succeed. And then once we did and we did it again, it kind of turned a little bit of that hate that we see. And I think the fact that they've remained consistently a powerhouse over the years, that sentiment, that feeling then compared to now, has changed. And I felt like that was the beginning of that change.
"I also think it was the beginning at least in terms of being elevated and becoming an elite team. Once we won that, we felt like we could beat anybody. I felt like that confidence from that [UNLV] game obviously carried over to the Kansas game [in the final], but also 'til next year."
In the summer of 1992, Hill was among a group of eight college players that included Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Allan Houston, Jamal Mashburn, Eric Montross, Bobby Hurley and Rodney Rogers that was selected to scrimmage against the Dream Team during training camp in La Jolla, Calif., as it prepared for the Tournament of the Americas and the Olympics. In their first scrimmage, the college kids beat what is widely considered the greatest team ever assembled. Hill got a copy of the video years later and has watched it a few times. "Everybody was skinny," Hill said. Even Charles Barkley. Hill's fondness for that experience reminds me of the sentiment Michael Jordan expressed for the days before he entered the NBA, as captured in Wright Thompson's outstanding profile. It was a time when things were, to use Jordan's word, "pure."
"We were just on the verge of becoming pros," Hill said. "We were knocking on the door.
"To spend a week with those legends ... to hang out. We kind of hung out with those guys.
"The thing that I saw was just the competitiveness and the work ethic. I remember, we had practice one day and then we all went to the beach -- we did something as players -- and we got back and we were getting on the elevator, and Larry Bird gets on the elevator. He's the oldest guy on the team. But he just came from the gym. He was shooting. And he was talking trash. He was like, 'You guys are out having a good time, I'm in the gym working.' And the next day he came and put on a clinic. He just was on fire.
"And it was just like, 'OK, here's a reason why he's [Larry Bird].' Here he was in the summer, just had a long practice, scrimmage, and he's back at it. He was in there working. That was eye-opening.
"But we all got confidence from that. We beat the Dream Team.
"We all have that common bond."
Hill was selected third overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 1994 NBA draft. He shared the Rookie of the Year award with Jason Kidd and went to the All-Star Game five times. He racked up 29 triple-doubles his first five NBA seasons, good enough to place him third among active players even though he hasn't had one since 1999. You either remember that version of Hill, or you don't.
"Grant was one of the guys I tried to model my game after," said Brandon Roy. When Roy was in school and would complain to his father that he wasn't getting enough shots, his father told him to focus on getting rebounds and assists. To illustrate, he told him to watch Grant Hill.
"He did a lot of things on the floor," Roy said. "Grant could be a big scorer, but he would assist, he defended."
"The draft ... officially making it to the NBA, that was a dream come true," Hill said.
"My first All-Star Game in Phoenix in 1995. ... Being on the team with [Patrick] Ewing and [Scottie] Pippen and all these guys. I was the youngest guy out there. These guys were the guys I grew up idolizing, and now I'm out there with them."
Hill also joined them on the 1996 Olympic team that won the gold medal in Atlanta. In between games he went one-on-one with Hakeem Olajuwon (the rules were Olajuwon had to shoot jumpers, Hill had to shoot in the paint) and lifted weights with workout fanatic Karl Malone (Hill said he never felt so sore).
Detroit was all pre-Injury. Yes, capital I. Hill fractured his left foot near the end of the 1999-2000 season, tried to play through it and wound up doing so much damage that it took multiple surgeries, staples and a plate to repair. Most of his recovery time was during his time in Orlando, where he played only 200 games in five seasons. His best memory of those years is that he got through it.
"The Orlando thing, it was tough for everyone," Hill said. "Tough for the organization, tough for me, people who were fans and supported us there. But I'm proud that I survived, if that makes sense."
Surviving enabled him to play in Phoenix, where he joined the up-tempo Suns and, in 2010, finally won a playoff series. Two of them, actually, before the Suns fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
"Playing in Phoenix and the 2010 season, that was by far -- even more so than the Duke teams -- I don't know if I've ever been on a team that close. Our locker room, was together. I'm sure there are other teams that have that. But with egos and the money and the whole NBA, it's hard to create that environment.
"I don't know if it was by design or if it just happened. We might not have been the most talented group or whatever. But in terms of working together, supporting each other and enjoying one another on and off the court by hanging out, going to dinner, families involved. We were all together.
"One of the memories I have is we were playing San Antonio. They were always our nemesis. We couldn't get past them in the playoffs. And here we are, Game 3 and Goran Dragic goes off in the fourth quarter and the main guy cheering for him is Steve [Nash]. And here's a guy, it's his position, and I remember Alvin [Gentry, the Suns coach] asking Steve, 'Do you want to go in?' And 'No. Let him go.' Here was our quarterback basically saying, 'Let the backup go. He's on fire.' That was a special group."
The changing game
In Phoenix, Hill caught the last season of Mike D'Antoni's five-year run as Suns head coach. D'Antoni's up-tempo style helped usher in a new brand of basketball, a far different style from the NBA that Hill entered in the 1990s.
"I think the game has changed. Guys are smaller. When I came in it was more traditional, two big guys, back to the basket, a more methodical game. More inside-out. When I first came into the league you had some pretty talented big men. I think of Hakeem [Olajuwon], I think of [Patrick] Ewing, David Robinson, Shaq [O'Neal], Rik Smits. Even the guys that were second-tier were still pretty good ... and surprisingly had good touch. The power forward was a powerful guy. Now a power forward is a tweener who shoots. That game's changed. It's become more up-and-down. Some of the sets within the game have changed. It's less physical.
"That [D'Antoni] style of play changed things. A lot of the sets that people run, the thinking, the getting up and down are Phoenix and Mike D'Antoni's system. A couple of things came together and aligned perfectly. The league de-emphasized the physicality of the game, [made it] less physical, more scoring. I think they made a concerted effort to increase the scoring and not have these 84-85 ballgames.
"It's a copycat league. People see something that works, they try it. The same thing happened back in the '90s: very methodical, coaches called plays. A lot of trapping. It was a grind-it-out, physical, defensive battle. Maybe that started with the Pistons and was carried over by [Pat] Riley in early '90s with the Knicks. Slowly teams started to incorporate that.
"It goes through these changes. Also with that, coaches change, new coaches come in, there's a new thought process, new ideas. And then the players ... and the game.
"It evolves, it changes. Maybe the '80s was more up-and-down.
"It got to the point in the '90s where schemes were put in place to take teams out of what they wanted to do."
He's playing his first season with the Clippers after signing a two-year contract last summer. He has played in only 26 games is averaging only 3.2 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1 assist. The nagging injuries last longer. The reactions are a little slower, the shooting a little more hesitant. Everything points to retirement after the season.
"This will probably be it," Hill said. "I have committed myself to not making any decisions until I get to the end of the year, like I've done the last three or four years, but this is probably it.
"My body and also my mind are in agreement on this. Yeah. It may be time. But I don't want to say officially that that's the case. I want to see what happens and see how I feel when we get to the end of the year. But I'm pretty close to being there."
With his career nearing the end, Grant Hill recalls the highs and lows of the past two decades.