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THE MAN BY SPEAKING HIS MIND, DEMANDING THE BALL AND DEFERRING TO NO ONE, GRANT HILL HAS SHOWN THAT HE'S NOW DRIVING THE PISTONS

Nov. 25, 1996
Nov. 25, 1996

Table of Contents
Nov. 25, 1996

Faces In The Crowd

THE MAN BY SPEAKING HIS MIND, DEMANDING THE BALL AND DEFERRING TO NO ONE, GRANT HILL HAS SHOWN THAT HE'S NOW DRIVING THE PISTONS

During the preseason Grant Hill's application was received, duly
processed and quickly acted upon. Hill got the job, and so far
he seems to be doing it. His surprising Detroit Pistons, all but
forgotten in the NBA over the last few seasons, finished last
week with an 8-1 record, and Hill finished as the league's best
all-around player not wearing a Chicago Bulls uniform. But the
job for which the 24-year-old Hill applied calls for more than
scoring, rebounding, passing, ticket selling and good-guying,
tasks he performed with elan during his first two years in the
league. Now, as he begins his third NBA season, Hill is The Man,
a position that calls for broad shoulders, a tart tongue, thick
skin and a set of somethings that Hill won't describe in mixed
company.

This is an article from the Nov. 25, 1996 issue Original Layout

Question: Can a guy for whom "screw it" is strong invective be
The Man? "Look, I'm tired of all those 'good guy' tags," Hill
says. "I'm tired of hearing that I'm the 'reluctant superstar.'"
Can a guy who makes little quotation marks in the air be The Man?

The Man certainly has to be able to play, and the 6'8" Hill can
do that: He was averaging 24.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.0
assists, all team highs, through Sunday. Still, the Pistons need
even more from him. Detroit, which swaggered, elbows and tongues
flying, to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90, was
toothless by the time of Hill's arrival in the summer of '94,
having gone a disastrous 20-62 the previous season. Most teams
have to get bad before they can get good again. But not that
bad. The Pistons were desperately looking for a leader, someone
to take the wheel and drive them back to respectability, and it
wasn't until this preseason that Hill proclaimed his desire to
do just that.

True, guard Joe Dumars was still around from the championship
years, giving Detroit what veteran forward Rick Mahorn calls The
Man-Old School and The Man-New School. As Mahorn knows, however,
there can only be one Man. The 33-year-old Dumars has a mien as
soft as his shooting touch, and he has neither the
bring-down-the-house game nor the desire to be The Man. "It was
just never important to me," he says.

But now it's important to Hill for a variety of reasons. The
nonstop prodding of coach Doug Collins, who came to the Pistons
before the 1995-96 season, burns in Hill's brain. While his
high-octane enthusiasm was a major factor in last season's 46-36
turnaround, Collins has gotten under a lot of people's skin in
Detroit, especially Hill's. Also, Hill was embarrassed by his
desultory play both in the final month of the 1995-96 regular
season and in the Pistons' three-game flameout against the
Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. Finally, when
Hill played with the Dream Team at last summer's Olympics he saw
nothing to convince him that he couldn't be The Man and much to
persuade him that he should. "If I began in awe of those guys, I
didn't end up that way," says Hill. "After going against them in
practice, I woke up one day and said, 'Hey, they're no better
than I am.' I deserved to be in Atlanta. I deserved to have been
selected an All-Star my first two years. I belong. It was an
important lesson."

Indeed, the I'm-bigger-than-the-game attitude of some of the
Dreamers and their lackluster effort during practices and games
compelled Hill to reexamine his own place in the NBA. He
concluded what anyone could have told him the day he was
drafted: The league needs team-oriented, savvy and marketable
players like Hill carrying the banner. Hill imparted his
feelings on those subjects to Charlie Vincent of the Detroit
Free Press last month. "At times I felt I was the most mature
guy [in Atlanta], though I was one of the youngest," he told the
Free Press. "Every last one of the guys on the Dream Team felt
he was the best player in the world. I came away from that more
grown-up, with less respect for them as players and as people."

Last week Hill modified his position, albeit slightly. "I regret
saying what I did, because I made it public," said Hill, "but
I'm not taking it back."

In fact, Hill had said even more to Vincent, singling out two
Dream Teamers for harsh criticism. Collins and Matt Dobek, the
Pistons' vice president of public relations, found out about
this and urged Hill to talk to Vincent and ask him to back off
the naming of names. Hill did, and reluctantly Vincent agreed.
While Hill won't divulge whom he castigated, he says he was
closest to Utah Jazz veterans Karl Malone and John Stockton, so
you can at least eliminate them.

Saying the impolitic thing that can end up on a bulletin board
is part of being The Man. The Man stirs up the opposition, just
as he challenges his teammates with a few well-placed insults
from time to time. (See Jordan, M.; Bird, L.) Hill hasn't felt
the need to do the latter yet, but when he does, it's likely to
be the part of his new job that he finds the most difficult.
Growing up with two high-profile parents--his dad, Calvin, was
an All-America football player at Yale and a four-time All-Pro
running back with the Dallas Cowboys; his mom, Janet, is a
lawyer who co-owns a consulting firm--Grant has struggled
throughout his life to be one of the guys. "One of the first
things I remember is being conscious of trying to fit in," he
says. "A lot of attention came to me naturally, because people
knew my father and my mother were successes, and I was good at
sports and had financial advantages. If my parents came to pick
me up in a Porsche, I wanted it to be a Volkswagen bus."

On one occasion Calvin addressed the student body at Langston
Hughes Junior High in Reston, Va., where Grant was an
eighth-grader. When Calvin finished his speech, the principal
summoned Grant to the stage for photos, but the boy couldn't be
found. Mortified by the attention, he had sought refuge in the
nurse's office.

Hill is like another superstar who came from a stable,
relatively privileged background: David Robinson, who in his
seven All-Star seasons with the San Antonio Spurs has never
fully embraced the role of The Man because he is reluctant to
get nasty with his teammates. "You feel bad criticizing, because
David and Grant are both such great people," says Pistons
assistant coach Alvin Gentry, who was an assistant in San
Antonio for two years, "but being liked is very important to
both of them. They have to find a way to put that aside once in
a while, to cross over and be The Man. I'm not sure David has
ever done it. But I've seen Grant make great strides at it this
season."

For that he can thank Dumars. One of the first things Collins
did when he signed on to be the Detroit coach last year was to
ask Dumars to talk to Hill and two young guards, Allan Houston
and Lindsey Hunter, and put them at ease about their roles. "I
told them there's no protocol here," says Dumars. "I let them
know they don't have to wait for my blessing to be great players."

The meeting was important for the future of the Pistons. Dumars
is a five-time All-Star, the 1989 NBA Finals MVP and a Piston
lifer, and here he was saying, in effect, This is your team as
much as mine. That turned out not to be the case for Houston,
who signed a free-agent contract with the New York Knicks before
this season. But it was important to the 6'2" Hunter, who was
averaging a solid 13.3 points through Sunday, and crucial for
Hill, who says he has always been overly deferential. "I heard
Joe, but I didn't realize the significance of what he was
saying," says Hill. "It's just coming clear to me, now that I'm
trying to take over a team and become the leader. Whenever Joe
starts talking to me in that grandfatherly fashion, it just
means so much, because he's...well, I don't mean grandfatherly,
he's not that old, but in that wise-uncle fashion ...well, maybe
big brother would be the best...." As you can see, The Man still
worries about offending.

Collins can't even put into words what Dumars's cooperation has
meant, and Collins can put almost anything into words. "Joe
Dumars gave me a chance to put this team together the way I
thought it had to be put together," says Collins, tears in his
eyes. "I love Joe Dumars."

Valentines aside, there are question marks about these Pistons
and about Hill's role in what has become the league's purest
three-guard offense this side of Chicago. Collins has put the
ball in Hill's hands, installing him as a point forward who runs
the attack about 90% of the time. It is Hill's responsibility to
break down his man and 1) find Dumars, Hunter or sharpshooting
forward Terry Mills on the wing; 2) stop and take a midrange
jumper; or 3) take the ball to the hoop himself. Putting Hill in
charge was a bold move, and not just because Collins took heat
for doing the same thing with Jordan during the latter part of
'88-89, the last of his three seasons in Chicago. With Hill at
the point most of the time, the Pistons lose both his slashing
baseline drives and his post-up game. Besides center Otis
Thorpe, the only other Piston who's effective with his back to
the basket is Dumars.

As Detroit's primary decision maker, Hill also is finding it
hard to maximize his athletic potential. No, he's no Jordan and
never will be. "No matter how much people talk about my athletic
ability, I don't have the hand size to do what Michael does with
the ball when he's in the air," says Hill. "And I don't have
nearly his ability to elevate above people when I go to the
hoop." Watching Hill stop and pop jumpers instead of driving to
the basket against defense-impaired Dale Ellis during a 95-94
Pistons overtime defeat of the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 13, one
sympathized with the frustrated courtside fan at The Palace of
Auburn Hills who shouted, "Damn, Grant! Take the ball to the cup!"

So far Detroit seems to have worked out the intricacies of the
three-guard offense and the subtleties of having a new Man on
the block (if not the blocks). Off the floor Hill's teammates
are more than content to let him be the go-to guy for questions
from the media, allowing veterans such as Dumars to stay in the
off-limits-to-the-press training room--"The sulk room," as
Mahorn calls it. On the court, with Hill as the primary ball
handler, Detroit (like Chicago with Jordan and Scottie Pippen)
is nearly impervious to presses and traps, because pesky
pressuring guards are too small to play Hill. His presence has
opened up opportunities for that sweet Dumars jumper, and the
grandfather/uncle/big brother was shooting 52.5% from the floor
and 57.4% from three-point range to get his 17.9 points per game
through last weekend.

Even the potentially sticky question of who should take the big
shots is, according to Dumars, "no issue at all." Last season in
the playoffs Hill wound up deferring in crunch time to Dumars
and Houston. But now Hill is The Man, and The Man must, as
Detroit assistant Johnny Bach puts it, "place himself in front
of the firing squad every night." After Hill twice failed to
convert down the stretch in that tight game against the Nuggets,
"Doug decided to let Joe try his luck," says Hill. And wouldn't
you know it, after Dumars was double-teamed, he found Hill alone
under the basket. Hill drew a foul and made both free throws
with 5.5 seconds left to give Detroit the victory. It was "the
kind of providence that happens only to great players," says Bach.

It's way too early to tell if the Pistons are for real. Last
Saturday they earned their first win over a plus-.500 team by
beating the Cavaliers in Cleveland 102-98. Hill scored eight of
his game-high 27 points in the last six minutes. But in their
biggest test, at home against the Bulls on Nov. 8, the Pistons
were routed 98-80. Still, something good seems to be happening
in Detroit, maybe something as fascinating as the making of a
championship team, maybe something so pure as a seamless
confluence of generations, rare in today's NBA.

"I can't begin to count how many times I considered retiring
before Grant got here," says Dumars, "but the way we're playing
now, this rebirth, has made all that suffering worthwhile. You
know, those two little words, The Man, have wrecked a lot of
teams--teams that couldn't decide who The Man was, teams where
the wrong man became The Man. I've seen it happen, and it won't
happen here. Grant Hill is The Man, and he wears it well."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN With Hill in charge, the Pistons soared to an 8-1 start, their best since the 1988-89 title season. [Chris Webber and Grant Hill in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Because he now directs the Detroit attack most of the time, Hill slashes to the hoop less often. [Grant Hill in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERWhile still launching his sweet shot, the classy Dumars is content to be an avuncular presence in the shadow of Hunter (left) and Hill. [Joe Dumars]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE [See caption above--Lindsey Hunter]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Hill has made his decision: no more Mr. Nice Guy. [Grant Hill]