Before Lebron, before Kobe, before Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, before the Michael Jordan comparisons became ubiquitous, there was Grant Hill, the original heir apparent to His Airness. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. With his long 6-foot-8 frame, he actually bore a closer resemblance to Scottie Pippen, but the sports world was nonetheless eager to anoint him as the second coming, and for good reason.
If you’ve forgotten just how good he was, take a moment to re-acquaint yourself with the mid-’90s Hill via YouTube. Marvel at Hill’s otherworldly speed and athleticism, his ability to handle the ball and cover the length of the floor like a point guard and his explosiveness around the rim. This is how you’ll want to remember him, all youth and pep and limitless potential, a once-in-a-generation talent that was poised to carry the NBA torch into the new millennium. Admittedly, it’s tempting to erase from memory all those injury-plagued seasons, the years of frustration and disappointment. But to disregard the darker chapters of his story would ultimately do a disservice to his legacy as they are positively central to deeper understanding of who he is.
As a college player at Duke, Hill was a two-time NCAA Champion and ACC Player of the Year, and it was his savvy, full-court pass in the final seconds of the 1992 National Championship game versus Kentucky that led to Christian Laettner’s iconic game-winning buzzer-beater. He was selected third overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 1994 NBA Draft and went on to share Co-Rookie of the Year honors with Jason Kidd.
He instantly became a fan favorite in the NBA, partly because he came across as such an affable guy, and during his first two seasons he led all players in All-Star voting despite Michael Jordan’s prodigal return from baseball. Even more staggering are the statistical averages he put up during his first six seasons in Detroit: 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, a stat-line matched only by the immortal Oscar Robertson during his first six seasons in the league.
Those gaudy numbers stand today as a stark reminder of what might have been. Despite these individual accolades, his tenure in Detroit was still a story marred by unfulfilled promise. His Pistons never won a playoff series, and when he injured his ankle just before the 2000 playoffs, it was ultimately the burden of expectation that compelled him to return to action too soon, setting into motion a chain of events that threatened to derail his career in the middle of his prime. (It’s the same pressure we saw erroneously heaped upon Derrick Rose this spring, and perhaps because of the hard lessons learned by players like Hill, Rose wisely decided to delay his return until the start of next season.)
In the summer of 2000, Hill signed a mammoth seven-year $92 million contract with the Orlando Magic, a move that paired him up with a burgeoning superstar in Tracy McGrady and on paper promised to be one of the most dominate duos in the NBA. But because of lingering ankle issues, Hill played in only four games during that first season, and things only got worse from there. Between 2000 to 2004, he played in only 47 games total and was forced to sit out the entire 2003-2004 season because of a staph infection he developed after one of his numerous ankle surgeries, an ordeal that quite nearly killed him and required a week’s worth of hospitalization and six months of intravenous antibiotics.
During his tenure with the Magic from 2000 to 2007, he missed a mindboggling 374 out of 574 games (roughly 65 percent).
Though he briefly returned to form in the 2004-2005 season when he was once again named an All-Star, it wasn’t until he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2007 that he found himself fully revitalized and able to reinvent himself as an effective role player alongside Steve Nash and the run-and-gun Suns. Since then, he has somewhat ironically become the poster boy for longevity in the NBA.
This is where his path diverges from other aging and injured and otherwise fading superstars. Whereas Allen Iverson was unable to come to terms with his declining abilities and unwilling to adapt his game accordingly and accept a reduced role, Hill embraced his destiny, and from 2007 to 2012, he became a consistently-productive member of a Suns team that was perennially among the top tier of the Western Conference standings while somehow managing to stay healthy in the process.
Still, it’s hard to know exactly where someone like Grant Hill belongs in the pantheon of greatness. Bleacher Report and ESPN have both already argued his case a future Hall of Fame candidate. They point to his illustrious college career and the outlandish numbers he put up during those first six transcendent seasons with the Detroit Pistons as well as other stats he’s piled up over the course of his 19-year career.
Most of us will remember him as a model citizen and ambassador of the game. The worst thing you can say about the guy is that he went to Duke (sorry, I couldn’t resist). We’ll remember his goofy smile plastered across those “Read to Achieve” posters hanging up in classrooms across the country. I’ll personally remember the fact that, before it was fashionable, he was one of the first players to speak out against homophobia in the NBA’s “Think B4 You Speak” commercials, and I’ll remember his thoughtful, measured, and eloquent response to Jalen Rose’s “Uncle Tom” comments in the Fab Five documentary. I’ll also remember that he had some of the nastiest facial dunks I’ve ever seen and that he once took off from just inside the foul line on a breakaway dunk. It will be hard not to imagine what might have been had things turned out differently.
On the next page, check out Grant’s best facial dunks…
2-time NCAA Champion
ACC Player of the Year
7 All-Star Game Appearances
3 NBA Sportsmanship Awards
1 Olympic Gold Medal with the 1996 Dream Team
3 NBA Sportsmanship Awards
Just inside foul line dunk:
Grant Hill Top 11 Facial Dunks:
Think B4 You Speak Commercial