Posted: Friday December 1, 2006 12:23AM; Updated: Friday December 1, 2006 3:21PM
Grant Hill might not have the explosiveness he had when he entered the NBA as the third overall pick in '94, but he still has mad game.
Though his free-agent contract with the Magic was fully guaranteed for seven years, Hill continued trying to come back from each surgery as well as the related 2003 staph infection that might have killed him. When a sports hernia cost him 61 games last season, he refused a seventh operation in favor of rehabbing the injury. Before each game he can now be seen working up a sweat in the trainer's room performing 20 minutes worth of exercises to warm his core muscles.
Yet he plays nothing like a 34-year-old who is broken down physically or spiritually. He still bursts into space and probes defensive weaknesses as intelligently as any wing in the league. Instead of bitterness or fear there is a bounce to his step, his eyes are wide, and he makes the clever passes and delicate little jump shots that turn spectators into fans.
"It doesn't hurt. The ankle itself has been great," Hill says. "There are some things I notice that are different, because of the tilt they [surgeons] put in my foot and the orthotics I wear that are tilting me even further. There are certain moves that are not where I'd like it to be, so I'm maybe not as efficient or as comfortable as I was in the past -- but I'm able to still go out and do it, and that's a good thing."
When he comes home from practice or a game, he realizes the larger purpose his career is serving. His wife, Tamia Hill, a four-time Grammy-nominated recording artist, revealed in 2005 that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"I think we've helped each other," Hill says. "I had a scary moment there with my ankle, but if it doesn't work out, if the ankle breaks down or the stomach breaks down [from the hernia], I retire. And as hard as that might be there's still a lot of other things I'd like to do, a lot of life to live. With what my wife has, it's a little bit different, it's not as easy as that.
"She has shared with me that just watching me go through what I've been through, my optimism, my attitude -- OK, I have this, how do I deal with it, I'm going to fight it, I'm going to overcome it ... I'm a glass is half-full; maybe she's more of a glass is half-empty. We've sort of tried to balance each other out. I refuse to let her feel sorry for herself.
"Who knows what our relationship would be like if the injury and illness had never occurred. It's forced us to lean on each other, more so than you'd ever thought we could."
Hill is in no hurry to retire. This might be the most enjoyable group of teammates he's ever known in the NBA, and he likes his role of leading them without having to carry them statistically. His body is ironically fresh thanks to the 357 games he missed over the previous half-dozen years. "I have a 45-year-old ankle but I have 30-year-old legs," he says. "I feel like I've given my body a break for five or six years, so I'm sort of itching to play.
"One thing I've had to realize is that now that I'm back playing, I can't judge myself on what I was in the past. There's still that urge to do things that I did in Detroit, but I had to realize that I'm different now and that's not a bad thing -- not good or bad, just different. My mindset for so long was to go out and try to do everything. What I've been through injury-wise and with my age, it's probably a good thing that I don't have that mindset, that I don't have to come in and save the day."
Instead of complaining about the Hall-of-Fame future that was taken from him, and instead of worrying about the next thing that might go wrong, he is simply enjoying every night in the gym. If he had never been injured, if he had fulfilled his potential as a player alongside Tracy McGrady in Orlando, would that have made him a better person than he is today? That's the question he asks when he begins to feel sorry for himself.
"I didn't necessarily like the way I was portrayed early in my career, like I was a little bit holier than thou," he admits. "First of all, I exploited that, so I can't totally complain. But there were a few articles written that put me in a light or painted me in a picture that I was better than everybody. It made me uncomfortable.
"This," he says of his plague of injuries, "is something that has been a test. With my teammates and the public, I think it makes me look a little bit more human. I just think that going through this and being tested in a very public way, people can identify with that more. There's been a lot of good, I think: Understanding what's important, understanding in life that you always try to feel like you're more of a complete individual, and that there's more to life than putting a ball through a basket -- these last six years have really forced me to realize that. At the end of the day you want to make the most of your career, and you'd like the Hall of Fame and numbers and championships and all the things that everyone dreams of. But there are lessons and values from the game that you can learn, that can help you grow, help you be a better person. I've definitely learned that these last six years.
"This may sound crazy, but if I look at when I was healthy and at the top of my game and in my prime years at Detroit, and where I am now as a human being as a result of all the injuries and the adversity? I'd take who I am now. I like who I am as a result of going through that."