As much as anyone perhaps could, Grant Hill has led what looks like a charmed life while having a star-crossed NBA career.
A two-time NCAA champion at Duke, an Olympic gold medalist and a seven-time NBA All-Star was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. As the No. 3 pick by Detroit in the 1994 Draft, Hill earned co-Rookie of the Year honors with Dallas’ Jason Kidd and still was active 18 years later, playing his final games at age 40.
But the prime of his playing days got derailed by injuries, misdiagnoses and re-injuries of his left ankle. The versatile 6-foot-8 wing lost essentially four seasons to the ankle and setback, clipping short his greatness with the Pistons and limiting him to 200 games across seven years with the Orlando Magic.
Hill, after averaging 20.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.9 assists in his second season, looked destined to beat Russell Westbrook to Oscar Robertson’s famous triple-double season. He averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists with Detroit, beating out Michael Jordan in All-Star vote totals at one point and whetting the NBA’s appetite for a superstar and marketing replacement for the Bulls’ legend.
After his injuries, returning at 32 after missing the entire 2003-04 season, Hill was more of a role player with the Magic, the Phoenix Suns (2007-2012) and the LA Clippers (2012-13). His stats: 13.1, 4.7 and 2.6.
In his memoir “Game” released Tuesday, Hill takes readers through his highs and lows as a player, from some of hoops’ most exhilarating moments to dark, lonely withdrawals into what seemed like endless injury rehab.
He shares stories about his childhood with high-achieving parents, his marriage to Canadian-born, seven-time Grammy nominee Tamia, and his role with the hastily assembled college squad that beat the 1992 “Dream Team” in their first scrimmage. Hill also reveals the drive that has made him successful wearing so many post-playing hats, from the financial and real-estate arenas and his broadcast work with Turner Sports to his new role as managing director of the USA Basketball men’s program and as a minority owner of the Atlanta Hawks.
Hill also delves into his brushes with hip-hop artists, issues of social importance and his appreciation of black art. This summer, to push himself as an on-the-air analyst, Hill plans to pick the brain of the NFL color commentator Cris Collinsworth.
During the first leg of the 2022 NBA Finals in San Francisco, Hill spoke with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner about his new book and assorted other topics:
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: Did you worry about the prospect of bruising some feelings with the candor with which you approached the book, whether it was Christian Laettner, Doug Collins, Mike (Coach K) Krzyzewski or anyone else in there?
Grant Hill: It was more about me than exposing everyone else or having an axe to grind with others. I think you can naturally come to your conclusions on certain things, like injuries and how that was maybe mismanaged a bit. But it was really more about my experience and what I was going through, my perspective from very young to going into the Hall of Fame.
You were an only child raised in Reston, Va., by extremely successful and busy parents. Your father Calvin went to Yale and was a four-time NFL Pro Bowl running back best known for his Dallas Cowboys years. Your mother Janet was a consultant in Washington, D.C., who ran the household and became known to you and your friends as “The General.” How did growing up without brothers or sisters shape your personality?
I’m an only child of two only children. So being comfortable being alone is a big part, because a lot of your life you are alone. I wonder about nature and nurture and having a desire to fit in and not stand out. That was something I struggled with during my formative years.
There was a shy, insecure, kind of introverted side of me. A lot of my early memories of basketball were just going outside and dribbling. We didn’t have a basketball hoop at home and our driveway was on a slope, so it wouldn’t have worked.
Here’s an only-child story. I had to be maybe 10, and my dad took me to New Haven (Conn.) to go to the Yale-Harvard football game. And my mom’s business partner, Clifford Alexander, his kids were students at Yale. So we went to their dorm and in the common area, my dad was holding court, talking, answering questions.
I went outside to a courtyard where there were two lampposts. I had no ball. No baskets. But I literally was out there “playing basketball” with my imagination. I’m pretending, making moves, dribbling, in my mind. Finally I went in and I was drenched with sweat.
Either that’s weird or that’s a product of being an only child. I played a basketball game with no basket, basketball or other players.
You became a big fan of John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas and write about your dad taking you to the Final Four in 1984 in Seattle. That was special, with multiple future NBA stars like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and a loaded Kentucky team there.
I was 11 and that’s when I was falling in love with basketball. I didn’t really fall in love with it through the NBA, it was college basketball. We see the NBA everywhere now, but it didn’t have that kind of presence in the early ‘80s.
Really, for me, it was the ’82 Final Four with Georgetown and going to that Final Four in ’84. I remember thinking, there’s no way Georgetown can beat Kentucky with Mel Turpin and Kenny Walker, Sam Bowie. James Blackmon was a freshman, Winston Bennett. But Kentucky couldn’t make a shot in the second half [3-for-33].
So why now for the book?
People had mentioned it at different times before since I retired. I did have an idea while I was playing to do a 2010 version of Bill Bradley’s “Life on the Run.” I remembered reading that back in college. I was in Phoenix, kind of in a good place, and there was a great spirit with that team.
So in the summer of 2009, I was going to do it. I was going to keep a journal of the season and kind of dive into some of the players on the team and their stories. I was talking to Commissioner [David] Stern on something else and brought up the idea. He said, “I love it, but don’t do it. It will be a job. It’s tough enough playing and getting through a season without having to meet deadlines. It would be just another burden.” He kind of scared me.
Then we had a magical season that year. We lost to Kobe [Bryant] and the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. I was like, “Man, I should have done it.”
What sparked this book was the Hall of Fame. The announcement and then the lead-up to the enshrinement, I think you just naturally reflect. You’re appreciative, you’re grateful. I got a little mad because of the injury stuff. But what I realized was, I never really had looked back on my career. A book forces you to relive certain moments of your life and find the lessons. Try to understand what you were feeling, what you were thinking. I’m not the same person I was five years ago. Definitely not the same person I was 30 years ago. That whole exercise was really good in some ways, and in some ways, it was really tough.
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The recall you display had me wondering if you kept a journal throughout your career.
It’s interesting what you remember and what you don’t. I could have done a book just on my first year at Duke — I remember everything vividly. And then I remember the injury stuff. Details, conversations, the emotions. All of that, it was easy to recall.
I didn’t remember a lot of the Detroit stuff. That was interesting. For me, the goal always was to win. At Duke, we always had a chance. In Detroit, we didn’t come close to winning. I had great individual success on and off the court, but I wasn’t happy with the outcomes. So I didn’t celebrate those accomplishments. I didn’t appreciate those accomplishments because they didn’t contribute to winning.
Those were the best seasons of your professional career, five All-Star selections in six seasons.
You know how they say you should stop and smell the roses and enjoy life? I didn’t enjoy those years, but when I looked back, I was like, “Wow, those were really special.” I also didn’t feel the disappointment, the injuries. I remember staying focused and suppressing a lot of that. But that re-surfaced leading up to enshrinement and in the process of writing the book.
Heck, just writing the acceptance speech would seem daunting enough. At least it forces you to take inventory of what you’ve done and gone through.
Plus they told us we could only go five minutes, and I went first. We had a big class  and they told me, “You’re going to set the tone.” So I was exactly seven minutes.
Did reaching the Hall of Fame soothe all the injury frustrations, sort of “I made it anyway?”
What it made me think was, “I made it to the Hall of Fame and I was incomplete.” I had four good years in college and six good years in the NBA. I didn’t see this all the way through. I got mad. I used to tell myself I didn’t need the Hall of Fame, because to me overcoming my injuries and coming back to play nine more years was more fulfilling and rewarding. But then when it became real and got close to enshrinement, I got a little … bitter. I unpacked that even more when writing the book.
So the “what ifs” hit even harder than before?
With the book, going into greater detail, I was like, “Man, I was on a certain trajectory and the injury situation cut that short.” I came back, but I wasn’t the same. I was older. And when you miss four years …
Every great one has this athletic arrogance where, every time you step on the floor, you feel you’re the best player. If I went against Michael Jordan or whomever, I felt like “You’ve got to deal with me.” When I returned from the injuries, I was just happy to be back. That’s a great attitude to have, but you kind of lose that edge.
Golden State’s Klay Thompson has sounded like that recently, eager to enjoy being back while still not looking quite like his pre-injuries self.
I told Derrick Rose that when he was coming back. I think I even told Klay that. You put together consecutive days, weeks, months of hell. The basketball part will come. So don’t get frustrated when you’re not where you want to be. But also don’t be satisfied – commit to getting better. Go watch tape of yourself – you have to remind yourself who you were.
People remember those good years I had. But I remember the disappointment. Having to fight to get back. Being old and having to guard Kobe at 37. I don’t remember the Detroit stuff.
I won’t say it’s a regret. It’s great to have perspective. And physically, there were certain things I just couldn’t do anymore. I couldn’t train and prepare myself to be great. In the summers, once I came back from the ankle, I didn’t touch a ball. The trainers in Phoenix would say, “Get away from it.” So I would give myself six or eight weeks to ramp up and hopefully be at my best opening night. But I didn’t touch a basketball at all.
To me, the grind of putting the work in and getting better in the offseason, that’s part of being elite. The last time I did that was 1999. After that, I couldn’t do it. I was just trying to get healthy. If I got through a year, I was going to rest, I was going to be smart. I’d stay in shape, but I wasn’t touching a basketball.
Totally from the outside looking in, I recall thinking when you left Orlando and signed with Phoenix in 2007, “It’s too bad he didn’t re-up with the Magic. They had paid him all that money when he couldn’t play. Now that he can…” Admittedly, I wasn’t privy to the inner workings and your relationship with the team.
I felt like I was inclined to stay. I also was looking at going back to Detroit. But I concluded I didn’t want to ruin what I’d done there.
The surgeries and some of the issues were there, but there also were a couple times when [Orlando] wanted to buy me out and move me up to the front office. When I didn’t play, the insurance paid my salary – that was no longer an expense they had. And I think it kind of exhausted everybody, which I get. You could feel that.
I saw that more recently in Chicago with Rose. They needed to go their separate ways.
The one person who wanted me to stay that summer was [coach] Stan Van Gundy. I remember going in mid-June and he was like, “I want to put the ball back into your hands, I want you to run the screen-and-roll, I want it to be like it was in Detroit, I want you to shoot threes,” yada yada yada. He was a big fan. I thought, “This is actually kind of cool.”
But free agency comes, I don’t hear from the team for a week. The only [time we talked] was when I called and told them I was going to Phoenix.
Looking back at it, it was time. And when they made a run in 2009, I was happy for those guys. Then there was a Sports Illustrated article where Otis [Smith, Orlando’s former GM] said “We needed Grant to leave because we needed Jameer [Nelson] and Dwight [Howard] to grow. They were always going to defer to Grant.”
I remember reading that and thought “Validation!” Because everyone thought I’d left them high and dry, but I could sense that it was time.
The fans in Orlando didn’t pick up on that, though.
I didn’t have any hard feelings, but when I went with Phoenix to play there, every time I had the ball in the layup line, the fans booed me. It was hilarious. My teammates started throwing me the ball even in the rebounding line.
Look, the guys on that team, I was happy for them, that they had a nice run. I was happy for Detroit when they won [in 2004, after Hill left in 2000]. I hadn’t played with any of those guys other than Lindsey [Hunter]. But Phoenix was good for me. It was good to end it in a good environment and being healthy.
There’s a saying, “Begin with the end in mind.” You seemed to be quite aware of the end of your playing career even as it was beginning.
By the time I was in Phoenix, I already established a real estate business. I started a mezzanine [capital] fund, so I was dabbling a little in finance. But I was thinking that from Day 1. Maybe that was from seeing my dad and his generation go through that transition of life after sports. Some do very well – [Cowboys Hall of Fame QB] Roger Staubach – while others struggle. So I was always conscious of that and maybe slightly paranoid.
I don’t believe that things just happen. I believe you need to be very intentional, and the idea of ownership, I’d been thinking that since my second or third year in the NBA.
Each place, with the exception of the Clippers, I got to know the owners well. And sort of what made them tick. How and why they were successful. Learning about them and their stories. [Robert] Sarver in Phoenix. The DeVos family in Orlando. Mr. [Bill] Davidson in Detroit. I didn’t know when it would happen, but it wasn’t like I woke up two years after retirement and discovered, oh, wow, this ownership opportunity is there.
I also would go to the Duke alumni association and get the names of distinguished Duke alums in various cities. I’d meet with them, building up the Rolodex just to learn. You come to San Francisco, you reach out to somebody, “Hey, you want to have coffee?” Nine times out of 10, they’re going to come over to the hotel and they’re going to pay for it. Successful people, I think, enjoy talking about themselves [laughing].
Your group with Tony Ressler and the others bid $1.2 billion for the Clippers franchise but Steve Ballmer blew you out of the water at $2 billion. The Atlanta deal worked out, however, a tribute to your networking while playing.
There’s tremendous visibility being associated with this league. And being able to leverage that is something I learned very early. I thought, let me gain access while I can. Because at some point, people aren’t going to care who you are.
I still have somewhere at home the April 1995 issue of GQ, with you on the cover touting a story, “Can Grant Hill Save Sports?” It seems a little outlandish to put that on an NBA rookie. But you did arrive when Michael Jordan was gone (the first time) and there was desperation in this league for “Who’s next?”
I thought it was silly. And I felt it right away as a rookie that there was a void. There was pressure. I didn’t try to embrace it. And I didn’t feel like I was deserving of that yet. But I probably exploited it and leveraged it. When Sprite and McDonald’s and Fila and General Motors came knocking, I didn’t say, “No, I’m not ready.”
Being thrust into that … part of my Duke years was getting to a point where I was comfortable standing out. I think in my younger years, I was trying to fit in. That senior year prepared me for that experience. Stepping into your greatness, that’s where I needed a little push.
I got better in my six years in Detroit. In my first year, I was good, but I don’t think I was ready to be that guy.
Your fellow Duke alum Quin Snyder, late of the Utah Jazz, gave you advice as you hit the NBA about not turning your back to advance the ball in the frontcourt. He told you to face up and challenges defenders with your pace and moves, heading downhill.
In pickup ball I played that way. In the summers, I used to try to be like Chris Jackson, Tim Hardaway, coming at you. But in the games, you didn’t see big guys doing that. Magic, Paul Pressey, Steve Smith, Jalen Rose at Michigan – they played [with back turned].
What I realized was that small forwards weren’t used to guarding somebody who was coming at them. Now a lot of people are doing that. After 20 games, I’m calling my buddies, saying “This league is easy.” Till they get a scouting report it’s easy.
As a broadcaster, being around the Finals, how can you relate the experience to where you want the Hawks to get one day, chasing a title?
It’s inspiring. We were close last year. A little step back this year. But to be able to be in this environment and as media members preparing to cover, you start to uncover things about the teams, about the organizations. We read stories, we hob-knob, we share and exchange things, and if you can take away some institutional knowledge and go back and share it with your group, that’s great.
It’s a long season. I think we’re all kind of exhausted when we get to this point. But it rejuvenates you, too, to be here. As a former player, it’s tough because you never had a chance to play in this environment. But as a partner in the league, I saw the ratings – the ratings are back to 2019 levels.
I hope to one day be here with Joe Lacob, Peter Guber … [Milwaukee’s] Marc Lasry last year, where you’re on the sideline cheering as opposed to working.
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