There is an obvious symmetry in Grant Hill's and Jason Kidd's leaving the NBA together, with Hill announcing his retirement last Saturday and Kidd following two days later. The two 40-year-olds shared the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 1995, and if there is any justice, they will also share the podium at their Hall of Fame induction. But Hill and Kidd are linked by more than timing. They were both stars who didn't seem to think of themselves as stars.
Maybe that stands out more to me because I met both of them in modest circumstances. For my first interview with Hill, when he was a rookie with the Pistons, I asked him to choose a restaurant for lunch. He picked TGI Fridays, where he good-naturedly autographed napkins for the patrons, at least one of whom went away whispering to her friend, "He's so nice."
A few years earlier I had sat with Kidd at St. Joseph Notre Dame High in Alameda, Calif., our feet dangling off the stage in the gym. You never would have known that he was regarded as the best high school player in the country, already drawing comparisons with Oscar Robertson. He was just a teenager in braces, politely but nervously talking to an adult.
They both matured into brilliant players. At his peak, when he was All-NBA from 1995 to 2000 and won a 1996 Olympic gold medal, the 6' 8" Hill was one of the best players in the world—though it was always clear he could have been successful at any number of careers. "I'm just glad the kid decided to play basketball," Detroit guard Joe Dumars once told me during Hill's rookie year, "instead of becoming a senator or something." Hill loved hoops but wasn't defined by them, which is perhaps why it doesn't seem quite so tragic that ankle injuries kept him from the heights he otherwise might have reached.
Kidd couldn't match Hill's sterling reputation—he had a 2001 domestic-abuse conviction and was charged with DWI last year (the case is still pending)—but he enjoyed similar respect as a player. He was the most selfless of point guards, a creative playmaker who could dominate a game while taking only a handful of shots. In Dallas, Phoenix and New Jersey he orchestrated offenses and elevated teammates, then reinvented himself as a three-point shooter during his final years.
Despite all their achievements Hill and Kidd depart with just one NBA title between them: Kidd's with the Mavericks in 2011. Maybe he'll let Hill slip on his ring someday. It would be one last thing for them to share.