More Than Just Basketball

Grant Hill hung around the NBA for nearly two decades even though injuries prevented him from reaching his true long-term potential. (Getty Images)

Grant Hill hung around the NBA for nearly two decades even though injuries prevented him from reaching his true long-term potential. (Getty Images)

Grant Hill might be remembered for what he could’ve been, instead of what he was, and there’s a bit of shame in that.

When I think of Hill’s 17-year career, which ended over the weekend when he announced his retirement, I immediately compare it to the career of Gale Sayers. Most football fans 30 and under vaguely know Sayers from “Brian’s Song,” one of the top five sports movies of all time, a tearful tale of two running backs, one white and one black, and their friendship until the end. Brian Piccolo was the main character of that film but when it came to football, few compared to the all-around brilliance of Sayers.

I was only a baby when he was in his prime, but later watched all the black and white footage of him (this was before ESPN, and yes, sports did exist back then) and was stunned by his change of speed and direction. He scored six touchdowns in one game on a muddy field, which certainly ranks as an all-time great performance, given the circumstances.

But Sayers played roughly only five impact seasons because of knee injuries and was never really the same. He also played for crummy Bears teams, never coming close to winning a title, and finally retired rather than go through life with a limp. About six years ago I met Sayers, told him that I wished he’d had a full career, and he laughed and said: “Not more than I do.” A good guy and better businessman, he nonetheless is living a full life and has few regrets.

As the son of a former football star, Hill can relate to Sayers’ career in more ways than one. Hill was a terrific player at Duke, among the best of his generation, and then hit the ground running in the NBA. He was tagged with the “next Michael Jordan” label, and while he didn’t exactly encourage or embrace that notion, he accepted it. As a person, Hill was unspoiled, genuine, smart, about as approachable a star as you’ll ever meet. He happily made charitable appearances, spoke eloquently about topics other than sports and drove himself to be an all-around player, much like Sayers was an all-around ball carrier.

In his first six seasons, all with the Pistons, Hill did everything well: defend, score, rebound, pass, represent the team and the league. Only Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Larry Bird had more points, rebounds and assists in their first six seasons. One year he averaged 25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists. He was a gift from the basketball gods, and yet the Pistons weren’t very good and Hill’s luck would soon turn sour. An ankle injury in his final season in Detroit would follow him the rest of his career. He signed for big money in Orlando but never really played for the Magic after six years and multiple surgeries, and he was just holding on with the Suns and Clippers, surfacing only now and then with a throwback performance. Had he stayed healthy, there’s no doubt Hill would’ve been among the best small forwards ever. Maybe not as good as Jordan or LeBron, but not too far away.

At least his legacy wasn’t tied to just basketball. Hill was and is beyond mere sports. Basketball is what he did; it wasn’t what he was all about. Well rounded and raised properly by his parents, Hill was always singled out among athletes for this; it embarrassed him but also gave him a level of acceptance in society that few enjoyed or earned. Hill was the guy you’d want your daughter to marry, and there’s no greater compliment than that.

Some team would be smart to snap him up and make him a general manager in training. Maybe the Wizards; Hill is from the D.C. area and the Wizards need help, both now and in the future. My gut feeling says Hill will reach for something that’s beyond sports. And he should. He’s not that limited. Only his playing career was.

24 thoughts on “More Than Just Basketball

  1. Nice testimonial to Grant…He is a class act. His legacy will always be marred by the one ankle that went bad…AND, he was forced to carry a hapless team on the bad ankle.

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  22. I’ll always remember Hill turning down the opportunity to attend Georgetown because the athletic department famously made the erudite Hill take a reading test.

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