Finally healthy, Hill appreciates game now more than ever

Publish date:

"We all have our routine," he said, as he detailed his checklist. "I come over to the arena early, get a little work done on the table with the trainer, Aaron Nelson. Go out and do my shooting routine. Come back in here and get some exercises. Get some heat packs on between 90 and 70 minutes before the game.

"At 60 [minutes], I put my shirt on. I eat my [energy] bar and I watch the game film and take in what they do and just get ready for the game."

He is a 37-year-old small forward for the Phoenix Suns, an old man excelling against younger, more explosive athletes. The wonder is that he does not appear fatigued. The details of the regimen do not bore him. On the contrary: He loves to arrange the entire day around the game that night.

"I usually come to the arena on the first bus," he said. "But if we're at home, a 7 p.m. game, I usually leave the house around 4:15 to try to get there about 4:45.

"It's the whole routine. The routine starts the moment you wake up. Come home from [the morning] shootaround. Eat. Sleep again. When I wake up from my nap, the first thing I do, I turn the heat up to 75 degrees. I turn on all the lights in the room. I don't know why I do it. I turn on all the lights and I open the curtains. I've been doing that as long as I can remember."

He is amazed to still be sitting here, to have another game waiting at the end of another day. Ten years ago, Hill suffered a broken left ankle that would require five operations to fix, including one in 2003 that almost killed him after an infection raised his temperature above 104 degrees. He missed 357 games over the next six years with Orlando, including the entire 2003-04 season. He was supposed to contend for championships with Tracy McGrady and qualify for entry into the Hall of Fame, but all of that receded behind the medical trauma and the pain.

Now, Hill is contributing 30.1 minutes per game and 11.5 points to a Phoenix rotation balanced with a half-dozen scorers in double figures. The Suns cannot win the championship -- small up front, porous defensively -- yet they are a game away from overtaking Utah for home-court advantage in the first round. He has fit in by expanding his range to the three-point line, which isn't easy for a star approaching the end of his career. Over six truncated seasons with Orlando, Hill attempted 40 threes and made nine of them. In three years with Phoenix, he has hit 83-for-236 (35.2 percent) from the three-point line.

"I haven't necessarily shot a lot of them during this season," he said, though he is converting a career-best 46.4 percent of the 56 threes he has attempted. "But I've put my work in, and I just want to get better. Iron out my weaknesses, and certainly that may have been -- or may be -- one of them. But you've just got to work at it.

"And that's the thing I enjoyed this summer: 'OK, let's work on something, let's improve on it, whether I got better or not.' It's just the fact that I'm thinking along those lines and able to put the time in to do it. A lot of guys who came in [to the NBA as rookies in 1994] with me who would love to be working on something for next season. A lot of these guys are done, so I'm very appreciative. Very appreciative."

Here may be the most impressive achievement of Hill's career: Over the last two seasons, he has missed one game. He played all 82 last season for the first time.

"Damn right I was happy, I was pretty proud of that," he said, recalling the Suns' dinner after the final game. "The whole team went out, the season was over and it didn't go the way we wanted. So everybody went out in Phoenix after the last game, and for me it was like, I'm here after the last game. I'm at the team party and I'm healthy. And so I'm not thinking about rehab; I'm thinking about, What kind of workout am I going to get tomorrow? I can go hiking in Sedona, whatever. It was fun. It was good. It wasn't good from the team standpoint last year, but from a personal standpoint, it was very good."

He still can't believe he's here, in this locker room, preparing for this night to come.

"I may have told you this before, but I used to laugh at Joe Dumars," Hill said of his early years with Detroit, when Dumars was continuing to play into his 30s. "I would tell him, 'Man, when I'm 34, I'm done.' I was a young kid and 34 seemed so far down the road when you're 21 or 22 years old. And maybe if I'd been healthy all these years and played all these minutes, maybe now mentally and physically it would just be over for me. But I missed a lot. I still love it, enjoy it, appreciate it even more."

When basketball should have been easiest for him, the game played hard to get. He chased it and fell in love all over again.