Grant Hill Did It His Way, The Right Way

In June of 1993 Charles Barkley released his famous “I’m not a role model” decree using his black-and-white NIKE commercial as the vehicle for his public profession. It was his way of very vocally saying that he was nothing more than a very skilled athlete and a very flawed human being. It served as a wake-up call to parents around the globe that it was their job, not his, to provide an example for their children. It was a reminder that he was there to play basketball, sell shoes, say outlandish things and nothing more.

One year later the career of a man who would operate in a much different, but just as impactful way, would begin. On June 29, 1994, Duke’s Grant Hill would become the third pick, and first senior selected, in that year’s NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons. It was the beginning of a career that lasted long enough for it to be legally able to drive, vote and join the armed forces clocking in at 19 years. A career that was built upon a quiet strength and quality of character.

If Barkley was the NBA’s Eddie Haskell, the bad boy with a golden tongue that could spin a phrase to make you smile on a moments notice, Hill was his opposite, “the Beave.” He was the league’s good-guy. A man whose intentions were never questioned and who carried himself both on and off the court in a way that would make a fan, and for that matter a mother, proud.

While people always knew Barkley could do whatever he wanted because of his sheer power of will and force of personality, they felt Hill could too, but because of his professional demeanor and charming personality. Oh, and his skills on the court were pretty impressive too.

In his first season, he averaged 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.77 steals on his way to splitting Rookie of the Year honors King Solomon-style by splitting it down the middle – figuratively not literally -- with Dallas point guard Jason Kidd.

His star would continue to rise from there, faster than he did on a fast break dunk. He’d make it to the All-Star Game the next four seasons (even beating out Michael Jordan for most votes in 1996), he would win a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics and even earned comparisons to Jordan on the court. An association that came about due to his ability to take his man off the dribble, elevate as if his Fila’s had hoverboard technology built into them and dunk as if he was the NBA Jam version of himself incarnate.

Hill knew with the combination of his skills on the court and his demeanor off it came a great responsibility.

“I think I understood back then the power or the platform you have as an athlete,” Hill told Monday. “I was certainly very cognisant of that. I wanted to try and do the right thing, most of the time, when I was in that position. It wasn’t anything I purposely went out of the way to do. I just tried to make good decisions, be true to who I am, stick to my core values and go out and try to play at a high level and understand, good, bad or indifferent, people were going to be affected by what I did on and off the court.”

In other words, he had the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders and was ready to carry it. Unfortunately, his ankle wasn’t.

After leaving the the snow and cold of Detroit for the sunny skies of Orlando and a retooled roster that included himself and Tracy McGrady, Hill was hoping to take his career to the next level. Unfortunately he was hampered by his ankle that acted like a weight dragging down his career. In his first season with his new team, he played only four games. His second season was only slightly better with 14 games and third season he suited up for 29 games. When he was forced to sit out his entire fourth season with the Magic, he and the doctors decided it was time to do something drastic.

That came in the form of a procedure that re-fractured the ankle and re-aligned it with his leg. It was a surgery that proved to be more painful than it even sounded. Less than a week after the doctors put down the scalpel and splinted the ankle, Hill found himself back in the hospital with 104-degree fever and convulsions caused by a severe MRSA infection.

Despite the rough path Hill had to walk on a bum ankle, he remained positive.

“I kept believing that I could get back and overcome the ankle problems,” he remembered. “Certainly it was a very trying time for me, my teammates, my family and everyone involved. It was also a great learning and growing process, as well. It was very difficult, but I think it was an important part of my overall development.”

With that development came a change in his game, but not his personality. Instead of retiring, like many suggested he should, he persevered. Hill no longer was the freak athletically that fans had come to know on the court and in his Sprite commercials. Instead, he relied more fully on his basketball smarts as he arrived in Phoenix. The change paid dividends for both him and his new team.

Related: Podcast: One On One with Grant Hill | Photos: Goodbye Grant Hill

Hill would re-emerge as a key player in the league in 2007, his first in the Valley. It was the first season since his time in Detroit that he played 70 or more games. He also managed to average an impressive 13.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 2.9 apg for the fast-paced Suns.

The former Blue Devil credited the organization for his success.

“It was a change of scenery,” Hill said. “A new environment. I think a very healthy environment, where we all tried the best we could. We ultimately came up short, but we did the best we could going for a championship. Those experiences, those relationships are something you value and very important lifelong memories.”

It wasn’t just his play that continued to shine in the Valley of the Sun. His off the court endeavors and ability to connect with his fellow man also remained a huge part in his success. Like he had done in 2005 as a member of the Magic, Hill managed to win the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award two more times in both 2008 and 2010. The awards were yet another reminder of his “lead by example” mentality.

It was that ability to effect change on a local and global scale that made Hill a role model for not only fans but for the children of people inside the organization, as well.

“We all measure a person on the good or bad, the positive or negative, the selfishness or selflessness,” said Suns Head Athletic Trainer Aaron Nelson upon learning of Hill’s retirement. “Grant was great, positive and the farthest removed from selfishness. In my eyes, allowing your own children to emulate, idolize or build their young values around another person can be risky.

“But both of my boys gravitated toward Grant without my encouragement. It was that easy. Once they knew he was the guy that they wanted to be, I then encouraged them to watch and listen to everything you can with Grant, because he makes everyone better, whether you’re 3 years old, 5 or 105. He is what every father wants their child to be like. Grant’s parents, Calvin and Janet, did an unbelievable job raising Grant!”

The greatest example of Hill’s ability to make those around him significantly better came in 2010 as he helped lead a group that wasn’t predicted to accomplish much to the precipice of the NBA Finals. Despite not having the same kind of star power as the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers, the team came within a boxout of Ron Artest, from taking a decisive 3-2 series lead.

That series was the moment Hill was most proud of.

“The ultimate was being part of a team that got to the Western Conference Finals,” Hill said about his time in Phoenix. “That was a special team; a team that had great cohesion. It had a real sense of family and togetherness. That certainly was one of the many highlights.”

After one final season in LA as part of the Clippers in 2012-13, Hill decided to hang up the shoes, stop icing his ankles and call it quits. Much like it was throughout his career, he didn’t make a big deal of the announcement, casually mentioning it almost as if it was a throwaway comment as a guest on TNT prior to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

While sitting next to Barkley on the set of Inside the NBA it was a reminder that there are many paths that reach every destination and no two will travel the same road. Both former Suns had immensely successful careers, were athletic specimens, had major national endorsements, retired being viewed as some of the best to ever play and both left the game without a title.

The two share a lot in common, but couldn’t have been more different. Hill took the understated route to stardom leading with his actions and words. It’s why he can say, without a doubt, that he leaves the game on his own terms.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Hill said two days after his retirement. “I may not have always played well, may have made mistakes, but I always tried my best. I can look in the mirror knowing I gave it my all. I’m proud of that.”