During the preseason Grant Hill's application was received, duly processed and quickly acted upon. Hill got the job, and so far he seems to be doing it. His surprising Detroit Pistons, all but forgotten in the NBA over the last few seasons, finished last week with an 8-1 record, and Hill finished as the league's best all-around player not wearing a Chicago Bulls uniform. But the job for which the 24-year-old Hill applied calls for more than scoring, rebounding, passing, ticket selling and good-guying, tasks he performed with élan during his first two years in the league. Now, as he begins his third NBA season, Hill is The Man, a position that calls for broad shoulders, a tart tongue, thick skin and a set of somethings that Hill won't describe in mixed company.
Question: Can a guy for whom "screw it" is strong invective be The Man? "Look, I'm tired of all those 'good guy' tags," Hill says. "I'm tired of hearing that I'm the 'reluctant superstar.' " Can a guy who makes little quotation marks in the air be The Man?
The Man certainly has to be able to play, and the 6'8" Hill can do that: He was averaging 24.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.0 assists, all team highs, through Sunday. Still, the Pistons need even more from him. Detroit, which swaggered, elbows and tongues flying, to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90, was toothless by the time of Hill's arrival in the summer of '94, having gone a disastrous 20-62 the previous season. Most teams have to get bad before they can get good again. But not that bad. The Pistons were desperately looking for a leader, someone to take the wheel and drive them back to respectability, and it wasn't until this preseason that Hill proclaimed his desire to do just that.
True, guard Joe Dumars was still around from the championship years, giving Detroit what veteran forward Rick Mahorn calls The Man-Old School and The Man-New School. As Mahorn knows, however, there can only be one Man. The 33-year-old Dumars has a mien as soft as his shooting touch, and he has neither the bring-down-the-house game nor the desire to be The Man. "It was just never important to me," he says.
But now it's important to Hill for a variety of reasons. The nonstop prodding of coach Doug Collins, who came to the Pistons before the 1995-96 season, burns in Hill's brain. While his high-octane enthusiasm was a major factor in last season's 46-36 turnaround, Collins has gotten under a lot of people's skin in Detroit, especially Hill's. Also, Hill was embarrassed by his desultory play both in the final month of the 1995-96 regular season and in the Pistons' three-game flameout against the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. Finally, when Hill played with the Dream Team at last summer's Olympics he saw nothing to convince him that he couldn't be The Man and much to persuade him that he should. "If I began in awe of those guys, I didn't end up that way," says Hill. "After going against them in practice, I woke up one day and said, 'Hey, they're no better than I am.' I deserved to be in Atlanta. I deserved to have been selected an All-Star my first two years. I belong. It was an important lesson."
Indeed, the I'm-bigger-than-the-game attitude of some of the Dreamers and their lackluster effort during practices and games compelled Hill to reexamine his own place in the NBA. He concluded what anyone could have told him the day he was drafted: The league needs team-oriented, savvy and marketable players like Hill carrying the banner. Hill imparted his feelings on those subjects to Charlie Vincent of the Detroit Free Press last month. "At times I felt I was the most mature guy [in Atlanta], though I was one of the youngest," he told the Free Press. "Every last one of the guys on the Dream Team felt he was the best player in the world. I came away from that more grown-up, with less respect for them as players and as people."
Last week Hill modified his position, albeit slightly. "I regret saying what I did, because I made it public," said Hill, "but I'm not taking it back."
In fact, Hill had said even more to Vincent, singling out two Dream Teamers for harsh criticism. Collins and Matt Dobek, the Pistons' vice president of public relations, found out about this and urged Hill to talk to Vincent and ask him to back off the naming of names. Hill did, and reluctantly Vincent agreed. While Hill won't divulge whom he castigated, he says he was closest to Utah Jazz veterans Karl Malone and John Stockton, so you can at least eliminate them.
Saying the impolitic thing that can end up on a bulletin board is part of being The Man. The Man stirs up the opposition, just as he challenges his teammates with a few well-placed insults from time to time. (See Jordan, M.; Bird, L.) Hill hasn't felt the need to do the latter yet, but when he does, it's likely to be the part of his new job that he finds the most difficult. Growing up with two high-profile parents—his dad, Calvin, was an All-America football player at Yale and a four-time All-Pro running back with the Dallas Cowboys; his mom, Janet, is a lawyer who co-owns a consulting firm—Grant has struggled throughout his life to be one of the guys. "One of the first things I remember is being conscious of trying to fit in," he says. "A lot of attention came to me naturally, because people knew my father and my mother were successes, and I was good at sports and had financial advantages. If my parents came to pick me up in a Porsche, I wanted it to be a Volkswagen bus."
On one occasion Calvin addressed the student body at Langston Hughes Junior High in Reston, Va., where Grant was an eighth-grader. When Calvin finished his speech, the principal summoned Grant to the stage for photos, but the boy couldn't be found. Mortified by the attention, he had sought refuge in the nurse's office.