You couldn't blame Grant Hill for wanting to be like his Daddy. Heck, half of Texas wanted to be like his Daddy. Calvin Hill was the Dallas Cowboys' first-round draft pick, their all-everything NFL rookie of the year, their first running back to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark.
When a 5-year-old Grant Hill said to his friends, "My dad could beat up your dad," he was usually right.
So on Sundays, when Calvin ran and caught and scored, there was Grant, imitating him in the stands. And on Mondays, when Calvin tried to coax away the pain by strapping ice bags to every square inch of his body, Grant was right there, too, asking for the ice bags, and a brace, and anything else he could get his hands on.
"There are all these pictures of me with ice bags on my shoulders, and bandages all over, because I wanted to be like my dad," Hill says now, and he smiles, although not for long. "When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be hurt. I thought it was cool, I thought it showed you were tough.
"Let me tell all the little kids out there. It's not so fun actually being hurt. It's not like pretending."
There is no pretending when the scars on your ankle look like a tic-tac-toe board, or when the crutches that rest against your wall have been in the house twice as long as your 10-month-old daughter. There is no pretending when you walk onto a court that's always felt like a welcome mat and realize you have become a stranger.
There is no pretending with the truth and the truth is this: Grant Hill has had three ankle surgeries in the past two years, and even when he was a six-time all-star, he never got his team past the first round of the playoffs. If he doesn't set about overcoming one of those facts and changing the other when the Orlando Magic start their season Tuesday, the basketball career that was supposed to make him a legend might well be over. Ice bags and all.
"There is no Plan B," says Doc Rivers, his coach. "Grant cannot get injured again this year, there cannot be another surgery. This is it. This is all the marbles."
Limping in Orlando
The thing that digs at Grant is that he'd always been healthy, even when he insisted he play basketball with his knee wrapped because when Calvin later played for the Washington Redskins, he had his knee wrapped. Grant's back was ramrod straight. His hair was flawlessly cut. "In school," he recalls of his time at South Lakes High in Reston, "I had perfect attendance."
Hill was so healthy he became an integral part of two NCAA championships at Duke, and in his first five seasons in the NBA, he played 361 of the Detroit Pistons' 378 games. Season Six proved more difficult; while Hill still earned a starting nod on his sixth straight all-star team, by March 2000 his left ankle began to feel tender. By April, it was downright mushy, forcing him out of the Pistons' last few regular season games.
Hill tried to come back in the playoffs, seeing time in two games of the Pistons' losing effort against Miami. But he was obviously limping through them, and two days later he had surgery on a stress fracture doctors had identified in the bone of his inner ankle.
"They told me it wasn't a big deal," Hill says of the five pins and the metal plate inserted into the ankle. In fact, his doctors told him he had a 95 percent chance of returning at full strength by the following October.
That was a good enough guarantee for Hill, and a good enough guarantee for Orlando, which beat out a flock of other teams to put together a seven-year, $93 million sign-and-trade deal to bring Hill to the Magic. The same day, the Magic also announced it had snatched budding star Tracy McGrady from Toronto, giving the team the kind of one-two punch not seen around the league outside of Los Angeles.
"It was going to be something," says McGrady, remembering the swirl of attention. "We were going to run things."
For two games in November, they limped things. Hill was clearly not back in form, and while he also tried to play two more games in December, he was in serious pain. In January, he reconciled himself to a second surgery, but it didn't make it any easier that spring as he watched McGrady blossom into a bona fide force in his absence, leading the Magic into a playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks.
"It was really tough; there were times I didn't even want to come around the team," says Hill, who dutifully showed up at every home game but opted out of practices and road trips. "It's not just the NBA -- it's basketball. This thing that's been with you all your life gets taken from you. You can't even go out and shoot hoops in the driveway."
All you can do, really, is sit around and hear people talk about you. Through the 2001 playoffs, there was plenty of whispering about whether Hill would ever come back, and questions about whether he'd ever be the same.
Hill's retort was to drown them out, practicing up to seven hours a day and accelerating his rehab in the gym. He offered to take on anyone and everyone in pickup games, a process Rivers watched with a mix of admiration and unease. Rivers heard Hill say he was fine by the time the 2001 training camp came around, but the coach could see "he'd worn himself out even before he got started." Hill notched five double-doubles over 14 games, but really, he was a just a nice small forward without much explosiveness to the basket. He was a role player.
And he knew it.
"To be honest, that was when I was at an all-time low," says Hill, who now admits to being relieved when he was told in early December he would need another season-ending surgery. "I think naturally as you get older, you lose a little bit, but I went from being able to do anything one second to not being able to do much, and I didn't know if that was just it from then on. At least when you have another surgery, there's a hope things could get better."
This time, Hill nearly dropped out of basketball completely. He didn't push his rehab. He didn't do much of anything, except wait for his wife, R&B singer Tamia, to give birth to their first child. He also started sleeping weird hours. One night, he went to bed at 7 p.m.; this became something of a problem when he had to make an appearance in the Magic locker room the next night and couldn't tell whether his teammates had won or lost their last game.
It was an awkward moment but still, the distance was a good sign for Hill; it meant he was stepping back to let himself heal, both in mind and body. By this June, his Baltimore-based surgeon told him not to come around anymore, and by August he was playing pickup again. For the last month, he has been a fully functioning member of the Magic, averaging around 26 minutes per game in the preseason.
"For the first time since I've been here, I can honestly say I believe 100 percent that Grant Hill is back in the NBA," says Rivers. "Last year, he didn't have his timing or his quickness. This year the quickness is there."
Meshing With McGrady
Of course, questions are also there. If two surgeries bring whispers, then three surgeries bring shouting, charts, maps and all kinds of other instructional aides. So much has changed since Hill entered the NBA during Michael Jordan's first retirement. Back then, he was His Airness's Heir Apparent, but in the time since he's been hurt, the Lakers have won three straight titles, Shaquille O'Neal has emerged as the league's most dominant player, Allen Iverson has emerged as its most exciting and even Jordan has returned for a third act of his career.
The earth has shifted no less in Hill's own backyard: When both he and McGrady signed their contracts with Orlando, it was Hill who was supposed to be the star and McGrady his young protege. Now, it is McGrady's team, with Hill having been little more than a picture in the team media guide the last two years.
Hill, for one, insists that at 30 years old he is comfortable stepping in behind the 23-year-old McGrady. "When I was in Detroit, it got messy between Jerry [Stackhouse] and I because of that, and I don't want to get into that here, so if Tracy wants to say its his team, that's fine," he says.
Still, he believes he already proved something to McGrady in September, when the two played a series of one-on-one games. The matchups couldn't have been more of a test if McGrady had whipped out a blue book. "He had to see that he could trust me," says Hill. And while "I'm not trying to say I kicked his butt, we went at it. He was making great moves, and I was going at him, and he was like, 'Man, you're quick as I don't know what.' "
"Grant has the overall game," McGrady says, noting that the last time Hill was healthy Hill averaged 25.8 points. This preseason Hill has averaged just 13 points, along with 4.7 rebounds, but McGrady believes those numbers will grow with increased playing time.
"Of course, you have to see it play out for you to completely believe it, but every day, I'm getting excited, preparing myself," McGrady says. "You just get the feeling there's going to be something fun and exciting happening every night."
It better. When Rivers says there is no Plan B, he means not just for Hill, but for the Magic as well. Concerned about the luxury tax and unimpressed with this summer's crop of free agents, Orlando General Manager John Gabriel decided to simply build around Hill and McGrady this offseason. They added Jacques Vaughn and Shawn Kemp and jettisoned a boatload of veterans in Patrick Ewing, Jud Buechler, Troy Hudson and Monty Williams.
If Hill goes down again this time, Williams will not be there to step in at small forward, Hudson will not be there to pick up some of the scoring burden, Ewing will not be there to offer perspective. McGrady, too, will not be able to pick up the slack like he has before. He's been nursing a bad back for more than a year, and while the problem has been under control lately, he almost had surgery this summer that would have knocked him out for the season.
In truth, the Magic need Hill to be more than healthy. They need him to be the Grant Hill of old.
Rivers feels that even if Hill's body is truly ready, it will take him until at least the all-star break to feel comfortable mentally with the game. "I see him pull up for a jumper sometimes when he should be going to the basket, and that's because he's scared, even if he doesn't know it," he said.
But Rivers also believes Hill will get there. He has so much confidence in Hill that before training camp, he sat down and wrote Hill a letter, telling him he could be his old self if he just forgot about the ankle and the expectations and just fell back in love with basketball.
"I told him to just go play, and I think that's what he's done," Rivers says. "I said, 'Just go out there, like when you were a little kid, and your mom just shooed you out there and said go play.' "
The postscript, of course, was not written but understood. Play like a kid. But this time, leave the ice bags at home.