Having not seen Grant Hill in a few months, I go to Pistons practice with a twinge of concern. Off-seasons, I believe, are when egos take root. Players go home to friends and family. They hang out in clubs and parties. They hear the sycophants saying, “Man, you should be making more money …” or “How come you’re not bigger than such-and-such? He doesn’t have half your talent …”
They come back with an attitude. A chip on their shoulders. During the season, there is barely time for playing, sleeping, and catching the next plane; it’s the off-seasons when monsters are hatched.
So here is Grant Hill, back from summer break, shooting jumpers with Lindsey Hunter at the far end of the Pistons’ practice facility, getting ready for tonight’s season-opener against Washington. Hill looks bulked. He’s wearing black. A voice inside me says “Uh-oh.” He shoots several jumpers that clang off the rim, and he mumbles something every time Hunter chases the rebounds. I slide closer. This is what Hill says.
“Sorry, Lindsey … sorry, Lindsey …”
So much for worry.
Grant Hill has been profiled by every media outlet you can think of. Every TV show. Every newspaper. Every one remarks on what a fine, polite, upstanding citizen he is. He is so widely seen - from the cover of GQ this month to a feature this week in the New York Times Sunday magazine - that you feel an inevitability toward him turning sour. Growing cynical.
Nobody stays this nice. Nobody stays this polite.
“Do you get tired of entering every season as the poster boy for good behavior?” I ask Hill after practice.
“Sometimes,” he says, laughing.
Think about it. He’s 25. He’s in his fourth season. What other player of that stature has his mother and father quoted in almost every story? Reporters are constantly going to Calvin and Janet Hill, asking how they made Grant the person he is, asking if they like his facial hair, or his style of play. It’s as if the world wants to show the Hills their son’s report card.
“Do you ever wish they just profiled Grant, the man, instead of Grant, son of Calvin and Janet?”
“Yeah, I do,” he says, shrugging as if admitting that he likes fried foods. “I’m proud of my parents, don’t get me wrong, but” - he makes like a surgeon and snips two fingers together - “they cut the cord 25 years ago, you know?
“I guess it’s part of who I am. I’m the son of a professional athlete. People are going to write about that. And I think my mom and dad enjoy the attention.
“But it’s weird. Sometimes people make a big deal out of my family like we’re the Kennedys or something. Hey. I’m just a ballplayer. My parents are no different than Joe (Dumars’) parents or Lindsey (Hunter’s) parents - good, hard-working people with good values.”
He rolls his shoulders. “It’s been like that all my life.”
There are times I don’t envy Grant Hill. He’s in a game where attitude is like clothing, it’s the first thing people judge you by. Softness is of little value. Hard and tough is the effective mode. But even if Hill wanted to efface a tough-guy attitude, every 5 minutes there’s some article, commercial or interview that celebrates his manners, his sweetness, his light.
Combine this with the pressure to be the next great thing in the NBA - the people’s choice, the Prince Harry to Michael Jordan’s inevitable retirement - and you see how many different emotional directions tug at Hill’s heart.
And, oh yeah, there’s that little matter of winning a playoff series …
“Last summer was worse than this past one,” Hill says, comparing the first-round losses to Orlando in 1996 versus Atlanta in 1997. “In the Orlando series, we were swept. We just sort of died in the playoffs. I didn’t play well. And then I went to the Dream Team, and those guys didn’t let me forget it. They said, ‘You lost Allan Houston, too, you guys are gonna be terrible.”’
The Pistons weren’t terrible. They had a great start last year. For many nights, they trailed only Chicago in the conference standings. But they ran out of gas again in the playoffs, and now Hill is left to lead yet another changed cast.
“It’s not like Duke, where we knew who we were and what we were each year,” he says. “We come to camp this year and once again we have to adjust to new players.”
Hill is still searching for a team identity, the way Jordan and the Bulls have their traveling rock band identity, the way Magic Johnson had Showtime, the way Larry Bird had Celtic Pride, the way Isiah, Joe and Laimbeer had the Bad Boys.
“We still get compared to them around Detroit,” Hill says. “People come up to me and say, ‘You guys are playing great. But you’re not tough like the Bad Boys.”’
There’s Hill’s dilemma. Half the world wants to him to be Dudley Doright, the other half wants him to be Dick Dastardly.
Or to put it another way …
“I did an interview with Playboy magazine. It’s coming out soon. I was excited about that. I told my girlfriend that Playboy is actually known for their interviews.
“She didn’t believe me. She was like, ‘Yeah, right, interviews.”’
Can’t be too tough, can’t be too timid, can’t be too loud, can’t be too soft, can’t be too bad, can’t be too good. Grant Hill shrugs. Sometimes you wonder if playing basketball isn’t the easiest part of his job.