By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – Grant Hill sat in a visiting locker room, his foot mangled and bruised, his toes broken up and splayed in different directions. As Hill iced the foot in preparation to take the floor against the Dallas Mavericks, longtime Detroit sports writer Terry Foster told Hill it would be stupid to play on that injury.
Hill played anyway. He said he had to. He wanted everyone to know he cared. He wanted them to know he was not soft. Fans might have questioned his toughness, but Foster knew better.
Had others witnessed Hill’s determination the way Foster did that day, the sports writer is confident they would agree with his assessment that Hill was most definitely not soft.
“If people had seen that foot, they’d have been like, ‘Really?’” Foster said.
Many times Hill played through injuries, but issues still managed to sideline him often, as he missed 484 games over the span of his 19 years in the NBA.
Frequent injuries aside, the seven-time All-Star had a lengthy and successful career that included stints with the Detroit Pistons, the Orlando Magic, the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers. He won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. basketball team in 1996. He won Co-Rookie of the Year in 1995. He led two NCAA championship teams at Duke University.
Basketball has been his life, and he has been good at it.
“He had great size, great athleticism, very, very versatile, was unstoppable in transition,” former Pistons teammate Steve Henson said. “With any kind of two-on-one, three-on-two advantage, he was going to get to the rim and score, probably get fouled … He was pretty much everything you’d want in a small forward.”
Henson played with Hill in Detroit in the 1998-1999 season, and he remembers Hill as a relentless competitor who constantly pursued improvement even though he was already one of the best in the league. Henson recalled his first practice with Hill and described Hill’s intensity on defense in particular as “the kind of effort that an All-Star doesn’t always make in an NBA practice.”
Hill is generally known as a class act, but he showed little mercy on the basketball court. Henson remembered one second-round draft pick right out of high school who experienced the punishing presence of Hill.
“I just felt so bad for the guy because Grant wouldn’t let him catch,” Henson said. “He was relentless on him. He was trying to find his way in the NBA and he had to go up against Grant every day and it was just a tough day every day for him.”
Hill set high standards for himself, too. Though he excelled at getting to the rim in transition and had a nice mid-range jumper, he was not an elite shooter. Henson said that over the summer Hill hired a shooting coach and spent close to a month shooting nothing but three-foot, one-handed shots.
“He would just stand there and do form shooting, just like you would do with a young kid to help them improve, and he was willing to do that, and it paid off,” Henson said. “I know the next year he had an even better year shooting the basketball. So his willingness and desire to be a better player was always impressive to me.”
Joe Dumars, now president of basketball operations for the Pistons, played alongside Hill in Detroit for five years, from 1994 to 1999. He also remembers Hill for more than basketball.
“Grant has always been a special player and a special person,” Dumars said. “I enjoyed playing with him during his early years here in Detroit and continued to be impressed by the professionalism, determination and skill he played with throughout his outstanding 19-year NBA career.”
Hill left the Pistons in 2000, after six years with the team. He was an unrestricted free agent, so he could have left Detroit with zero reimbursement – no more marquee player, no compensation to go try to find another one. Instead, Hill agreed to a sign-and-trade agreement (reportedly for slightly more money) that allowed the Pistons to acquire Ben Wallace, who was instrumental in the team’s championship a few years later.
Was that arrangement a parting gift to the Pistons from Hill? Henson cannot say for sure, but he can give an idea of what he would guess based on his knowledge of Hill’s character.
“It would not surprise me at all,” Henson said. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”