At base, halls of fame are museums. They are — or should be, anyway — places where we look, read, listen and think. Where we can remember things long since forgotten, and maybe, if we’re lucky, learn something new about the games we love, and the people and moments that shaped them.
That’s why it matters that Grant Hill will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night. Because while it’s been five years since he last suited up, it’s been damn near 20 since we last saw Grant Hill the way he was meant to be seen.
“I don’t know,” Hill recently told Sekou Smith of NBA.com. “Some of these kids were born after I was healthy in Detroit, and it’s crazy.”
You can forget a lot in two decades, and those losses accrue and accelerate as the years fly by. We owe it to basketball lovers present and future to make sure we don’t ever lose this:
Few players in the history of the sport have ever been as good at virtually everything as Hill was when he came out of Duke as the third overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft, with two NCAA titles, a pair of All-America selections and an ACC Player of the Year nod already on his résumé. The complete list of players to roll up more than 9,000 points, 3,000 rebounds, 2,500 assists, 500 steals and 200 blocks through their first six NBA seasons is three names long: LeBron James, Larry Bird and Grant Hill.
If you knock out the steals and blocks, you get one more name. It’s Oscar Robertson. That’s fitting. We now live in an era in which the triple-doubles Oscar made famous are downright commonplace, but Hill still ranks 11th on the all-time list, according to Basketball-Reference.com, with 29 … all of which came between April 1995 and March 1999.
Hill wasn’t the physical specimen James is, and he couldn’t shoot the ball like Larry Legend, and he couldn’t set the table like the Big O. But he was a plug-and-play All-Star from Day 1. The first time Hill took the floor as a member of the Detroit Pistons, he scored 25 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, dished five assists and blocked three shots against the Los Angeles Lakers, kicking off a stretch of seven straight 20-point outings to start his career.
He was an instant sensation, the first rookie in NBA history to lead the way in All-Star voting. That ensured him a spot in the East’s starting lineup in the 1995 NBA All-Star Game alongside three future Hall of Famers: Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal.
Rounding out the starting five: Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a player with whom Hill would sadly come to share more than an All-Star slot.
“There aren’t many people who get anointed to carry the crown of being the face of the league,” former Pistons legend and Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas told NBA.com’s Smith. “And when Grant Hill came in, he was basically anointed by the league, players and everyone, he was anointed to be the next face of the league.”
Despite Hill’s instant ascent, the Pistons still struggled in his rookie season, going 28-54 and finishing well out of playoff contention. But in Hill, they’d found the rarest thing in the sport — a bona fide superstar who could lift them out of the doldrums of life after “The Bad Boys.”
The next season, with Doug Collins on the bench and Allan Houston riding shotgun, Hill led the Pistons in points, rebounds, assists and steals; Detroit won 46 games and made the playoffs. One year later, after Hill had won Olympic gold with Team USA at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, he again led the Pistons in all four of those statistical categories, and also led them to a 54-28 record, finishing third in MVP voting, behind only Karl Malone and Michael Jordan.
The Pistons bowed out in the opening round of the playoffs in both of those seasons, but their time was coming, because they had what every great team needed. Hill was special: a versatile 6-foot-8 all-court playmaker with few equals, one of the game’s premier point forwards, the kind of player bound by nothing. And everybody knew it.
“When you’re coming from another team, you always ask yourself, ‘Is this guy really that good? Or is he all hype because he’s the next guy coming?’” said former teammate Grant Long during a recent interview with James L. Edwards III of The Athletic. “When I got to Detroit and began to practice with the team and watched him in the game and played with him, I realized he was really that good […] People always brought up Scottie Pippen and his versatility and I always said, ‘Bar none, Grant was the best small forward in the game when I was playing.’”
And then … well, and then.
Hill went down with a left ankle injury late in the 1999-2000 season. He’d try to gut it out during the Pistons’ opening-round matchup with the Miami Heat, but he struggled, scoring just 22 total points through two games with 10 turnovers against nine assists before shutting it down. With Hill out of the lineup, Miami finished off a three-game sweep of the best-of-five series.
More than a decade later, Hill would say that his left ankle had been barking for weeks prior to the postseason. It got so bad that he wound up pulling himself from a nationally televised game against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, after which he underwent an MRI.
Hill says the Pistons diagnosed him with a bone bruise. He returned for the playoffs, but it wasn’t long before things got much, much worse. From a 2011 interview with Fox Sports:
“It’s still bothering me,” Hill said. “I pull myself in the third quarter. They put me on some heavy medication and we had a long break between Game 1 and Game 2. While I was on this medication I felt great. Obviously it was masking the pain. Went out and played in Game 2 and I felt a pop in the second quarter, continued on in the third quarter and couldn’t go on. When we got back, we found out it was broken.
“I [had been] told everything was fine. I even found out that certain team doctors were questioning whether I was really hurt, thinking I was soft or whatever. This was after I had pulled myself from Game 2 against the Heat. At that time, when I found out I had broken my ankle, as crazy as this sounds, I was relieved. I finally had some confirmation, I finally had proof that I’m really not making it up.”
Shortly after another first-round exit, Hill had surgery to insert a plate and four pins into his fractured ankle. That summer, Hill and electric swingman Tracy McGrady both signed seven-year, $93 million contracts with the Orlando Magic, aiming to team up to take the Eastern Conference by storm. But after the Magic’s head physician died in a plane crash that September, according to Hill, “The lines of communication got crossed” about how his rehabilitation should’ve been handled.
Instead of staying out of live action for months, the Magic had him back on the court in training camp, despite Hill limping through his work. He never got right, and his season would end before New Year’s Day, with another ankle surgery capping his first campaign in Central Florida after just four appearances. That’s when things fell apart.
Hill would need a third operation on his left ankle in December of 2001, ending his second season in Orlando after 14 games. And a fourth in March of 2003, with doctors re-fracturing the ankle to realign it … after which he developed a staph infection that nearly killed him, and that cost him the entire 2003-04 season, too.
Hill would eventually make it all the way back for the Magic, averaging just under 20 points and five rebounds per game in 2004-05, and would stay in Orlando through the end of the ’06-07 season. But that one-two punch of alleged medical malfeasance in 2000 — the misdiagnosis in Detroit, and the miscommunication in Orlando — combined with Hill’s repeated attempts to get back as soon as possible to live up to that huge contract essentially destroyed what had a chance to be a historic career.
“It was hard for me to go to work there [in Orlando] every day and be around people who I felt failed me,” Hill told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated in 2010. “Even now, that arena has a lot of dark memories for me.”
Part of the value of a hall of fame, of a museum devoted to telling the story of a thing like basketball, is in highlighting stuff like this. It’s worth remembering that we can see singular talents, remarkable bolts of lightning, laid low by injury, circumstance, cruel fate and their own desperate desire to get back on the court, even if their bodies aren’t yet ready. (Or, perhaps, by errors at best and incompetence at worst, which should remind us not to freak out when players seek second opinions on the health of the muscles, bones and tendons that will determine whether they can continue their careers.)
It’s worth remembering that because, hopefully, it’ll remind us to appreciate all the special things we get to watch while they’re happening, because we won’t get to forever, and we never know exactly when it’ll all come tumbling down. And because it can remind us to appreciate the gift that is a career resurrected — maybe not quite what it was before, but back again, alive and real.
After his seven harrowing years in Orlando, Hill went west to Phoenix, signing a two-year deal with the Suns in the summer of 2007. Their vaunted training staff helped exorcise the demons of ankle woes past, restoring him to the ranks of dependable contributors. He missed 15 games in his first four seasons in Phoenix, the same number he’d missed a lifetime ago during his first four seasons in Detroit.
He wasn’t the same explosive creator he was in his early 20s, but in his mid-to-late 30s, Hill transformed himself into an ace role player — a sound, smart and active perimeter defender, a lane-filler in transition, a viable 3-point shooter, a steadying presence. The trip to the desert and the reinvention that followed saved his career, and extended it for six more years. Grant Hill played until he was 40 years old, the faith he maintained through all those dark moments in Orlando rewarded with a few more good years in the Valley of the Sun.
“It may have been bad for my career, but it was good for my development as a human being,” Hill told SI’s Jenkins. “In a weird way, I’m glad it happened.”
There will always be an impulse, when considering a player like Hill, to think about what might have been. When he’s enshrined on Friday, though, it’ll give us a chance to celebrate what actually was. Not just the magic Hill could perform before his body broke, but the perseverance that allowed him to put it back together, to finish as one of only 20 players ever to log at least 17,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists, and to go out on his terms. Not everyone comes back. He did.
“I kind of convinced myself in a way that, and maybe it was a way to protect myself if none of this [Hall of Fame] ever happened, that I didn’t need that stuff, because I know what I overcame and what I had to fight through just to get back and play in my final years,” Hill told Smith of NBA.com. “That was the most important thing for me. That validated the journey for me.”
Or, at least, it did before.
“But then, when this all came about and I got that call [from the Hall of Fame], you realize that you might have suppressed some things,” Hill added. “It does bother me that I was hurt, that I was on this trajectory early on in Detroit and things were coming together and then it’s an incomplete. I didn’t get a chance to see it through, to see what could have been. And that’s something that, if I’m being honest with myself, it really, really bothered me.
“And maybe I’m getting too deep with this, but the Hall of Fame is very validating for me, and I didn’t realize how much I needed it, how much I needed that recognition […] I don’t always see what I did back in the day, back in the ’90s. I remember the end. And I remember the hard times, the struggles.”
Now, Grant Hill can join the rest of us in revisiting what came before those hard times and struggles — in realizing just how special he was, and in recognizing how extraordinary his second act was. In the museum dedicated to telling the stories of the game, he can put it all in context, and remember, and appreciate. So can we.
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