The first operation was performed in April 2000, when Hill was still playing for the Pistons, by an independent surgeon named John Bergfeld at the Cleveland Clinic. When Hill was traded to the Magic in the first week of August, Bergfeld forwarded the instructions for Hill's rehab to Orlando, where his friend James Barnett was the team's head physician. "You'll be in good hands," Bergfeld said.
Then, in September, Barnett and his wife Missy flew their twin-engine plane to Mississippi. The plan was to visit relatives in Brookhaven and then continue to an Ole Miss football game. The plane went down in a grassy field near the landing strip in Brookhaven and both passengers were killed. Hill arrived in Orlando with a $93 million contract, a mandate to deliver a title, and a medical staff in mourning and in flux. "The lines of communication got crossed," Hill says.
Starting in training camp, the Magic wanted to see what Hill could do. Hill wanted to show them. "There was a shared excitement for him to play," says then Magic general manager John Gabriel, now the Knicks director of scouting. But Hill knew his ankle was still ailing. "I was limping. I was in pain," he says. "It got to the point where people were telling me to play through it. I was shocked at how casual they were. I started questioning myself like, 'Maybe this isn't a big deal, maybe it's just scar tissue.'"
Gabriel disputes the notion that Hill was encouraged to play through pain—"I don't think anybody one way or another could take the blame," he says—and a person familiar with the situation said Gabriel told trainers and coaches that Hill's long-term health was to be the priority.
So Hill played in training camp and the preseason—until he found out from Bergfeld that he hadn't wanted Hill to play until late November or early December. Soon after, a CT scan revealed a nonunion in the ankle, which meant that two parts of the bone had healed but not healed together. It took three years to fix. "We thought it was a stress-reaction fracture, and he would heal like anybody else and come back," Gabriel says.
The Magic was not alone in its bewilderment. Three years in a row the NBA, presuming Hill was on the verge of a return, denied Orlando an injury exception, which would have allowed the Magic to sign a replacement for Hill. Gabriel called and visited dozens of foot and ankle specialists. "Everyone had a different opinion," he says.
Hill says he deferred to the Magic's choice of surgeon so that "the lines of communication [between doctor and team] would be better than the first time." The team picked Mark Myerson, the president of the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society, to perform Hill's second and third operations, in Baltimore. "After the third one, Dr. Myerson told me that nothing else could be done," Hill says. "So I went back to Duke."
Nunley alleviated pressure on the ankle by removing a wedge of bone from the heel. He ordered Hill to sit out the following season and gave him a piece of news that infused him with hope. Despite everything the ankle had endured, the joints and ligaments were still strong. The only problem was the bone. Once that heals, Hill told himself, I'll have fewer miles on my body than other guys my age. I'm going to be able to make this up on the back end.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the injuries kept Hill young. If he had not been quarantined for so long, he might not be able to guard the game's best player now. Gentry's daughter has the perfect nickname for him: Benjamin Button.
For those who like their playoff series served up as morality plays, Bryant and Hill form an intriguing matchup: one of the most polarizing figures in sports against one of the most beloved. Kerr still wishes Hill had married his daughter. Gentry compares him to President Obama. This season, after Hill won the NBA Sportsmanship Award for a record third time, Nunley called him and said, "There's no one in the world like you."