Grant Hill lay in a hospital bed at the Duke Medical Center in the spring of 2003, Kobe Bryant on his television and James Nunley in his ear. Nunley, the chief of orthopedic surgery at Duke, was reminding Hill of all the postretirement options that awaited a magnetic basketball star with a spotless reputation and a gift for public speaking who was educated in art and medicine, connected in media and real estate, at ease in front of politicians and the pope. "I thought he could be president," Nunley says. But Hill's attention kept drifting to the TV, on which Bryant was savaging one foil after another on the way to his third consecutive NBA championship.
Hill was coming off his fifth left-ankle surgery in four years and a staph infection that nearly killed him. He was staring at another long rehab, another lost season. He could not have kept up with Bryant in a sack race, much less a playoff series. His team, the Magic, was trying to buy out his contract. It should have been time for him to listen to Nunley and think about a second career, but the White House would have to wait. Hill still believed he could get to where Bryant was.
Today Hill does not tape the ankle and does not protect it with a brace, and on summer days he does not even cover it with a sock. He appreciates when people do not mention it, because he is no longer Grant Hill with the bad ankle but simply Grant Hill with the Phoenix Suns, and he has been for some time. But when he talks about those days in the hospital at Duke, the beginning of a comeback that is finally nearing its climax, he reflexively looks down and to the left, to the part of his body that once infuriated him and now delights him. He has a pleasant expression on his face, a bemused half-smile, as if he is gazing upon a child who has made him both nuts and proud. The ankle stole his youth, plundered his prime and probably wiped away his spot in the Hall of Fame. And yet, in a twist that only someone as optimistic as Hill could have foreseen, the ankle has also given him the second career he yearned for.
Defense is about determination, guile and, most of all, moving your feet. The ankles, like hinges, control how the feet move. When a defender is caught in the wake of a nasty crossover dribble, players say he had his ankles broken. If he has his ankles broken enough, the only thing he'll be trusted to guard is the Gatorade bucket. But here is Hill, on ankles that have literally been broken and rebroken, assigned to shut down one of the great ankle breakers of all time. Seven years after Hill watched Bryant from his hospital bed, he is shadowing him in the Western Conference finals.
Hill likes to say he is back in the Final Four, a nod to his days at Duke, when he was a regular there. To those over 25, Hill is the consummate winner, a two-time national champion, co--Rookie of the Year with the Pistons in 1995, twice the leading All-Star vote getter, once a third-place MVP finisher behind Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. But many of today's players, who were toddlers when Hill made the heave to Christian Laettner, do not remember all that. "I know he wore Filas, was the second coming of Jordan and couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs," says Suns guard Jared Dudley, who was six when Laettner's last-second turnaround beat Kentucky in 1992.
Last month Hill, who entered the season winless in six playoff series, was in danger of another premature exit, as Portland's Andre Miller piled up 31 points in Game 1 of the first round to upset the Suns at home. The next day Hill went to coach Alvin Gentry and asked to take Miller. He used to do the same thing in Detroit, begging for a turn on Jordan, but the Pistons needed his 25 points per game, so they refused. In Phoenix, Hill is only the fourth-leading scorer on the team, so Gentry obliged. Miller shot 35% for the rest of the series, including 2 for 10 in Game 6, when the Suns clinched. In the next series, against San Antonio, Hill held Manu Ginóbili to 41% shooting, and 2 of 11 in Game 4, as the Suns swept. A 37-year-old stopper was born. "He's our Michael Cooper," says Suns general manager Steve Kerr. While some former MVP candidates might bristle at being compared with a career 8.9-point scorer, Hill would be flattered by it.
At Duke he saw Laettner lead by verbal intimidation. Hill leads by quiet example, diving after every loose ball, forcing younger teammates to think, If that old guy can do it, I should too. Until recently the Suns' definition of defense was a quick inbounds pass after giving up a basket. But Hill has goaded them into moving their feet. He is so enamored of this team that he second-guesses himself for not having pursued a book deal last summer to write what he envisioned would be a contemporary version of Bill Bradley's Life on the Run about this season.
After the Suns returned victorious from San Antonio on the morning of May 10, Hill and his wife of 10 years, Tamia, drove home from Sky Harbor Airport. "Can you believe this?" he asked.
"You've come full circle," she said. "Think of what it took to get here."
Hill has been relatively healthy for four years, and the details of his rigorous physical rehabilitation are well chronicled. But there were also psychological obstacles because each time Hill retraced the origins of his ordeal, he became more frustrated.