Last week on a three-on-two fast-break drill during an Orlando Magic practice, Grant Hill filled the lane and finished with a dunk. This shouldn't have been especially notable; after all, Hill is 6'8", and he's been jamming half his life. Still, the flush touched off quite the impromptu celebration. His teammates applauded, his coaches whooped, and Hill took off on a victory lap around the court, grinning all the way. Streamers and confetti did not fall from the rafters, but they might as well have. "It wasn't a great dunk," Hill said afterward, "but"--he paused for effect--"it was a dunk." � To understand why a very tall man dunking a basketball would be remarkable, one must first appreciate what Hill has been through: the five left-ankle surgeries in four years; the thousands of hours doing water aerobics alongside senior citizens; the electro-stimulator machine he wore to bed every night, promising his wife, Tamia, that he would let it vibrate for only half an hour; the clamor in Orlando that he abandon his comeback so that the Magic, like heartbroken lovers, could move on and find someone new; and most of all, the chilling day a year and a half ago when he was taken into the hospital on a stretcher, delirious, Tamia fearing for his life, after he developed a dangerously high fever in reaction to the latest surgery. After all that, it's clear why the 32-year-old Hill's rising above the rim and throwing down for the initial time this season (he got his first dunk in a game only last Saturday, against the Philadelphia 76ers) was an inspiring sight, another step in a comeback that Orlando coach Johnny Davis calls "a minor miracle."
Yes, injuries may have rendered Hill relatively hopless, but reserve your sympathy for those who have to guard him: In remarkably short order the rest of his game has returned to All-Star form. Through Monday, Hill was averaging 20.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists and had led the surprising Magic to an 8--5 start. Relying on midrange jumpers and a first step as quick as ever, he'd already regained his stature as one of the toughest small forwards to cover. "He looks the same to me, though his jump shot's probably a little better," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks.
"He's playing like he took a month off, not four years," says a scout who saw Hill play recently. Adds Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, whose team Hill torched for 28 points on Nov. 20, "It is a great story."
In fact there is something of a Grant Hill love-in raging across the league, his tale of perseverance serving as a welcome counterpoint to the Nov. 19 melee in Detroit between Pistons fans and certain Pacers. Hill is Everything That Is Right with the NBA. So he receives a line of well-wishers before games, a steady stream of shoulder bumps (an NBA player's equivalent to sending flowers) from opponents and cheers from enemy crowds. "Even in Philly," Hill says incredulously. For those players who were kids when Hill was starring with the Pistons, his return is particularly exciting--like finding out that, four years after it went off the air, Seinfeld is coming back.
"I remember watching him at Duke, and I saw his first points with Detroit," said 23-year-old forward Darius Miles in the Portland locker room after an 89--83 win at Orlando on Nov. 24. "And you know what? He's still faster than a mother------!"
" Grant Hill," chimed in 23-year-old forward Zach Randolph, "is the Truth!"
"The Truth!" seconded Miles, fairly throwing up his hands in hallelujah.
"It's amazing," weighed in forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a relatively grizzled veteran, at 28, from across the room. "Think of what he did before he even got to Orlando--that's a great career for a lot of guys. A lot of people would have packed it in."
That brings up a very good question: Why didn't Hill pack it in? He has millions in the bank; a beautiful wife who's a four-time Grammy nominee; a two-year-old daughter, Myla; and the beginnings of several postbasketball careers, including real estate developer and art collector. "That is the question, isn't it?" says former Magic general manager John Gabriel, now a Portland scout, shaking his head. "And I don't know the answer, other than to say it's the same thing that makes him such a good person."
the first injury was a broken left ankle in the opening round of the 2000 playoffs. During the regular season Hill had averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the Pistons and drawn comparisons with Michael Jordan (ill-fitting) and Magic Johnson (more like it). Doctors inserted a three-hole plate and five screws to support the bone. That summer Detroit moved Hill in a sign-and-trade; Orlando took on his cap-munching seven-year, $93 million contract. The Magic was replacing its squad of scrappers with a two-star system: Hill and Tracy McGrady. Four games into his Orlando career, Hill began to suffer extreme pain. So he had his second operation, in which a piece of bone from his hip was grafted to his ankle.