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Grant Hill retires: his Duke teammates and coaches reflect

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Grant Hill was beloved by coaches and teammates alike while he was at Duke. Credit: AP

Bobby Hurley remembers playing pick-up games with Grant Hill while they were in the midst of winning back-to-back titles at Duke. Hill was a popular pick, Hurley said, because his presence greatly increased the odds that a team would hold the court.

Those games occurred more than 20 years ago, in the early 1990s. Hurley is about to begin his first season as Buffalo’s head coach, 15 years removed from his last professional game. Hill just retired a few weeks ago.

“The way my body feels on a day-in and day-out basis, I can’t believe that he was still playing at that level,” Hurley said. “It brought me back to the times that we played together, so I guess is was kind of living through him, to a degree, watching him play and rejuvenate his career.”

Hill was valued in those pickup games, and throughout his 18-year NBA career, for more than just his on-court skills1. His positive energy was contagious, and, even as a teenager, people gravitated toward him.

“Duke has had some unbelievable players and great guys,” said Jay Bilas, a graduate assistant during Hill’s time at Duke. “Of the guys I’ve known there, two guys have had the combination of that kind of talent and still be incredibly nice people—you never heard one bad word about them. There were two guys I came into contact like that, and that was Johnny Dawkins and Grant.”

It’s hard to pick one best metric when evaluating Hill’s career. His longevity—18 years—is impressive on its own. So is the list of players who, like Hill, averaged at least 16 points, six rebounds and four assists in 500 or more games.

Totals Per Game
1 John Havlicek* 1963 1978 BOS NBA 1270 46471 10513 23930 8007 6114 26395 20.8 4.8 6.3
2 Scottie Pippen* 1988 2004 TOT NBA 1178 1053 41069 7420 15700 7494 6135 18940 16.1 5.2 6.4
3 Clyde Drexler* 1984 1998 TOT NBA 1086 950 37537 8335 17673 6677 6125 22195 20.4 5.6 6.1
4 Michael Jordan* 1985 2003 TOT NBA 1072 1039 41011 12192 24537 6672 5633 32292 30.1 5.3 6.2
5 Wilt Chamberlain* 1960 1973 TOT NBA 1045 47859 12681 23497 23924 4643 31419 30.1 4.4 22.9
6 Oscar Robertson* 1961 1974 TOT NBA 1040 43886 9508 19620 7804 9887 26710 25.7 9.5 7.5
7 Grant Hill 1995 2013 TOT NBA 1026 972 34776 6345 13126 6169 4252 17137 16.7 4.1 6.0
8 Magic Johnson* 1980 1996 LAL NBA 906 763 33245 6211 11951 6559 10141 17707 19.5 11.2 7.2
9 Larry Bird* 1980 1992 BOS NBA 897 870 34443 8591 17334 8974 5695 21791 24.3 6.3 10.0
10 Elgin Baylor* 1959 1972 TOT NBA 846 33863 8693 20171 11463 3650 23149 27.4 4.3 13.5
11 Chris Webber 1994 2008 TOT NBA 831 827 30847 7192 15024 8124 3526 17182 20.7 4.2 9.8
12 Rick Barry* 1966 1980 TOT NBA 794 28825 7252 16163 5168 4017 18395 23.2 5.1 6.5
13 LeBron James 2004 2013 TOT NBA 765 764 30374 7559 15411 5553 5302 21081 27.6 6.9 7.3
14 Billy Cunningham* 1966 1976 PHI NBA 654 22406 5116 11467 6638 2625 13626 20.8 4.0 10.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/10/2013.

*Indicates a Hall of Famer

Taking the long view, though, does a disservice to Hill’s talents when he was fully healthy. Ankle injuries robbed him of what should have been the prime of his career, limiting him to 47 games during 2000-2004, when he was 28-31 years old.

When Hill had his health at the beginning of his career, few were better. In NBA history, only six players have averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists through their first six seasons

Totals Per Game
1 Oscar Robertson* 1961 1966 CIN NBA 460 20529 4912 10147 4579 4923 13998 30.4 10.7 10.0
2 Michael Jordan* 1985 1990 CHI NBA 427 416 16639 5154 9989 2694 2565 14016 32.8 6.0 6.3
3 LeBron James 2004 2009 CLE NBA 472 471 19142 4647 9875 3307 3159 12993 27.5 6.7 7.0
4 Larry Bird* 1980 1985 BOS NBA 479 455 18288 4546 9163 5092 2777 11317 23.6 5.8 10.6
5 Jerry West* 1961 1966 LAL NBA 434 17237 4267 9187 3028 2289 12020 27.7 5.3 7.0
6 Grant Hill 1995 2000 DET NBA 435 434 17007 3392 7129 3417 2720 9393 21.6 6.3 7.9
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/10/2013.

“One of the things I hate is that a lot of the young guys now have no idea how good he was because they see the reinvented part,” said Jeff Capel, one of Hill’s close friends and teammate in 1993-94. “If you look at his first six years in the NBA, there have only been five other guys in history that have done what he did. Out of those five, four are the all-time greats. The fifth one, LeBron, is one of the all-time greats, too.

“That’s the course he was on, of being in the same breath as those guys. It’s just unfortunate what happened.”

Just as his basketball career is tough to describe succinctly, Hill, himself, defies a simple label. He’s a high-level athlete, a seven-time all-star. He’s a piano player, as demonstrated on the David Letterman show and in a mid-90s Sportscenter commercial. He’s a real-estate investor, both residential and commercial. He’s a collector of African-American Art. He’s on Barak Obama’s Council of Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. He’s a philanthropist.

“Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) says this now, and I think it’s so true, the world better watch out, because you will see all of his talent now,” Capel said. “Basketball was just a very small part of how unique he is.”

Hill arrived at Duke as a freshman prior to the 1990-91 season. Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner had just led Duke to the 1990 national championship game, where the team was thoroughly beaten by UNLV. Hill was undoubtedly talented, and he started 31 games. He was the ideal teammate.

“Grant was a prime example of someone who was willing to sacrifice part of what he could have done individually,” Hurley said. “He could have come in there and been a 20-point scorer right away. He allowed Christian to be as good as he needed to be. He allowed me to have my space to do what I needed to do. To a large degree, he incorporated himself and his talent into the team concept. That was what was important to him: winning.”

Hill was on two championship teams in his freshman and sophomore seasons, throwing the inbounds pass to Laettner against Kentucky, the one that turned into the greatest college basketball shot of all time.

By the time Hill was a senior, Hurley and Laettner were gone. There was a new group of Blue Devils on campus. Capel was among them.

“He was one of the reasons why I wanted to come here,” Capel said of Hill. “I admired him so much from afar. Obviously his game, how exciting he was as a player, how talented he was, really just the way he carried himself, he was just, to me, he was so cool.”2

Tommy Amaker, now the head coach at Harvard, was Capel’s main recruiter at Duke. Amaker made sure that Capel ran into Hill on all his unofficial visits and had him host Capel when he came for his official visit.

On the court, Hill mentored Capel and sophomore Chris Collins, the other backcourt starter. He had a way of calming then, eliminating the worry of making a mistake and simultaneously boosting their confidence. Duke went 28-6 in 1993-94, losing to Arkansas in the national title game. It was Hill’s third championship appearance in four years.

That spring, the Detroit Pistons drafted Hill with the third overall pick of the NBA Draft. He signed an eight-year, $45 million contract. He was an all-Star every year he was in Detroit3. In 2000, he went to the Orlando as part of a sign-and-trade deal, inking a $93 million deal. That’s when his left ankle problems started, though, culminating in five surgeries in four years and a life-threatening staph infection.

“A lot of guys in Grant’s position, and I really and truly feel this way, they would have just packed it in,” Capel said. “At that time, when he had the injuries, he had already made a lot of money and was very well taken care of.

“And the thing that I always admired is that here is a guy that kept working and kept fighting because he wanted to play so badly.”

Hill left Orlando in 2007, reviving his career in Phoenix. He played there for five years, averaging double figures in points each year. Hill ended his career after one season with the Los Angeles Clippers and announced his retirement June 1 on TNT.

“The injuries were disappointing only in that it took away our ability to marvel at him day-to-day throughout his time,” Bilas said. “What he went through, I marvel at him more for what he overcame.”

Bilas recently published his first book, Toughness, and drew on Hill for inspiration. He had expected his longtime friend to be thoughtful, but Hill’s contributions surprised even Bilas, who had mentally set the bar high.

Hill, himself, recently published his own work, a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times. He penned an eloquent response to Jalen Rose’s comments in ESPN’s Fab Five documentary, calling all black Duke players “Uncle Toms.”

“I caution my fabulous five friends to avoid stereotyping me and others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger,” Hill wrote. “I wish for you the restoration of the bond that made you friends, brothers and icons.

“I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five.”

Hill’s Duke coaches teammates, from Hurley at the beginning to Capel at the end, are proud of him, too.

“I know, with me, I have children now,” Capel said. “I have a son, and I would love for my son to be like him, and I would love for my two daughters to marry someone like him one day.”

He laughed.

“That’s saying a lot.”

Epilogue: Does Grant Hill belong in the Hall of Fame?


1 Hill is the only 3-time winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award. Interestingly, his fellow co-Rookie of the Year in 1994-95, Jason Kidd, is the only other player to win it at least twice.

2 Capel isn’t the only former Blue Devil player to be awed by Hill. Jay Williams, who played at Duke from 2000-02, was part of a dinner group with Hill during that time.

“It was myself, Coach K, Grant, his wife Tamia, and my fiancé at the time, Noelle,” Williams said. “Noelle kept kicking me under the table because I could not stop staring at Tamia. I was just a big fan. Her song, there’s a stranger in my bed, we just laughed at that time. I got a chance to sit down and talk to Grant, and he gave me words of encouragement. It’s people like that that you want to surround yourself by.”

3 Jay Bilas had an interesting cross-sport comparison for Hill: Hall-of-Fame Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. He played 11 years for the Dodgers, reaching his peak from 1961-66. But he retired at age 30 due to arthritis in his left elbow. His highlights (for the non-seamhead crew) include four no-hitters, three Cy Young awards and 2,396 career strikeouts.

“I’m a baseball fan, and I think Grant is the basketball equivalent of Sandy Koufax, except he continued to play,” Bilas said. “His longevity is Hall-of-Fame worthy. But his first six years, only a few players accomplished what he accomplished.”

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About the blogger

Laura Keeley is the Duke beat writer for the News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter @laurakeeley