Denton: Now Retired, Hill Didn't Deserve Criticism While With Magic
By John Denton
June 3, 2013
ORLANDO – Through the years, fans of the Orlando Magic have turned booing returning players into an art form, hounding the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and most recently, Dwight Howard.
But the catcalls for Grant Hill – ``they even booed me in the layup lines before the game,’’ he recalled recently – have never really made much sense. Understandably, sports are a bottom line business and players either produce or they don’t, but in my opinion the booing of Hill is one of the darker moments in the Magic’s illustrious history. Boo Shaq and Dwight for wanting out of Orlando; boo T-Mac and Penny for wanting more help around them with other teams; but don’t boo Hill for continuing to fight through a string of bizarre luck with a busted up ankle. It’s just bad form all the way around.
It’s easy to comprehend the seven long years of frustration that Magic fans harbored toward Hill when he missed 374 of 574 games (65.1 percent) because of recurring injuries to his troublesome left ankle. Then, when Hill went to Phoenix and seemingly discovered the fountain of youth and turned into the basketball version of Cal Ripken, it had to be further disconcerting to Magic fans.
But, clearly, the whole story on Hill – who announced his retirement from the NBA following 19 seasons on Saturday night – has never been told.
``It’s been an amazing journey,’’ Hill said in a text message on Sunday. ``Time to do something new and exciting.’’
Understandably, Hill’s time in Orlando will be forever marred by his injury history. Heck, he spent more time in designer suits than he did a Magic uniform; more time swimming in the pool – where he was playfully nicknamed ``Mark Spitz’’ – than he did running the fastbreak; more time in a walking boot than those trademark Fila’s that he hawked in the late 1990s; more time on the stationary bike than Lance Armstrong.
But Hill should also be remembered for what he didn’t do in Orlando – he didn’t quit. He didn’t quit in 2001 when his ankle fractured a second time and ended his second season in Orlando just like the first one; remarkably he didn’t quit even after he contacted a nasty infection that left him with a 108-degree fever and his body going into convulsions as his wife, Tamia, frantically drove him to a suburban Orlando hospital; and he didn’t quit when doctors told him his ankle was busted beyond repair and he should retire.
Hill could have very easily walked away from basketball, walked, err, limped away from the hassles of rehab and all of the physical and mental trauma he inflicted on a deformed and grotesque-looking ankle. He would have still pocketed every dime of the seven-year, $92.88 million free-agent contract he signed with the Magic in 2000, and he could have seamlessly transitioned into the broadcast booth or running a team from a GM chair.
Hill’s traumatic injury was a dagger plunged into what previously looked to be a charmed existence. He was the poster boy of college basketball in the early 1990s, winning back-to-back titles at Duke. He had the beautiful and talented wife in Tamia, who was a star herself back in 2000 with her budding music career. But that charmed existence would be challenged when Hill’s ankle kept cracking and Tamia was later diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Grant once told a hilarious story that summed up his unlucky plight with his fractured ankle. Not long after Grant had just endured another ankle surgery, he and Tamia were in Canada visiting her parents for the holidays. When they pulled into a gas station to fuel up their car, Grant couldn’t pump the gas because of his leg cast and bulky crutches, leaving Tamia to get out in the snow and frigid weather to do the dirty work. Minutes later, a man walked over and tapped on the car window, scolding Grant that ``if I had a woman as beautiful as you do I certainly wouldn’t make her pump her own gas.’’ Grant laughed about the incident for hours, while Tamia steamed in the driver’s seat.
Despite doctors pushing him to retire, Hill insisted on continuing to attempt one return after another for a Magic fan base that he filled with so much hope when he showed up along with McGrady (and almost Tim Duncan) in August of 2000. I still remember that day in 2000 talking to Hill outside of the Grant Floridian Hotel and him telling me that he wanted to play for the Magic, and he thought Duncan might be on the way as well. That very well could have happened had David Robinson not flown back from Hawaii and convinced Duncan to stay put in San Antonio.
(A side note: I’m convinced that if Hill could have gotten his ankle right in 2000 that Doc Rivers would still be the coach in Orlando, the Magic would have reached a string of NBA Finals, the Amway Center would be about 10 years old instead of almost three and there would be talk now of retiring the No. 1 and No. 33 jerseys for McGrady and Hill. Sadly, there is one too many ``ifs’’ in that sentence).
Hill was on crutches the day of his first news conference in Orlando as a result of his first ankle surgery, lending a preview of what was to come for the next several years. I still eerily remember legendary Magic owner Rich DeVos wondering aloud that day if Hill would be able to fully return following the surgery on his ankle. As Mr. DeVos so accurately pointed out, Penny Hardaway was never his All-NBA self after he had surgery on his knee.
As it turns out, Mr. DeVos would be exactly right about Hill. He was one of the game’s best all-around players while in Detroit – think LeBron at lithe 220 pounds – with his ability to blow by defenders, pass the ball to open teammates and also grab it off the glass. He was a triple-double threat every night he hit the floor, and the hope was that he would do the same in Orlando with McGrady. I don’t blame former Magic GM John Gabriel for pursuing and signing Hill while on crutches. If he hadn’t signed Hill, four other teams – namely the Chicago Bulls – would have done it. Hill missed only 29 games in the first six years of his NBA career in Detroit, but it just so happens that his ankle took several years to finally heal properly while in Orlando. Heck, he even underwent a procedure where a wedge of bone was taken out of his ankle and his ankle was broken purposely and realigned it with the rest of his leg.
Hill did make it back to the NBA All-Star Game in 2005, serving as a reward for a player who refused to give in to all of the pain and suffering that he had endured. But, then, more bad luck hit when a troublesome sports hernia – requiring yet another surgery – ruined much of another season in Orlando.
By 2007, most everyone in Orlando was weary of Hill’s injury plight and the Magic needed a fresh start from the black could that seemingly hung over the franchise the past seven years. Stan Van Gundy was taking over as head coach and Howard was taking shape as the game’s best center.
While former GM Otis Smith didn’t exactly run off Hill, he let him know that if he did return that it would only be in a bit role off the bench. Smith wanted control of the team to shift to Howard and point guard Jameer Nelson. Hill, who still has a healthy ego to go with his incredible grace and good-guy personality, took offense to that after all the work he had put in to get back on the court.
So Hill left for the Phoenix Suns – something Magic fans resented and showed every time he returned to Orlando. But fans were essentially booing someone who was told he was no longer welcome with the Magic because of the bitter memories associated with his injury history.
So Hill, who almost died from contacting MRSA, went under the knife more than a fat man’s china and kept coming back again and again, was booed incessantly by Magic fans. As mentioned earlier he was booed in the layup line, derided during the National Anthem and jeered every time he touched the ball. Hill would never say so because of his classy nature, but the boos hurt him more than he ever let on.
Even in his latter Magic days, Hill always stressed that he was like an old car with new tires, feeling he still had plenty of more NBA miles left on his body. Sure enough, he morphed into an Iron Man of sorts on Phoenix, playing 70, 82, 81 and 80 games over a four-year stretch.
Because he was in Phoenix, Hill missed out on the Magic winning a playoff series for the first time in 2008, the NBA Finals run in 2009 and the Eastern Conference Finals slot in 2010. Hill never won a playoff series in his first 14 NBA seasons, but he finally did so in 2010 when the Suns got to the Western Conference Finals and lost to the Lakers.
Hill, a day away from being the oldest player in the NBA at 40 years old, knew all the way back in January that this would be his final season in the NBA. He told me it hit him hard one day when he realized that his some of his youngest Los Angeles Clippers teammates were closer in age to his daughter Myla Grace (10) than him.
So Hill retires with a career full of thoughts about what could have been had he been able to stay healthy. In Orlando, his legacy will always be marred by the recurring injuries and the bitter feelings over his 2007 departure to Phoenix.
But, if anything, Hill should be cheered and not booed by Magic fans for continuing to fight through the injuries and life-threatening infections and refusing to quit when all signs pointed toward him doing just that.
As the Magic celebrate their 25th anniversary next season, former players will be coming back to honor the past. Here’s to hoping that Hill gets an invite so that he can finally get the ovation – a standing ovation for a player who too often couldn’t stand because of that bum ankle – for his willingness to keep getting up when he got knocked down. That’s something we should all be able to relate to and cheer for.
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