When Grant Hill was a kid tagging along with his father to Redskin
Park, he liked to pretend he was injured, just like Calvin Hill,
a warrior of a running back who was limping toward the end of his
stellar NFL career. Grant would imagine himself swaddled in tape,
or he would strap on a knee brace and limp around the sideline.
"I liked the accessories of being hurt," he recalls. "My father
would say, 'Son, believe me, you don't want to be wearing that
stuff,' but I thought it was cool." Smiling ruefully, he adds, "I
This is an article from the Nov. 25, 2002 issue
From May 2000 to May '02, few injured athletes were more fully
accessorized than Hill, who spent almost every day in either a
cast or a protective boot, complemented by a lovely pair of
crutches. These days he is blessedly free of medical
appurtenances, and he flashes a playful smile when he mentions
that his Orlando Magic teammate Tracy McGrady, the NBA's leading
scorer, wears a sleeve on his left leg "for cosmetic reasons."
Hill's left ankle contains three 1 1/2-inch screws, the legacy of
three surgeries and two years of pure agony. He plunges that
cursed ankle into a bucket of ice not only after games and
practices but also at idle moments. "Ice is my best buddy," he
Because of pain and swelling in his bad ankle the 30-year-old
Hill sat out the second half of a Nov. 2 game at Milwaukee and
never got off the bench on Sunday in a 101-99 loss at
Sacramento, which dropped Orlando to 6-5. The Magic had taken a
135-92 beating the night before at Golden State, and Hill's
ankle ached right after the game. As part of his agreement with
the Magic brass ("Mostly to protect myself from myself," Hill
says), he informed coach Doc Rivers right away. The pain
persisted on Sunday, and when it was still there during warmups,
Hill took a seat. He described it as a "minor disappointment
rather than a major setback" and admitted it's likely to happen
again this season. His teammates insist they don't dwell on the
state of Hill's health, but Rivers is more, well, honest. "I
worry about Grant when he gets out of his car in the morning," he
says. "The amazing thing is that he wanted to get back on the
basketball court--even if he didn't come back as Grant Hill."
Indeed, ever since the Magic invested $186 million in August 2000
to acquire both Hill and McGrady (the former from the Detroit
Pistons, the latter from the Toronto Raptors) in sign-and-trade
deals, McGrady has gone nowhere but up, and Hill has gone nowhere
but down--and needed help getting up. "The first concern when you
play [the Magic] is McGrady," Los Angeles Clippers assistant
coach Rex Kalamian said last Thursday, a few hours before McGrady
scored 35 points (Hill had 17) in a 101-80 Orlando victory at
the Staples Center. "I think any team would tell you that." Had
Hill not been limited to 18 games over the last two seasons,
would he now be cast as Salieri--minus the jealousy--to the
23-year-old McGrady's Mozart? "Greatness can't be denied," says
Hill, "so I say Tracy would've gotten that good no matter what."
He did get that good, and no one around the NBA believes that
Hill can again reach McGrady's level--except Hill. Though he
smiles about his 1-A status ("Man, for two years I didn't think
I'd even be 1-D," he says), he hasn't accepted it. "My goal is to
come back better than before, and I'm not sure people are hearing
that," says Hill. "I put myself right now at 65 to 70 percent, so
I have a long way to go. But I think I can be as good as anybody
in this league." And he leaves no doubt that he is including his
gifted teammate with the apparel line, the T-MAC 2 signature
sneaker, the hip commercials and the lifetime $100 million Adidas
There's no doubt that except for the Los Angeles Lakers'
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Orlando's duo is the most
dynamic in the NBA. The closest competitors behind Hill and
McGrady are the Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker,
who are also versatile perimeter players. But the Magic combo is
superior to Boston's because McGrady is second only to Bryant
(maybe) among noncenters and because Hill, before his ankle woes,
was better than either of the Celtics' worthies. Miami Heat coach
Pat Riley has proclaimed Hill-McGrady the best perimeter pair
ever, better even than his old Lakers tandem of Magic Johnson and
James Worthy. The potential of Hill-McGrady is so great that the
closest analogy in size, style and athleticism seems to be
Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Rivers's greatest fear when Hill and McGrady arrived was that
they were too similar and would get in each other's way, but the
coach has discovered that they are vastly different in demeanor
as well as playing style. Hill, the nine-year veteran, still has
the saucer-eyed countenance of the eager kid; even in
conversation he looks as if he's ready to hop off his seat and
pound his palms on the floor, the way he used to do back at Duke
during key defensive possessions. The sleepy-eyed McGrady has the
uninterested look of Derrick McKey, though with McGrady it's only
a look. Both he and Hill are heady players, and Rivers's
long-range plan is to install a skyscraper backcourt of Hill at
point and McGrady and sharp-shooting Mike Miller as swingmen.
(All three are listed at 6'8", though McGrady is 6'9".)
In some ways McGrady, who leaped to the NBA from high school,
does what Hill might be expected to do, and vice versa, despite
Hill's four years of spit shining in Durham. T-Mac, while
spectacularly athletic, is by inclination conservative, tending
to eschew the fast-break basket in favor of the half-court
jumper. "Tracy wants to stop, look around and figure it all out,"
says Orlando point guard Darrell Armstrong. "I guess if it ain't
broke, don't fix it, but I'd like to see him go hard all the
time." Hill, while not a particularly accurate outside shooter,
is the go-to guy in transition, the one who supercharges the
offense even after opponents' made baskets. "Grant has this way
of dribbling right at a defender," says McGrady. "He will not
stop, and there is no way the guy can figure out what to do. If
he starts backpedaling, it's over. It's probably over anyway."
Hill doesn't like to come off screens to shoot and isn't
comfortable posting up--two aspects of the game at which McGrady
excels. At week's end Hill had attempted (and made) only one
three-pointer, while McGrady was 22 of 57 from beyond the arc.
Rivers contrasts them in football terms. "Tracy is a wide
receiver who will make all the catches, over the middle, short,
deep," the coach says. "Grant, maybe because of his father, is a
running back. He just wants to hit the hole." Hill is a good
positional defender but likes to skulk around and make steals in
the passing lanes. McGrady has become a fundamentally sound,
stay-in-front-of-your-man stopper, entrusted by Rivers to clamp
down on the opposition's top scorer.
Regardless of who does what, Hill and McGrady have figured out
how to do it together, igniting an explosive offense (a
league-high 104.4 points per game through Sunday) that has helped
compensate for a host of defensive and personnel deficiencies.
Through 11 games McGrady (32.5 points per game) was outscoring
Hill (18.8 on 61.5% shooting), while Hill had outrebounded
McGrady (6.2 to 5.9). Each had dished nearly five assists per
The only stat that bothers Hill is that he is outsitting McGrady,
playing 28.9 minutes a game to T-Mac's 40.2. Mark Myerson, the
Baltimore surgeon who performed Hill's last two operations, has
ordered Hill's minutes to be monitored, which has forced Rivers
to do two things: Watch the clock and avoid Hill's imploring
gaze. "The Magic pays the bills and makes the decisions," says
Hill, "but I make it clear that I hate it." Yet even Hill admits
that a feeling of relief passes over him if the ankle doesn't
hurt when he torques it upon landing. The limited minutes will
continue for another month or so, at which point Hill will return
to full-time status--provided there are no further setbacks.
Eager as he is to go full bore, Hill counts his blessings. In
those dark days following the third surgery, he contemplated a
life without the ability to jog, much less return to the NBA.
"It's like I've been given a second chance, and I want to make
the most of it," he says. "Being away from the game helped
recharge my batteries; at the same time it made me realize how
much I love it. So in some strange way what happened was a
blessing." He grins. "But I don't want any more of that kind of
blessing, thank you."
He has already had an impact on the guy who leapfrogged him.
"Sometimes I sit back and think of what Grant's gone through,"
says McGrady. "He was the main man, then he gets hurt and comes
back into a situation where he has to take a little bit of a
backseat. But he doesn't complain, he doesn't sulk, he doesn't do
anything but play hard. I can learn from that. Anybody should
learn from that."
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