Hill, who through Sunday was averaging 19.6 points, 4.9 assists and 6.2 rebounds per game, may or may not win the Rookie of the Year award. The race appears to be the closest in years (chart, page 45). But Hill, who will get this writer's vote for the honor, has been the rookie of the year in a larger sense. The 22-year-old former All-America from Duke has left his mark on this season, both by his spectacular play and by serving as a counterpoint to the spoiled behavior of some of the league's other young players. At the same time he has gracefully borne the burden of being perceived as Mr. Virtue.
"If I've handled it well, Joe is a big part of the reason why," Hill says. "One of the things he tells me from time to time is that it's O.K. to be seen as the good guy. The image isn't something I created, and it's not something I feel I have to live up to. I know that, but sometimes I need to be reminded of it."
Dumars set the tone last June even before the draft, in which the Pistons would select Hill with the third overall pick. McKinney and Piston coach Don Chaney had invited Hill; his father, Calvin; and his attorney, Lon Babby, to a get-acquainted dinner. "Joe didn't need to be there," Hill says. "That wasn't part of his job description, to wine and dine the draft choice." But there was Dumars, becoming fast friends with Calvin, the former All-Ivy running back at Yale and All-Pro running back with the Dallas Cowboys. Dumars listened intently to Calvin's old football stories. "That may not sound like much," says the younger Hill, "but my dad can take 20 minutes to tell a five-minute story. I knew that by being there Joe was saying he wanted me in Detroit, and at that moment I knew I wanted to be in Detroit." (Indeed, after a relatively smooth negotiation, he signed an eight-year, $45 million contract.)
Dumars wanted Hill as a teammate because Hill is the kind of dignified player some fear will become extinct when Dumars and his contemporaries leave the game. "Some of the younger guys in this league, I have a hard time relating to," Dumars says. "That's not to say that their style is wrong. It's just foreign to me. I can't see myself in black sneakers with no socks and shorts hanging halfway down my butt. And I don't think Grant sees himself that way either."
In Hill, Dumars sees a player he can help the same way ex-Piston forward Adrian Dantley helped him when Dumars came into the league in 1985 as a No. 1 draft pick out of McNeese State. "I was this quiet guy from Louisiana, and AD showed me the ropes and reassured me, told me that I didn't have to change my personality to get along in the NBA," Dumars recalls. "That's what I try to tell Grant."
Sometimes when he is talking about the nurturing of Hill, Dumars sounds like a coach, but that is probably as close as he will ever get to becoming one. "I have no desire to scream at referees or to try to get guys to slide on defense," he says. Instead Dumars, a perennial Ail-Star who through Sunday was averaging a solid 18.1 points a game, is building his business interests for his retirement, which will probably come after his contract expires following the 1996-97 season. In February he opened Joe Dumars Fieldhouse, a $2.4 million, 70,000-square-foot facility outside Detroit in Shelby Township that includes basketball and volleyball courts, an inline hockey rink, a restaurant and sports bar, and weightlifting and cardiovascular-workout equipment. The Fieldhouse, which has already become one of the popular Piston hangouts, is Dumars's future, but first he wants to lay the foundation for the Pistons' future, with Hill as the cornerstone.
From the start he took responsibility for Hill's transition to the NBA, requesting that Hill's locker be placed next to his. "Grant has a lot of people in his life to give him words of support, but sometimes it helps when the support is coming from the guy at the next locker," says Dumars. Says Hill, "If there's something he really thinks I ought to hear, he'll tell me, but a lot of the time he waits for me to turn to him."
Hill has turned to him often, sometimes in tense moments. Last month the Pistons were trailing the Boston Celtics by one point with six seconds left in the game, and during a timeout Chaney set up a play for Hill to take the last shot. As he took the court, Hill turned to Dumars with a look that said, "Any advice?" Dumars knew that when Hill goes one-on-one, he likes to hold the ball for a second or two, sizing up his defender before he makes his move. He also knew from experience what the Celtics were likely to do in this situation. "They're going to send a guy to double-team you as soon as you touch the ball," he told Hill. "Make your move right away. Don't wait."
Hill took the advice and made his move to the basket before the second defender arrived for the double team. He missed the shot, but Dumars nodded his head in satisfaction anyway. "He'll make the shot a lot more times than he misses it," he said. "And no one will ever have to tell him again how to play it in that situation."
Other situations are not so easily handled. Hill, of course, has been cast as a cross between Michael Jordan and Mother Teresa. GQ featured him on the cover, accompanied by the words CAN GRANT HILL SAVE SPORTS? Inside, the headline answered the question, describing him simply as THE SAVIOR. The benefit of this avalanche of positive press is that Hill has become one of sports' most popular pitchmen, selling everything from trucks (GMC) to sneakers (Fila) to soft drinks (Sprite); his endorsement contracts are worth an estimated $5 million a year. The downside is that Hill feels pressured to live up to an impossibly perfect image.