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Soaring to Old Heights
December 06, 2004
After five ankle operations and four lost seasons, forward Grant Hill has returned to the Magic, exhibiting a familiar all-around brilliance
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December 06, 2004

Soaring To Old Heights

After five ankle operations and four lost seasons, forward Grant Hill has returned to the Magic, exhibiting a familiar all-around brilliance

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When bone spurs inflamed the joint, Hill had surgery number 3 in December 2001. A year later he played 29 solid games before soreness forced him to shut it down again. Doctors discovered a new crack, and in March 2003 Hill went to Dr. James Nunley at Duke for surgery number 4. Nunley took out all the screws, broke Hill's heel and removed a wedge of bone to relieve pressure on the ankle. He solidified the joint with a new plate and five four-inch screws.

A week later, recuperating at home in Orlando, Hill became cold while watching TV. "He'd been having some night sweats, so we figured his body was just working out the toxins," says Tamia. She brought blankets, but his teeth kept chattering. Tamia took his temperature: 104�. She tried another thermometer: 104.5�. "That's when I started to worry," she says.

By the time Tamia got Grant to the hospital, he was incoherent. Doctors met him with a stretcher and had to restrain him in the ER. "I was losing it, just bawling," says Tamia. "At that point it wasn't about basketball anymore. It was about keeping him around. It put everything into perspective."

Like a piece of Scotch tape pulled off and reapplied one too many times, Hill's skin was no longer holding together. The incision on his ankle hadn't healed, and he had developed a staph infection. Hill underwent a seven-hour surgery in which doctors grafted skin and muscle from his left triceps to patch up his ankle. (Look at the arm today, and you'll see a long, slightly raised scar, as if someone had dug a divot down to his elbow, then tried to pack the dirt back in.) For two months he took thrice-daily intravenous doses of vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic. "After going through that, it was, like, I have to come back now," says Hill. "Part of me was, like, Is it worth it? But then I decided I'd been through too much not to give it one last try. It made me realize I had to get this thing right. I had to get healthy."

This time Hill didn't rush it. He headed back to the pool, where he and Magic forward Pat Garrity, who was rehabbing from a right-knee injury, swam laps and did range-of-motion exercises. For motivation Hill read the stories of others, from Abe Lincoln and Lance Armstrong. ("I know [ Armstrong's] story so well, I feel like I know him," says Hill.) Although cleared to play last spring, he waited. Then, this summer, he sent a message to new Magic G.M. John Weisbrod: Come to Duke. "It was two-on-two, three-on-three against guys like Corey Maggette, Shane Battier, Elton Brand," Weisbrod says of the workouts in Durham. "Grant hadn't played basketball in four years, and he was dominant." Even though Weisbrod says he was "giddy behind closed doors," he didn't let on in public, keeping in mind the fans, who felt as if they were stuck in a cycle of raised hopes and inevitable disappointment. Call it GrantHog Day.

It's hard to blame them. Management had promised a new era of stardom and success-- Shaq and Penny II--but by last season's end Orlando was the NBA's worst team (21--61); coach Doc Rivers had been run out of town; columnists were referring to McGrady as Me-Mac; and the team was playing to half-full arenas. There was talk of Hill's being left unprotected in the expansion draft (Weisbrod says it was never seriously discussed) and of the team's buying out his contract. To many kids around town Hill was so unknown that they would peer up at him and ask, "Do you play basketball?"

Now he's back, and the question inevitably is, for how long? The best sign for Orlando is that Hill, who two years ago called ice "my best buddy," no longer straps on the bags, even after games. "I figure I've done enough icing in the last four years to last a lifetime," he says. While Hill claims he doesn't think about his injury during games, Weisbrod admits that "my cellphone rings whenever he makes a grimace on TV."

The ankle itself is a sight to behold, permanently swollen and discolored, like a piece of fruit gone bad. Curving, serrated scars rise from below Hill's hightops, reaching up his shin. "I used to wear high socks and cover up the scars," says Hill. "Now I'm, like, it's who I am, it's what I've been through. If people want to stare at it and it looks ugly, I couldn't care less."

there are those who believe that Hill's injuries had a silver lining. "He matured as a person," Tamia says. "It was the first time in his career that something was taken from him." Weisbrod agrees: "In a lot of weird ways all that adversity has made him a better player, certainly a better leader."

Hill, a slasher in his Detroit days, has modified his game, partly out of necessity and partly by design. Whereas he used to attack the basket, now he pulls up short for a soft jumper or a leaner, often coming off curls in the Magic's 1--4 motionlike offense. The midrange jump shot, never his forte, is now his primary weapon; at times he looks Rip Hamiltonesque. "He can create space against anyone," says Garrity. "He gets guys on their heels and then pops up."

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