As a 6-foot-2 eighth grader, Grant Hill naturally stood out. Still, on Fridays during basketball season, he wore a tie to Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, Va. He was imitating the team at nearby South Lakes High, which had instituted the dress code on game days.
After school on Fridays, Hill sat behind the Seahawks bench to hand out water during freshman, junior varsity and varsity games. He would have done it on Tuesdays as well, but his mother did not allow it on school nights.
Nobody asked the 13-year-old to dress like part of the team or volunteer as a water boy. He did it because he idolized the players. The next year Hill finally put on his own blue and green jersey.
“The last thing on my mind was the NBA or college, I just wanted to play here at South Lakes. That was what I wanted to do,” Hill said. “It was a different time . . . you spent your Friday nights watching high school sports and that was entertainment for a whole community, so I just wanted to play at South Lakes and that was pretty much it.”
Back at his high school gym on Friday night, he stood behind a lectern and rattled off the names of a half-dozen South Lakes players he grew up watching. Then his parents pulled down a curtain to reveal his framed jersey on the wall behind a basket.
No Seahawks basketball player will wear No. 32 again. Hill, 45, who starred for the Seahawks before winning two NCAA national titles at Duke and playing 18 seasons in the NBA, packed the house in Reston once more as South Lakes retired his number following a win over West Springfield.
“This place rocked every Tuesday and Friday, and not just with South Lakes and Reston people. Everybody came for one reason, to see Grant play,” said Kent Harris, who taught “Beowulf” and Shakespeare to Hill in his senior year English class and kept score for the basketball team. “Grant took the subjects very, very seriously and was exceptionally humble. Almost too humble. He didn’t expect anything because he was a star on the court or a star in the community.”
Hill was The Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year as a senior in 1990. The Seahawks lost to Hampton in the state semifinals in his junior and senior year. He retired from the NBA in 2013 as a seven-time all-star and is part of the ownership group that bought the Atlanta Hawks in 2015.
During the game, which the Seahawks won, 75-59, Hill hugged old friends and posed for pictures as the community gathered to celebrate his accomplishments.
“I think this night is closure. It’s closure for the Reston community. Not only athletically but socially as a citizen of Reston, Grant brought a lot to the community with his overall demeanor in everything he does,” said Wendell Byrd, who stepped down as South Lakes coach in 2007 after 23 seasons. “Grant went away and continued to blossom and tonight he shared with the Reston area that ‘I’m still a Reston kid.’ ”
Proceeds from the event benefited Readers Are Leaders, a charity founded by Byrd that provides learning opportunities to at-risk elementary students. After addressing the crowd at the game, Hill retreated to a basement classroom to tell stories from his career and answer questions from South Lakes boys’ and girls’ basketball players:
Yes, he will come back.
No, he never lost to Herndon.
Kobe Bryant was the toughest player he guarded.
He recalled scoring 16 straight points to close out a district championship win over Washington-Lee as a sophomore.
He wore No. 32 because that was the number of Michael Jackson, a 1982 South Lakes graduate who won a national title at Georgetown.
He had some opportunities to play at prep schools but he wanted to play at South Lakes.
Then Hill asked a question of his own: “Is McDonald’s still the big hangout spot?”
“No, Mc-Taco-Hut,” the players replied, referring to a street corner with a McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut that arrived in Reston after Hill’s time.
“All right, well, maybe you go there now,” Hill said. “Basketball is about those times where you’re together off the court where you can be honest, you can be real and you can know each other.”
Hill looked up to the South Lakes basketball team when he was growing up. Friday night, it was the other way around.
“For him to come back, it means the world for us,” said junior point guard Cameron Savage, who is a Pistons fan because that’s where Hill had his most productive NBA seasons. “He had so much success, but he came back and treated us like we’ve known him for 30 years, he treated us like we were his best friends. Tonight was special.”