SAN DIEGO -- On April 15, Grant Hill scored 27 points and snagged 10 rebounds in the season-finale against Golden State, and no one outside of Phoenix really seemed to notice.The Suns won the game, but the playoffs were starting, and for the first time in five years they were not a part of it. Their season would be remembered mainly for the hiring and firing of Coach Terry Porter, the trade of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, Amar'e Stoudemire's detached retina, Jason Richardson's reckless driving arrest, and all the background noise generated by Shaquille O'Neal.
The fact that Hill played in 82 basketball games was easy to forget. It was a footnote, relegated to the bottom of the last game story, but it was also the sweetest subplot to come out of Phoenix. A player whose career has been overwhelmed by injuries -- who had entire seasons that consisted of 4, 14, 21 and 29 games -- was an NBA ironman. Only 30 players in the league were on the court for every game last season. Only four players over 30 years old accomplished the feat. Hill, 36 with his surgically repaired left ankle and re-shaped left heel, was remarkably among them.
"I've always prided myself on being dependable and for a long time I wasn't," Hill said after a recent practice at the University of San Diego, where the Suns held the first week of their training camp. "The fact that guys could count on me day in and day out was really good for me."
Hill was not just taking up space. He scored 12 points a game, shot a career-high 52.3 percent and was arguably the best defender on the team. The Suns would have understood if he was worn down by the end of the season, but he actually played his best down the stretch, scoring more than 18 points in nine of the last 15 games. After his teammates dispersed for the summer, Hill went right back to the practice court. It had been so long since his body allowed him to play on a consistent basis that he did not want to stop, even if there were no more games left on the schedule. Trainers finally had to order him to go home and get some rest.
With the Suns falling from the elite in the Western Conference, and owner Robert Sarver looking to pare payroll, Hill was a prime candidate to leave as a free agent and sign with the Celtics, another veteran chasing an insta-ring. But Hill had already tried that tack, when he left Orlando in 2007 and signed with Phoenix, only to watch the Magic reach the NBA Finals without him last season. Hill, who was sending text messages between games to Magic center Dwight Howard and point guard Jameer Nelson, insists he has no regrets about heading west, but said: "I've learned that the grass is not always greener."
So Hill turned down a $1.9 million biannual exception to go to Boston and a $5 million deal to go to the Knicks, choosing to return to Phoenix for $3 million and an option for another year. With the Celtics, he would have sacrificed minutes. With the Suns, he will play as much as he possibly can, and for someone who basically missed the prime of his career, playing is the main object. Hill is not going to win a title with the Suns this season, but given the misfortune he has endured elsewhere, there was no sense messing with a good thing. He gets to run alongside Steve Nash, teach the value of defense to a team that desperately needs to learn it, and perhaps just as important, get treated on a daily basis by Aaron Nelson, the NBA's 2008-09 Trainer of the Year.
Hill's decision was validated somewhat in mid-August, when he showed up to the Suns practice facility and nine other players were already working out, a sign of a team eager to grow together. "This is my 16th year," Hill said, "and I've never seen that before."Even if the Suns do not contend, they will definitely entertain, rediscovering their high-octane identity under head coach Alvin Gentry. Although Gentry does not have some of the luxuries that former coach Mike D'Antoni did -- namely, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Diaw and Bell -- he has assistants on the floor in Nash and Hill. "They are really valuable, even on the other side of their career, from a cerebral standpoint," Gentry said.
Gentry and Hill have known each other for two decades, since Gentry was an assistant coach at the University of Kansas in 1988 and Hill was a star at South Lakes High School in Virginia. Yes, Grant Hill has been in the basketball spotlight for more than 20 years. Call him old. But don't call him fragile.