Grant Hill recalled at least five times this past summer when well-meaning fans approached him in Orlando. Sometimes they spoke in front of a 7-Eleven gas pump, other times at a restaurant.
"After the small talk, they'd all ask, 'So what are you doing now?' "
"Getting ready for training camp," Hill told them.
"You're still playing? Wow. I thought you were done."
"Their intentions were good," Hill said. "But you know how it goes: out of sight, out of mind."
The left ankle has been surgically repaired five times in four years. It is swollen and badly scarred, with zipper-like incisions. To put startled children at ease, "I tell little kids I got in a fight with an alligator," Hill said. The humor also camouflages the truth.
After Hill's last surgery, in March 2003, the pride of Reston spent a week in an intensive-care unit, believing he was near death.
Over the next 18 months, rest and rehabilitation have miraculously healed that ankle -- enough to let its owner run and jump again, enough to make Hill never worry about another scoring title or a ridiculous Michael Jordan comparison.
As he arrives for a basketball game at MCI Center tonight -- his graceful, loping gait in tow -- Grant Hill's health will do.
"When you're out as long as I've been, you don't think about being an all-star again or one of the best players in the game," Hill said in a telephone interview from his Orlando home on Monday night. "You think, 'Will I ever experience to feel what it's like to celebrate with teammates after a game-winning shot?' Or that feeling of dejection when you walk off the court after getting blown out by the Bobcats the other night.
"I know that sounds crazy, but damn it -- excuse my French -- I'm glad I felt that hurt. I cherish everything now."
There are comeback sagas in professional sports, and then there is Hill's odyssey. Once among the premier players in the game, Hill signed a seven-year, $93 million contract with Orlando in the summer of 2000. But the recurring foot injury limited him to only 47 games the next four seasons.
Before the Magic's opener this season, he hadn't played since Orlando met the Wizards on Jan. 16, 2003. Each start to each season had an almost painful symmetry: Hill never made it out of January healthy and he had major surgery every year since he signed with the Magic.
The final procedure was the most serious and invasive. Hill's heel was broken and realigned with his leg. He thought he was healing when his body went into shock. Hill was rushed to the hospital. Once the splint was removed from his leg, doctors realized from the red and black bruising that the incision had opened. He began convulsing uncontrollably.
"My temperature rose to 104 degrees, then 104.5," he recalled. "I'm lying there, shaking, freezing. Now I can't control my body. They rush me to the hospital, I'm on the gurney. They tell me to count backwards from 100, they're holding my arms down.
"I don't know how close I was to going, but that's as close as I've ever been."
He was eventually stabilized. During a seven-hour surgery, doctors grafted skin and arteries from his left triceps to close the wound and restore circulation.
For the next eight weeks, he took vancomycin, the last line of defense as antibiotics go. He remembers watching Syracuse win the NCAA tournament in a drugged-up state from his hospital bed.
"I was so down, I just said, 'Forget it, I don't want to play anymore,' " Hill said. "I'm thinking, 'Man, why does it come to this?' That was the lowest point."
The infection never made it to the bone, though. And as unsightly as the ankle looked, it began to gradually function. First, he could only put his foot down for maybe 20 seconds a day. Then a minute at a time. Months after surgery, the flap physicians had sculpted from his triceps finally took, covering his ankle.
It was as if his mother had sewn a patch over the hole in the knee of his jeans. He was fixed. Hill sat out an entire season, refusing to hastily rush himself back as he had previously.
Most NBA analysts predicted he would not play again. That's why by the time he showed up at training camp in Jacksonville last month on his 32nd birthday Hill was already viewed as a '90s relic.
He was the lanky kid who heaved a perfect, three-quarter-court pass to Christian Laettner, who hit the shot that beat Kentucky in 1992 and sent Duke into delirium. Grant Hill was the six-time all-star who carried the post-Bad Boy Pistons on his back.
The last time Hill began an NBA season he finished in uniform, he averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists in Detroit. It was 1999-2000. His rookie teammate Dwight Howard was 14 years old. "Clinton was still in office," Hill said.
The Tracy McGrady era in Orlando happened without him. The Magic has changed coaches since he played last, jettisoning Doc Rivers last season. He's got a new crew -- Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Hedo Turkoglu were all acquired in the offseason. "The T-Mac saga has come and went, everyone thinks it's not going to work out anyway, so I've got nothing to lose," he said.
Calvin Hill, his father and the former NFL running back, will be in attendance tonight, along with James Nunley, the Duke orthopedic surgeon who helped salvage that foot and a career .
Hill's 21/2-year-old daughter, Myla, who was not yet conceived when he last completed a season, now comes to the games with her mother and Hill's wife, Tamia, the rhythm and blues singer.
"It'd be nice for her these next four or five years or whatever to see me play," he said. "I think it was neat for me to see my dad at the end of his career. Though I didn't necessarily see him in his prime, it was nice to have those memories. Hopefully, my daughter will have the same."
"Look, assuming this ankle holds up," Hill added, " I haven't put that much mileage on my body. Some people look at it as the years I've lost. I'm looking at it as, I've got years on the back end."
You look up a Grant Hill comeback story from two years ago that never made it to print because of yet another injury.
"There's a gospel saying, 'Gold without fire is not pure gold.' You got to go through that," Hill said then.
Gold without fire is not pure gold. Kind of fits, no?