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Bounce to his step

Series of setbacks fail to diminish Hill's spirit, game

Posted: Friday December 1, 2006 12:23AM; Updated: Friday December 1, 2006 3:21PM
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Grant Hill's seven-year, $98 million contract with the Magic expires at season's end.
Grant Hill's seven-year, $98 million contract with the Magic expires at season's end.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
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"Why do you play ball?" a rival high school player from New York asked Grant Hill at the Five-Star camp in Pennsylvania almost two decades ago.

"What do you mean?" Hill recalls answering.

"Your parents live in a mansion," the player said. "We're playing ball so we can eat. We're playing ball to get out of the 'hood."

He was like a prince born and raised to athletic royalty. The only child of loving parents, the son of noble running back Calvin Hill. Basketball always seemed to come easy to Grant Hill. That was the complaint.

"It was always: 'You come from this perceived wealth, you don't have that drive,'" says Hill. "I had to fight even harder just to prove that I had it."

Finally Hill is understanding why he drove himself past the breaking point in 2000 that led to a half-dozen surgeries, and why he continues to drive himself today. His best years are gone, the $93 million contract that he signed with the Orlando Magic is to expire this spring, and at 34 he's at least 10 years older than his young teammates who represent the future of the Orlando Magic. Yet Hill stubbornly persists. He is putting up 15.6 points, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals, and only Dwight Howard is playing more minutes than the 31.6 that Hill has managed in 14 games for the best team in the East.

"Most people would have quit," Magic GM Otis Smith says.

"It's really inspirational to see the resolve that this guy has after so many years of setbacks," Magic coach Brian Hill says."How he comes into work every day, how he approaches practices, how he approaches games -- and he does feel like he wants to go out and prove that he's still a quality player in this league."

The same need to prove himself inspired Hill while growing up in Reston, Va. "To me it was always foolish to think that you don't have a drive or a love or a passion for the game because you came from an upper middle-class environment," he says. "It's funny, but my game -- attacking the basket, going to the rim -- was more of a street game. I grew up in the suburbs but I was always like, I'm going to cross you up, I'm going to get respect and come down the lane and dunk on you so we can dispel that whole thing. My game was crossing somebody over, getting to the basket -- very much a city game, but I didn't grow up in the city."

The need to prove himself deepened after he left Duke in 1994 as the No. 3 pick of the bluecollar Detroit Pistons. The city was still in love with the championship "Bad Boys" of the Isiah Thomas era when Hill arrived as the unexpected Nice Guy from the right side of the tracks.

"Isiah was always a great player, a great leader, he was from Chicago and considered this tough kid, and I felt the perception that I didn't fit with the image of the city. So it was always comparing me to Isiah, and Isiah would have played through this or that, Isiah sprained his ankle and went out and scored (25) against the Lakers in Game 6," says Hill, referring to Thomas' outrageous third quarter in the 1988 NBA Finals.

So when Hill felt something go wrong in his ankle in the 2000 playoffs, he kept trying to play. He was about to become a free agent and leave Detroit to sign with Orlando. It turned out that an interior bone of the left ankle was broken.

"Despite what's been reported before, I was told by the doctor that I was OK, that I could go," Hill says. "It wasn't a situation where he said, 'Sit down,' and I said, 'No, I'm going to play.'

"Saying that, I think you're probably right. Maybe there's something to that, this constantly feeling, like, you've got to prove it. Maybe that's part of what's pushed me and motivated me the last six years, it was just to constantly prove that I can overcome or that I can play with pain.

"I know Isiah didn't play on a broken ankle."

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