When Grant Hill was a kid tagging along with his father to Redskin Park, he liked to pretend he was injured, just like Calvin Hill, a warrior of a running back who was limping toward the end of his stellar NFL career. Grant would imagine himself swaddled in tape, or he would strap on a knee brace and limp around the sideline. "I liked the accessories of being hurt," he recalls. "My father would say, 'Son, believe me, you don't want to be wearing that stuff,' but I thought it was cool." Smiling ruefully, he adds, "I was wrong."
From May 2000 to May '02, few injured athletes were more fully accessorized than Hill, who spent almost every day in either a cast or a protective boot, complemented by a lovely pair of crutches. These days he is blessedly free of medical appurtenances, and he flashes a playful smile when he mentions that his Orlando Magic teammate Tracy McGrady, the NBA's leading scorer, wears a sleeve on his left leg "for cosmetic reasons." Hill's left ankle contains three 1�-inch screws, the legacy of three surgeries and two years of pure agony. He plunges that cursed ankle into a bucket of ice not only after games and practices but also at idle moments. "Ice is my best buddy," he says.
Because of pain and swelling in his bad ankle the 30-year-old Hill sat out the second half of a Nov. 2 game at Milwaukee and never got off the bench on Sunday in a 101-99 loss at Sacramento, which dropped Orlando to 6-5. The Magic had taken a 135-92 beating the night before at Golden State, and Hill's ankle ached right after the game. As part of his agreement with the Magic brass ("Mostly to protect myself from myself," Hill says), he informed coach Doc Rivers right away. The pain persisted on Sunday, and when it was still there during warmups, Hill took a seat. He described it as a "minor disappointment rather than a major setback" and admitted it's likely to happen again this season. His teammates insist they don't dwell on the state of Hill's health, but Rivers is more, well, honest. "I worry about Grant when he gets out of his car in the morning," he says. "The amazing thing is that he wanted to get back on the basketball court—even if he didn't come back as Grant Hill."
Indeed, ever since the Magic invested $186 million in August 2000 to acquire both Hill and McGrady (the former from the Detroit Pistons, the latter from the Toronto Raptors) in sign-and-trade deals, McGrady has gone nowhere but up, and Hill has gone nowhere but down—and needed help getting up. "The first concern when you play [the Magic] is McGrady," Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Rex Kalamian said last Thursday, a few hours before McGrady scored 35 points (Hill had 17) in a 101-80 Orlando victory at the Staples Center. "I think any team would tell you that." Had Hill not been limited to 18 games over the last two seasons, would he now be cast as Salieri—minus the jealousy—to the 23-year-old McGrady's Mozart? "Greatness can't be denied," says Hill, "so I say Tracy would've gotten that good no matter what."
He did get that good, and no one around the NBA believes that Hill can again reach McGrady's level—except Hill. Though he smiles about his 1-A status ("Man, for two years I didn't think I'd even be 1-D, " he says), he hasn't accepted it. "My goal is to come back better than before, and I'm not sure people are hearing that," says Hill. "I put myself right now at 65 to 70 percent, so I have a long way to go. But I think I can be as good as anybody in this league." And he leaves no doubt that he is including his gifted teammate with the apparel line, the T-MAC 2 signature sneaker, the hip commercials and the lifetime $100 million Adidas contract.
There's no doubt that except for the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Orlando's duo is the most dynamic in the NBA The closest competitors behind Hill and McGrady are the Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, who are also versatile perimeter players. But the Magic combo is superior to Boston's because McGrady is second only to Bryant (maybe) among noncenters and because Hill, before his ankle woes, was better than either of the Celtics' worthies. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley has proclaimed Hill-McGrady the best perimeter pair ever, better even than his old Lakers tandem of Magic Johnson and James Worthy. The potential of Hill-McGrady is so great that the closest analogy in size, style and athleticism seems to be Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Rivers's greatest fear when Hill and McGrady arrived was that they were too similar and would get in each other's way, but the coach has discovered that they are vastly different in demeanor as well as playing style. Hill, the nine-year veteran, still has the saucer-eyed countenance of the eager kid; even in conversation he looks as if he's ready to hop off his seat and pound his palms on the floor, the way he used to do back at Duke during key defensive possessions. The sleepy-eyed McGrady has the uninterested look of Derrick McKey, though with McGrady it's only a look. Both he and Hill are heady players, and Rivers's long-range plan is to install a skyscraper backcourt of Hill at point and McGrady and sharp-shooting Mike Miller as swingmen. (All three are listed at 6'8", though McGrady is 6'9".)
In some ways McGrady, who leaped to the NBA from high school, does what Hill might be expected to do, and vice versa, despite Hill's four years of spit shining in Durham. T-Mac, while spectacularly athletic, is by inclination conservative, tending to eschew the fast-break basket in favor of the half-court jumper. "Tracy wants to stop, look around and figure it all out," says Orlando point guard Darrell Armstrong. "I guess if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but I'd like to see him go hard all the time." Hill, while not a particularly accurate outside shooter, is the go-to guy in transition, the one who supercharges the offense even after opponents' made baskets. "Grant has this way of dribbling right at a defender," says McGrady. "He will not stop, and there is no way the guy can figure out what to do. If he starts backpedaling, it's over. It's probably over anyway."
Hill doesn't like to come off screens to shoot and isn't comfortable posting up—two aspects of the game at which McGrady excels. At week's end Hill had attempted (and made) only one three-pointer, while McGrady was 22 of 57 from beyond the arc. Rivers contrasts them in football terms. "Tracy is a wide receiver who will make all the catches, over the middle, short, deep," the coach says. "Grant, maybe because of his father, is a running back. He just wants to hit the hole." Hill is a good positional defender but likes to skulk around and make steals in the passing lanes. McGrady has become a fundamentally sound, stay-in-front-of-your-man stopper, entrusted by Rivers to clamp down on the opposition's top scorer.
Regardless of who does what, Hill and McGrady have figured out how to do it together, igniting an explosive offense (a league-high 104.4 points per game through Sunday) that has helped compensate for a host of defensive and personnel deficiencies. Through 11 games McGrady (32.5 points per game) was outscoring Hill (18.8 on 61.5% shooting), while Hill had outrebounded McGrady (6.2 to 5.9). Each had dished nearly five assists per game.