Posted May 7 2010 10:20AM
SAN ANTONIO -- There's a wistful smile on Grant Hill's face when he thinks back to those early times in the NBA, when playing basketball meant being able to run like a gazelle and leap like a kangaroo and never give any of it a second thought.
He would arrive at practice each day and see the veteran with the silver flecks in his hair go through all of the preparations that were necessary to get out onto the court, then shake his head in wonder.
"I used to laugh at Joe Dumars and say, 'What are you doing out here on the court, old man?' " Hill said. "I thought guys that played when they were 37 were crazy. I thought I'd be retired by the time I was 33."
Now enter the crazy world of Hill, a 37-year-old conference semifinal virgin, who finally landed on the winning side in a playoff series for the first time in his 16-year career after the Suns beat Portland in the first round. His dotage now is anything but sitting in the warm sun with an Afghan covering his legs.
It's being the lock-down defender who closed the easy path to the basket after the Blazers' Andre Miller lit up his team for 31 points Game 1 of the first round/ And now he's the geezer who's relentlessly chasing San Antonio's one-man twister, Manu Ginobili, into every nook and cranny of the court.
"He's extremely important to our team," said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry. "He leads by example more than anything. He's the first one at practice. He does everything that you ask of him and more. I doubt if there's anybody else at his age in the league that their coach is asking them to guard the players we ask him to guard and he's done all that without any complaints.
"As far as off the court, he's the best human being I've ever been around in my life. I've had the privilege of coaching him eight years in this league and I don't know of a better person. Remember, I coached David Robinson and he's probably close. But if you look at the overall guy, I don't know if there's a better guy than Grant."
Hill's joie de vivre today has so much to do with the all of the scars he's collected through the years, the physical ones from the seven different ankle and hernia surgeries, the bout with a staph infection and the mental ones from having to rewind and start over again and again in his career. From 2000-06, he was sidelined for 357 of 492 games, the equivalent of nearly 4 ½ seasons. All of which makes it remarkable that he has missed only one game in the last two.
"That, as much as anything, makes me happy," Gentry said, "just the fact that Grant has finally been able to play."
"His athleticism, his skill level and intelligence for the game, his toughness, what he brings to the game as total package is phenomenal and that's for any age," said Suns point guard Steve Nash. "It's not like, well, he's doing pretty well for 37. He's doing well for 27."
Hill simply shrugs off the possibility that he stepped right out of the hot tub time machine and is doing anything more than he should be doing.
"I'm just an old fart that's trying to play ball and keep up with these young guys," he said. "It's not about me or what I've done. I've had my fun and hopefully we can continue to have fun."
Yet the fun the Suns are having so far in these playoffs is in no small way because of him. After a season in which he'd already gone head-up and been asked to guard the disparate likes of Paul Pierce, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Roy, Hill knocked on Gentry's door following a home loss in Game 1 to Portland with the intention of volunteering to cover Miller. But the coaching staff was already one step ahead of him and had made the switch that turned the series.
Against the Spurs, he's taking on the daunting challenge of Ginobili and in Game 2 was on him like a hair shirt, holding Manu to 2-for-8 shooting, his worst playoff game ever as the Suns have built a 2-0 series lead.
"He puts himself out there," said Nash, "and he does everything in a way that is inspirational."
It is virtually impossible to get anyone to expose a wart or a flaw on Hill's personality.
"If he ran for office, they would search for skeletons and they wouldn't find anything," said Suns general manager Steve Kerr. You can't find anything [wrong] with this guy.
"How many people can you say that about? One. Grant Hill. The humility, the adversity he's been through in his career, especially for a guy who was a superstar, one of the top five players in the game. But he has the humility of a walk-on in college. I guess I should go thank his parents."
Perhaps not coincidentally, in this year of his long-sought playoff breakthrough, Hill was recently named the winner of the Joe Dumars NBA Sportsmanship Award for an unprecedented third time. It gave him pause to reflect on and appreciate those efforts of the old guy that a long-ago rookie couldn't quite comprehend.
"I get Joe now," he said with a knowing nod. "I still have that hunger and desire to play and thought I never understood how old guys would want to play, especially when going against younger players. I think your body tells you or somebody tells you when it's time to go. You get the message at some point. Right now, my body feels good and management tells me they want me to stick around, so I guess I can stay for a little bit longer."
If for no other reason than too many people will miss him when he's gone.
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