Search

The Son Is Shining

Feb. 01, 1993
Feb. 01, 1993

Table of Contents
Feb. 1, 1993

Super Bowl XXVII Preview
New York Knicks
Double Trouble
Lennox Lewis
Figure Skating
Hockey
Golf
Grant Hill
Point After

The Son Is Shining

Duke's Grant Hill has escaped his father Calvin's shadow by making a name in his own game

Reflexively, Calvin Hill looked to his side, for at every other Final Four that's where Grant had always been, right there next to him. Never missed one, 1984 through '88, Grant Hill's father and Calvin Hill's son—just the two of them doing a guy thing, eating what they wanted and sleeping when they wanted, making a mess of the hotel room, going to all the parties, even one night calling Janet from some particularly sodden bacchanal to torture her into wondering what in God's name her husband was doing with her boy. And here Calvin turned and saw Janet, and realized that Grant was down there on the Hoosier Dome floor, wearing a face Calvin remembered seeing only once before, when Calvin had tickled him as a baby.

This is an article from the Feb. 1, 1993 issue Original Layout

They'd tried so hard, Calvin and Janet had. Picked out Reston, a planned community in northern Virginia, a socioeconomic and ethnic Shangri-la where the biggest mischief their son would get into was running the tolls on the road to Dulles airport. Filled their home with fine art. Gave him piano lessons, for chrissakes! Kept him in school in Reston even as Calvin played out the twilight of his NFL career in Cleveland.

And the places they took him! In London at age six he did headstands in the office of Kingman Brewster, the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James and erstwhile president of Calvin's alma mater, Yale. At a brunch in New Haven before the Harvard game, 12-ycar-old Grant mistook Norman Mailer for Harvard president Derek Bok and had to be set straight by Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti.

Calvin and Janet forbade Grant to so much as consider playing football until the ninth grade, lest he be scarred by some martinet youth-league coach or damaged by premature comparisons with his dad. So what does he do? He never plays a down. Instead he finds a sport of his own, and in 1991, by age 18, with his parents watching at the Hoosier Dome, wins the game's most coveted title in his first collegiate season. Then he wins another NCAA title a year later, all the while turning his dad into an absolutely irredeemable, boola-boola-screaming, voodoo-believing athletic parent.

Television cameras find Calvin often now. Grant and Janet say it's because he knows all the camera angles in every arena in which Duke plays and picks out the most conspicuous seat in the house. More likely the cameras can't resist the figure he cuts: always a Duke hat pulled rakishly down over his brow, always a white shirt; the same khaki slacks, same brown loafers; a bag of M & Ms—must be peanut, must be purchased on the way to the arena—and a cache of Doublemint gum, precisely three sticks of which go to Eural (Onion) Lang, father of Grant's teammate Antonio Lang, just before tip-off. "A secret society," Calvin says. "Sort of like Skull and Bones."

By the time the celebration ended and he finally hauled himself out into the Indiana night two Aprils ago, singing the Duke fight song and wondering how anyone who has won a Super Bowl could possibly deserve this, too, Grant Hill's father had accommodated himself to the novelty of Janet's presence at his side. It was worth the chore of keeping the hotel room clean. "To be both on the inside and the outside, that was something very special for Calvin," Janet says. "Believe me. I was there when he made the Pro Bowl. I was there when he won the Super Bowl. Nothing made him happier."

From the company Grant Hill keeps—he has been mentioned with teammate Bobby Hurley, Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn, Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway, Indiana's Calbert Cheaney and Michigan's Chris Webber as a likely Player of the Year—we know that he is a member of college basketball's elite. From his parents' achievements we know him to be a product of the power elite: Janet, a mathematician by training, is a partner in the Washington, D.C., consulting firm of Alexander & Associates; Calvin is a v.p. with the Baltimore Orioles. Mom shared a dormitory suite with Hillary Clinton at Wellesley, and Dad was a flatteringly rendered character in the original Doonesbury, so Grant must be the progeny of the cultural elite too. Yet the elite are supposed to take their birthright for granted and step regally up when called upon. Grant's reluctance to do so has been the great struggle in the otherwise glitch-free life of this only child of only children.

His mom attributes this to "his sense of protocol." His dad cites "his belief in hierarchy. He's reluctant—maybe too much so—to stand out, to be perceived as better than others." His coach, Mike Krzyzewski, knows that the minor matter of whether Duke will win a third straight national championship hinges largely on whether his junior star can be cajoled into "jumping his place in line." Says Krzyzewski, "A kid like Grant needs to be helped to get to his rightful position, to realize that he's really that good. Grant being Grant, he wants to be asked to advance in the line. He'll always be very sensitive toward everyone else in line, even when he's at the head of it."

As an eighth-grader at Langston Hughes Junior High, Grant was so mortified when his famous dad accepted an invitation to speak at his school that he faked an illness and hid out in the nurse's office. One day, when Calvin picked him up at basketball practice in a pricey German sports car, the son asked the father to come henceforth in the family Volkswagen so the other kids would not think Grant special. Eventually he became a star at South Lakes High, and there was no disputing that he was special. But when reporters wanted Calvin's comments on his son. Grant asked his dad to go easy on the interviews, so the other fathers might have a chance to be in the papers too.

His 1991 and 1992 NCAA championship rings go unworn. They're squirreled away with Calvin's Super Bowl ring, because Grant doesn't want to run into friends like Webber or Rodney Rogers of Wake Forest and make them feel lesser somehow. Even in the matter of the movie Malcolm X (to which he gives a thumbs-up), Grant wishes Spike Lee had spent more time chronicling how the pilgrimage to Mecca turned Malcolm into an apostle of conciliation. "Grant," says his dad, "is more interested in harmony than disharmony."

That preference jibes with the strain of reluctance that runs through his basketball career. At Reston's Twin Branches Park, where such future college stars as Carlos Yates, Dennis Scott and Michael Jackson regularly ran, Grant remembers having to be begged to join the action. "I never thought I was good enough," he says. "It was kind of like what's gone on the last two years—everybody trying to get me to be more assertive." The biggest trauma of adolescence, father and son agree, occurred when he was a freshman in high school. As an eighth-grader he had been water boy for the ninth-grade team on which most of his friends played, and he looked forward to joining them the following season on the jayvee team. But that fall South Lakes coach Wendell Byrd invited him to try out for the varsity. Grant balked. "Coach Byrd told me to go home and talk to my dad," he says. "Well, he'd already talked to my dad."

Calvin urged him to at least give the coach a chance to make the decision. Grant said he would but wanted Calvin to know he felt he was being forced to. He tearfully accused his father of child abuse. Of course Grant made the varsity and his friends were genuinely excited for him, and within a few days the issue was moot, "I guess I always wanted to be liked by everybody," he says. "Here my father was in sports, my parents had money, and I'm thinking that if I do well in sports, people will get jealous of me and not like me. I didn't want to seem better than everybody else. Eventually I realized I was better."

After concluding his freshman season at Duke with an end-of-the-millennium, one-handed jackknife slam off an alley-oop in the 1991 NCAA title game against Kansas, he found himself wondering what he might have accomplished if he had had that whole year to do over again. Last season, pressed into running the team when regular point guard Hurley went down with a broken foot, he strung out line after line of ample points, rebounds, assists and minutes played, all with minimal turnovers. Watching the 6'8" sophomore fill in for the 6-foot kid from Jersey City, Krzyzewski was struck by the difference. Bobby just does stuff, the coach decided; Grant is always analyzing: If I make this play, four moves later this will happen. (It's always dangerous to traffic in stereotypes, but if you must, let it be this: The child of the city, not the black one, plays by instinct; the suburban kid, not the white one, thinks things through.)

Whether he's the tallest Duke player on the floor or he's playing the point, Hill has a carriage so liquid that his game appears to have evolved not from trial and error but from trial and success. In what may be the first documented instance of a basketball player attributing his achievements to the crucible of suburban life, Grant credits the youth soccer he played in Reston with giving him his quick first step and agility.

"Christian and Bobby were the MVPs [of the 1991 and 1992 Final Fours]," Krzyzewski says, "but the guy who played as well as anybody in those four games was Grant. But he didn't mind staying out of the limelight, because last year it was Christian's and Brian's [Davis] turn, and the year before that it was Christian's and even Greg Koubek's turn. Grant's made the biggest jump with his shot and his assertiveness and being consistently excellent. To make the next jump, he'll need to play without Bobby and be the leader."

He'll be around to make that jump, for he'll return for his senior season. Janet and Calvin recently became cochairs of the Duke Parents' Program fund drive. When they signed on in July—as they announced in a fund-raising letter that warmed a certain Polish-American heart—they agreed to serve for two years.

But before he leaves, Grant, despite his aversion to conflict, may throw himself into an ongoing controversy. Five years ago Duke pledged to significantly increase the number of its black faculty members. Since then the ranks of African-American professors on campus have hardly grown at all. Members of the Black Student Alliance arc pressing the issue, and Grant is thinking of joining them. "It's not like I'd like to be Charles Barkley and speak out on everything," he says. "But if it's something I really believe in, I'll speak up. Hopefully it will help bring about change."

If he does join the protest, he'll do so carefully. He's still talking with people around campus whom he trusts, getting their advice, thinking, as usual, four moves ahead. "Right now I'm talking about what I could do, what I should do. I may not do anything. But I don't want to be unprepared."

An only child of only children has no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, no uncles, no first cousins. Grant Hill's rooting section must make up in quality what it lacks in quantity.

Janet is the realist. She says things like, "As much as Calvin and I value education, we know you can make it in this world without Chaucer. You can't make it without common sense. Grant has a tremendous amount of common sense."

Calvin is the one, Janet says, from whom Grant gets that considerate streak. Calvin's father, Henry, went to Baltimore during the Depression, an ill-educated South Carolina farm worker in search of a better life. When Calvin signed his first contract, with the Dallas Cowboys in 1969, he suddenly came into more money than his father could earn in 25 years on a construction site. "I was very conscious of his feelings," Calvin says. "I didn't want him to think my economic power gave me preeminence in the household. He used to joke about it. 'Guess you have more money than me. Guess I can't tell you what to do.' But it made me uncomfortable."

Calvin has read comments from his own son in which Grant wonders how his father is coping with his success. Grant's concern may grow out of remarks his dad makes—good-natured, bust-your-chops comments like, "Grant, you're good. But you've only got half my genes. Imagine if you had the other half." There's also an oft-repeated story in which 13-year-old Grant has just returned from St. Louis with a national AAU title and a place on the all-tournament team. Calvin, 38 at the time, issues one of those so-you-think-you're-some-thing challenges, to play a little one-on-one. The story is true. Grant beat him, and Calvin insisted on a rematch, and Grant beat him again.

But the inference that might be drawn—that the passage from being Calvin Hill to being Grant Hill's father is the stuff of a midlife crisis—isn't true. The only competition Calvin engages in now is with himself, on the Stairmaster. "In my own career there were goals I didn't achieve," he says. "But I won a championship, and I'm very content with that. I didn't want Grant to feel he had to be an athlete. But the fact he has turned out to be one pleases me.

"It's like General Douglas MacArthur," adds Calvin, who was a history major, as is his son. "His father was a general too, and the son totally eclipsed him."

Calvin says this in his living room, not far from the souvenir piece of the Hoosier Dome floor that rests on the mantel. He has riffled through his memory, and he is now leafing through photo albums and picking through shoeboxes stuffed with snapshots chronicling the years: Dallas Cowboy socials and Players Association functions and images from Yale and Hawaii and D.C.—the images filled with people in tinted glasses and ties that could double as bedsheets.

He stops at a black-and-white glossy of five Cowboys in uniform, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and points at wide receiver Drew Pearson. "Look at Drew," Hill says, shaking his head at a pair of unruly muttonchops and a huge Afro. "He'll never live that down. You have to be careful with these trendy haircuts."

Rescued from this scrapbook scrap-heap and framed on a wall upstairs is a photograph of Grant's April Fools' Day throwdown against Kansas. Grant can't bear to look at it, on account of his coiffure. "We call it the Thug," Calvin says. "He must have fallen asleep in the barber's chair. I tell him how much I wish I'd gotten a simple haircut that transcended the style of the times when I was playing. But some education is experiential."

(Equal-time guidelines require the insertion of this parenthetical aside. Grant? About the haircut?

"The barber was drunk," he says. "He did Tony Lang's hair first. Then he did mine, and by then the vodka must have kicked in."

There you have it. We now return to our regular narration.)

As he pores over pictures of Grant, Calvin remarks on his son's consistently placid face. He seems unruffled whether in action or at rest. "I was emotionally explosive as an athlete. And Janet, you always know exactly how she feels. But Grant amazes me sometimes. He never changes his expression. I often wonder what's going on inside. There must be a lot bubbling, a lot that gets channeled."

It's around lunchtime on Jan. 7, several days before Duke is to play Georgia Tech. Grant stops by Cameron Indoor Stadium to loft a few hoopward. He starts with foul shots, then moves gradually farther out, chatting idly with a bystander who rebounds for him. Suddenly he's seized by an uncharacteristic fit of chestiness.

"Gonna score 30 on Sunday," he says between shots from beyond the arc. "Career high."

On Sunday he scores 29, including 13 free throws in a row. It is indeed a career high. But he misses his 14th, and Duke loses by one. Calvin Hill's son is beginning to get this star business down. He's stepping up more every day now. But not quite far enough. Got to be even chestier; got to step up just a little bit further.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANPHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHThe Hills have been postseason regulars: Here Grant soars to NCAA title number two, in '92, and Calvin takes on the Browns in '69.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above.]PHOTOMANNY MILLANJanet is a power player in her own right in D.C.PHOTOAt four, Grant was already heading in a different direction from his dad, then with the Skins.