Grant Hill: ‘It was time to move on’

November 17, 2013

You know, back in my day… (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Retirement hasn’t exactly meant more free time for Grant Hill, since he has managed to turn his post-NBA career into a balance between his current occupations as a broadcaster, host of the re-boot of “NBA Inside Stuff,” and a few other side business ventures.

The time away from basketball has also given him the chance to assume more responsibility as a husband to his wife, Tamia, and father to his two daughters, Myla and Lael. Recently, Hill was excited that he was able to attend a recent game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando Magic “as a fan” instead of an engaged participant. Hill was more thrilled that in the same week, he had a chance to watch Lael perform at a school musical recital during a time that in previous years would’ve been spent at practice.

“To be able to be there,” Hill said, before pausing. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a very involved parent throughout my career. I was on the board at my children’s school in Phoenix, I was Mr. Daddy Daycare. But certainly you have to work around the schedule of the NBA and I have more freedom now and I can plan accordingly. I’m really having a good time and just enjoying this new chapter of my life.”

In a recent phone interview, Hill discussed the highs and lows of a career that lasted longer than many would’ve expected — especially since a large chunk of his prime was lost because of a bad ankle. He also talked about why he never played for his hometown Wizards, his greatest regret as a player and whether he would ever consider moving into a front-office role someday. Here are some of the highlights from the interview:

What was behind your decision to leave the game?

I was under contract for another year. And obviously, things for us as a team didn’t go great, or as we had hoped. It was a good regular season but obviously the postseason didn’t go well. I kind of got hurt in training camp or preseason and I was out for three months. At 40, when you’re out for that long and try to come back midseason, it’s hard to get some traction. I never really got it last year. I didn’t play much. The team wanted me back but it was time. I got to the point where I just knew that, okay, it was time to move on, time to do something different. And I had not felt that way at any other point prior.

That had to be a serious turn, because there was so much against you throughout your career, when I’m sure many people said, ‘Why are you still playing?’ But you kept going. What was it that motivated you to keep going through some of those dark times in your career?

Yeah. It’s funny you say that. I think every player, you have to have a fight in you. Whether you’re hurt or you’re just a fourth-year guy. The great thing about sports is you constantly have to prove yourself. You constantly have to go out there and do it, day in and day out. And I think certainly, when you’re battling or struggling back from injuries or adversities, that certainly is magnified. And you know, I got tired of fighting that fight. It got to a point where I just didn’t want to do it. It’s interesting, because I really did, from teammates, the organization, they were like, ‘Hey, play.’ I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I’m looking for new fights, new challenges. But during that time, I just loved the game, maybe foolishly believed that I could get back and resume my career and I kind of always looked as my ankle, as unlike a knee or joint, or a ligament, it’s a bone. And the problem we had was the bone had never healed, my thinking was, if it healed then everything around it would be okay. Which is not necessarily the case, but at least that’s what I thought. I kind of look at it as, I tried to convince myself that I’m missing a year or two during those dark times, but I’ll make up for it on the back end. I think I did. I’m not sure if I had been healthy all that time if I had played to 40.

When you look back, was it the championship? What is it that you were chasing more than anything?

Every year you suit up, you play for a championship. Some years, some teams…it was very few times I think I played on that realistically had a chance. I feel some of those Suns teams, we were touted as a team, as an organization going for a championship on a couple of those teams. Of course it didn’t happen. And I thought last year, in LA, I thought that was sort of our goal. My wife tells me, every year I would come home from training camp, I’d always tell her, we could win it all. So she got tired of hearing me say that and certainly questioned my judgment because we never did it. But that’s why you play. In the words of a football coach, you play to win. Regardless of the obstacles or hurdles that are ahead of you, regardless of the opponent, regardless of the odds, your goal and objective always is to win. I think that’s part of sports. I know in college, every year, the first day of practice, the first thing Coach K would emphasize, ‘We’re going to win a championship and this is how we’re going to do it.’ So you make that your priority. Certainly it doesn’t always happen. But it wasn’t just about chasing championships or going some place and jumping on a team that’s right there. It was the love of playing, the love of competing, the love of pursuing and going after a common goal of trying to be the best as a team. I think a number of factors is what led me to continue to play and also realizing, once it’s over, it’s over. I would rather have the regret of maybe staying a year too long than thinking, ‘Hey, I could’ve maybe squeezed another year or two out.’ Certainly I exhausted my career in terms of playing, so there will be no regrets there.

I know you were never keen on playing at home for the Wizards? Why not?

I did at different points. I think it just was a matter of when I was a free agent, where things were. I think in 2000, there were some uncertainty. I think they were in a transitional period as a franchise. I can’t remember. That may have been an opportunity to go and at the end of my career, there were other factors, like medical staffs and thing like that – not knocking anyone’s medical staff there – and that played a big role in me going [to Phoenix]. I did a lot of research and talked to a number of guys who had some injuries and had some success there. They exceed my expectation when I was there, with what they were capable of doing. I always felt that at some point I would play there, that I would move back there. I still have time, I guess, to move back. But I guess once they moved from the Cap Centre, my interests changed. I’m joking when I say that. But back in the day before there was all the cable and Direct TV, you pretty much had a few nationally television games, then you had your local broadcast. I grew up watching the Bullets. Even when they were on the West Coast, I sneak and watch the TV at night, those guys. I always, particularly when I was younger in my career, always enjoyed going back and playing there.

Ah, the good ol' days. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Ah, the good ol’ days. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

What will you take as the most rewarding part of your career. And what, if anything, haunts you or you wish would’ve been different?

I think my career is broken up into almost three sort of different careers. I think of my time in college and my early years in the league, really the 90s, from the 90s to 2000. It was really good. I’m not one to pat my own back, but I look back at that and even sometimes now, I kind of wow myself with what I was able to do. I certainly didn’t appreciate it, because you’re constantly striving and looking to go forward and get better and not really rest of dwell on what you did or didn’t do in the past. So that was a very, I’m very proud of what I did. Of course, I could’ve done some things better. You always can second guess things, but for the most part, it didn’t get much better. That 10 year stretch was pretty good. The next decade or the next five or six years, there was a lot of adversity, a lot of setbacks, a lot of obstacles, a lot of uncertainty about my future. Just a lot of difficult times, but I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I kept fighting. That I kept going and that I didn’t quit. And not feel sorry for yourself, but just fight to resume your career. That was not easy and it’s not fun, but I’m proud in hindsight, now that I can be reflective on it, that I was able to sort of persevere. And I’m proud of coming back and my last six, seven years in Phoenix, finding great joy and fulfillment in sort of reinventing yourself. Now, all of a sudden, you’re not the player you were before and you’re not asked to do those things and maybe you physically can’t do those things, you’re still able to go out and contribute and be part of the team in a different way. I know, in retrospect, that’s not an easy thing to do either. Kind of used to be a certain level of player, and now I’m not the first or second option. In Phoenix, I was the fifth option. Last year, I was the last option. But okay, coming in as a role player, doing things a little bit differently and still being effective and still finding a way to contribute and play and that’s not easy. I’m proud of sort of all of those phases.

In hindsight, I’m being serious but also half-joking when I say this, but I think one of my regrets was not getting a second opinion. Obviously my regret was my health. I think everybody, I accept responsibility, not for being hurt, but maybe for not managing it better and putting so much trust in so-called experts and trusting your gut. There were a lot of times it didn’t seem right, but you kind of go along with it. they are the experts and I think I’ve learned something, and you learn to trust that gut. I remember a veteran told me once, Otis Thorpe, he told me, ‘Your body talks, you’ve just got to learn to listen to it.’ It took me 19 years later to figure out what he was saying. I think part of that, though is who I am. But I think that’s what made me who I am, even before the injuries was okay, I can fight through it, I can get through it. in hindsight, I wish I had done a better job of that. All that has happened has shaped who I am now and a lot of that is because of the injury. It’s not like I’m up at night, what could’ve been. Actually, I very rarely do. These last six months, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my career, like, ‘Wow, it’s over.’ So you think a little bit more about the past. I’ve been asked questions from the media. My kids now will go on to YouTube and show highlights from back in the day. All of that sort of reminds of where I was and what could’ve been, but it’s not like I’m going to take this bitterness to the grave as a result. I’ve kind of accepted what happened. And I’m content with it, if it makes any sense.

I remember reading that you once said that the fact that you went to Duke and came from an upper middle-class family, that you felt like you had more to prove in terms of your toughness. How much did that affect the way you continued to play when you were hurt?

I think that affected me more in terms of my style of play. The perception, suburban kid, Reston, you’re going to be a balls out shooter. I still can’t shoot. I’m 40 years old and I still can’t shoot. I’m joking as I say that. but my game was, I’m going to take it to the hole and dunk on you. I think that was more, the proving part was more indicative of that, there is a certain toughness required from the physicality and sort of the one-upsmanship or the bravado of dunking and attacking. That kind of style, I sort of adopted to sort of prove myself. The injuries; I never went against any doctor’s orders. In all the craziness, every time I played, I was always cleared to play. It was never, ‘We think you should sit, Grant.’ But I’m going against to prove my toughness. It was never any of that. There is always a possibility of an injury, you hurt you knee, come back a year later, there is always a risk of getting hurt again. I get that. But it wasn’t ever about, I’m from Reston, so I got to prove. It was more about my game and my style of play. I still remember going to the youth games in DC when I was like 14 and people were like, ‘Okay, it’s a suburban kid, dad’s an NFL ball player, well I’m going to show you. That was sort of that edge or that chip that carried with you. In hindsight, I wish I had developed a jump shot and more of a suburban game.

Do you see yourself in a front office or anything else down the road?

I had some opportunities to do that, and even some coaching things. I’d say no. But I also know I can be indecisive and change my mind. I’ve learned to never rule anything out entirely. I will say this, if I had been interested, if it was something I really would want to do. I’d feel like I’d need a little bit to get away from it and decompress. It’s been a roller coaster for 20 years, but who knows? Who knows how I’m going to be feeling in five years? But right now? No.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · November 17, 2013