Tuesday January 29th, 2008

Throughout his 13-year career, Suns forward Grant Hill has been more Cessna than 747, preferring the comfort of lower altitudes on his flights. Sure, he has had his YouTube moments: a dunk on Alonzo Mourning here, a one-handed slam on 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan there, both of which came when Hill was a fresh-faced member of the Detroit Pistons. But in recent years, as age has grounded him and surgeons have taken to treating his left ankle like a Thanksgiving turkey, Hill has turned the layup into an art form, mastering the right- and left-handed bounce off the backboard.

Because of that, you could forgive a double take when a player wearing a burnt orange jersey bearing Hill's name barreled down the lane and threw down a poster-perfect dunk on Mavericks 7-1 center DeSagana Diop during a game at Dallas last month. The dunk brought the Suns' bench to its feet while drawing a half dozen variations of "ahhh" from the partisan crowd.

"You know, I used to do that a lot," Hill said, a smile creasing his face.

Hill, 35, has been scoring in a variety of ways in Phoenix. Before missing seven games earlier this month after undergoing an appendectomy, Hill was averaging 15.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his first 34 games as a Suns starter (he returned Jan. 22, but missed the team's last game with back spasms). Along with being consistent, Hill at times has showed shades of the player who finished third in the MVP voting in 1997. On Dec. 2 against the Knicks, Hill scored 28 points with eight rebounds and seven assists; on Dec. 22 against the Raptors, he scored 25 points in 25 minutes.

"He's a dream," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He can get 18-20 points so easy."

Hill's success this season is a departure from his rocky tenure in Orlando, where for six seasons D'Antoni's dream was the Magic's nightmare. The Magic believed they had bought themselves an NBA title when they acquired Hill and Tracy McGrady in the summer of 2000. But McGrady proved to be decidedly one-dimensional and Hill was plagued by ankle surgeries (five of them to be exact) and played in just 200 of a possible 492 regular-season games with the Magic, pocketing $93 million for his troubles.

One might presume that Hill would feel indebted to an organization that made such a huge investment in him only to see a limited return. Not so, according to Hill.

"I didn't feel that way at all," he said. "And I don't think [the Magic] did either. They might have been disappointed, but it's crazy to think I owed them anything. I needed a fresh start. My last year in Orlando, I put up decent numbers, but I was tentative. I didn't try certain things. I was wondering how I would feel when I woke up. But now I'm not even thinking about it. I'm excited to play basketball again."

Even with his history of injuries, Hill was a hot commodity when he hit the free-agent market last summer. Almost half the teams in the league contacted Hill's agent in the first week of free agency, with Phoenix, Miami and Hill's first team, Detroit, making the hardest push. After weighing his options, Hill signed a two-year, $3.8 million contract with the Suns, spurning more lucrative offers for a chance to play in Arizona.

For Hill, the attraction to Phoenix was threefold: the chance to play for D'Antoni, who was known for holding light practices and has never been regarded as a task master; the opportunity to play with three established stars in Steve Nash, Amaré Stoudemire and Shawn Marion; and the fact that Phoenix employed some of the top medical professionals in the NBA, headed by athletic trainer Aaron Nelson and Mike Clark, president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

"I had a list of things I was looking for and Phoenix checked out on almost all of them," Hill said. "The money issue was the one that didn't check out, but I wanted to go somewhere and win."

That did not include Orlando. After announcing his intentions to sign with Phoenix, Hill was dubbed "the worst free-agent signing in sports" by a local columnist and became persona non grata in Central Florida. When Hill returned to Orlando with the Suns on Nov. 11, he was greeted like a man who had bought Disney World and turned it into a strip mall. Hill was booed in pregame introductions and every time he touched the ball, and one fan even cursed at him during a pause in the national anthem.

"That's what fans are supposed to do," Hill said. We assume he was not talking about the guy with the potty mouth.

On paper, Hill's move to Phoenix appeared to be a perfect fit: The Suns had a gaping hole at small forward and Hill also had the ability to fill in at point guard, thus allowing speedster Leandro Barbosa to occasionally slide into the two-guard spot. But a potentially combustible relationship with Marion loomed large in the minds of critics.

Before the season, Marion, who has always fancied himself a small forward playing the power forward position, demanded a trade. After the Suns failed to deal him, Marion reported to training camp with a chip on his shoulder -- and with a new teammate ostensibly brought in to play the position he craved. But the possibility of friction quickly proved to be overrated as Hill and Marion immediately bonded, carpooling together to training camp and developing a mutual respect for each other's situation.

"We hit it off immediately," Hill said. "I think with the both of us, you can't attach a label. He guards power forwards, but he also guards point guards. I defend small forwards, but I guard point guards too. I think we can coexist. I know there were some issues with him and the team this summer, but I haven't seen any of those problems. Sometimes when you are a high-profile player on a high-profile team, everything you say is big news."

Said Marion: "I'd like to be playing more small forward. But that's the coach's call. Grant has been a great teammate and I'm happy to have him here."

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the greater Phoenix area who isn't happy having Hill as part of the first-place Suns.

"Everything you heard about him is true," D'Antoni said.

Teammates have taken to tapping Hill's high basketball IQ. During a recent practice, Stoudemire grilled Hill about helping him become a better ball handler.

"He's a smart guy," Stoudemire said. "Who wouldn't want his advice?"

On the court, Hill has slid effortlessly into a supporting role, providing a calming presence while discovering that, yes, you do get three points when you shoot behind that black arc. Hill is shooting a career high 35.7 percent from three-point range while attempting more threes this season (70) than he did in six seasons with Orlando.

"He's still moving and attacking the basket in the same way he did when he was young," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. "At different times during his career, you could load up on him and come off a non-shooter. But they don't have any non-shooters. They space the court well, so Grant is often in one-on-one situations. And he's still very effective."

Hill, who has a player option for next season, doesn't sound like a man eyeing retirement. He and his wife, Tamia, recently paid $3.78 million (or roughly the total amount of his Suns contract) for a 6,786-square-foot home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and while Hill won't commit to playing for the Suns beyond this season, he talks like a man planning on committing to someone.

"I feel like I'm contributing," he said. "As long as I feel like that, I'll keep playing."

Pausing, Hill smiled again before adding, "I feel like I found the fountain of youth."

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