It was Thanksgiving dinner that made Doc Rivers realize just how preoccupied he had been with Grant Hill's ankle. Rivers tries to avoid bringing his work as coach of the Orlando Magic home with him -- he spent enough time consumed with basketball when he was a player -- but when it came time to say a prayer before the Thanksgiving meal, he realized he had failed completely.
"My son, he prayed for Grant Hill's health," Rivers says, shaking his head. "The sad thing was that he beat me to it. If he hadn't said it, I would have."
There are few other basketball prayers to be said around the Magic this season. The roster is flush with standout players at every position save maybe center. Forward Tracy McGrady is leading the league in scoring, averaging 31.5 points per game. The team recently beat the three-time champion Los Angeles Lakers -- with Shaquille O'Neal in the starting lineup -- and when the Washington Wizards arrive at TD Waterhouse Centre for tonight's game, the Magic will have won four of its last five outings.
Yet for the third season in a row, all of Orlando's riches teeter on the narrow column of flesh and bone between Hill's left foot and shin, on an ankle that has been surgically repaired three times in two years and that recently has been subject to bouts of tendinitis. Certainly, this season has been better than the last two, when Hill missed 154 games and played 18, leaving the Magic to flail in first-round playoff losses. But even with Hill now playing semi-regularly, the balance is still precarious, with Hill alternating between dazzling and dubious, strength and soreness.
"I've had good days and bad days. It comes and goes," says Hill, whose bad days have caused him to miss three whole games and pieces of others. With the good days, though, come glimpses of his old, six-time all-star self. Two days ago he propelled the Magic to an 87-85 win over the New York Knicks with 16 points, 15 rebounds and 4 assists, including a baseline jumper that sealed Orlando's advantage with just more than a minute to go.
Even more notable was that Hill accomplished all of this over 40 minutes of playing time, the most he has logged this season. Officially, Hill played so much because McGrady, bothered by a mild ankle sprain, was confined to the bench for the entire game. But really, it might have just been because he told Rivers that he could.
"He told me that he wanted to play, and I was milking it," Rivers practically giggled after the game, more gleeful than a child released from the last day of school. "They've told us to try to up his minutes now, and obviously that's not bad news to me. In shoot-around, Grant said, 'I'd like to play around 40 minutes.' I don't think he meant that literally, but I took it that way."
It remains to be seen whether Hill will pay for that exuberance against the Wizards tonight, although he expects to have McGrady back to help him out; besides, he has been feeling better lately. Part of his resurgence can be credited to the new strategy the Magic's medical team has hatched to tend to his ankle: Instead of limiting Hill's minutes by having him sit for long stretches on the bench, doctors are now recommending Hill play in spurts and then sit in spurts.
The approach allows him to play more total time and stay in the flow of the game while still getting the rest he needs, and so far, it seems to be paying off. Doctors say Hill could battle sporadic soreness for the rest of his career, but for the last week he has felt decreasing pain and increasing eagerness.
The rest of the team has also shifted its focus somewhat. For the first month of the season, practices and game plans were often shaped around the state of Hill's ankle and Rivers's desire to go with an all-tall lineup of Hill, McGrady and Mike Miller. Now, Magic players and coaches tend to just go with what they have, whatever it happens to be that day.
"I'm used to that anyway -- when he's in there, I'm real comfortable and confident but when he's out, well, he's been out for two years, so that's fine, too," says McGrady, who blossomed in Hill's absence but seems to be downright flowering now that Hill is back, even intermittently. "The thing is I'm better when he's out there. He releases some of the pressure for me, and some nights I don't even have to guard the best player on the other team, which is nice."
Hill says he is now mostly working to get in better condition; he briefly took himself out of Wednesday's game because of sheer exhaustion. He understands, of course, if his teammates and coaches also throw in a little prayer here or there, although even Rivers is finally convinced the worst may be over.
"I have good feelings because I don't think it could get any worse," Rivers says. "The other shoe has dropped, a couple times. I'm just hoping now the shoe stays tied."