Every year, hundreds of basketball sneakers are produced, issued, sold, and played in on the hardwood worldwide, and for every year in the NBA, at least one star player has a special season that is the peak of his career—and a signature shoe that shares in his glory. That’s what Sneak Peak is all about—highlighting players and their sneakers from the past 25 years who shared the spotlight with iconic play and iconic style. (For the time being, the Sneak Peak series will now focus on the golden era of the top sigs, players, and overall seasons, which was approximately between 1994 and 1996, which we are dubbing “The Wonder Years”.)
If Grant Hill was nothing more in his first six seasons, he was at least interesting.
Third pick overall in a 6-8 package of small forward decked out in blue. An educated Dukie and a star Blue Devil with a pedigree the length of a Fruit By The Foot snack strip. He had a high-top fade and an seemingly-imaginary dunk that defined much of his amateur dominance in America; so when Hill came to the Detroit Pistons, no one expected less than superstardom, and for the more memorable on-court memories of his career, he embodied that. He was called a “Next Jordan”, but he more than that in many ways.
1994-1995 just the right time for him.
He brought Sprite to prominence, The Greatest of All-Time was out doing him for more than half of the season, and Hill was playing point guard most of the time, trying to bring some heat in the chilly-looking Palace at Auburn Hills.
And Fila became his calling card.
It wasn’t his highest scoring season, but Grant Hill’s rookie season may have been his most impactful. The way he moved on the court personified grace; he was slotted at forward, but spent so much of his time at the top of the key with the ball, you might as well have called him the next Magic. When his man would slip to the side of him, Hill would just dribble-drive all the way to the basket. When he wasn’t hitting from the outside (and if you watch, Grant wasn’t even that good of a shooter), he was finding open men in Joe Dumars and Terry Mills at the three-point line. GH was a real triple threat, and certainly could defend. Lanky and long, defense was a mere nothing for him; the attempt alone to stop the ball gave Grant the advantage, and with the mind of a steel trap, it’s no wonder he was an All-Star in his first season. The Rookie of the Year (with Jason Kidd sharing the honors) made plenty of sense and was already a foregone conclusion. 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5 assists made it plenty easy to see things that way, too.
Fila was already becoming en vogue as an athletic shoe company. It’s one thing to wear Italian-made clothes in the layperson world, but to rock something that unique as recreation is even more exciting to some, and it wasn’t lost on Fila what they could do with a pure talent in Hill. Called both the GH1 and The Hill, Grant’s first signature sneaker was so different and eye-catching, most people didn’t know what to do with themselves when they wore the shoe. With speed-lacing eyelets edging not only around the tongue, but also around the entire collar of the sneaker, Hill became known not only for his ability to pound the rock on the hardwood, but also for how sweet his shoe looked.
The most famous (and first) colorway being the white/navy/red combination, the dark blue traveled all around the shoe in synthetic suede waves with punctured white leather next to them. A large triangular “F Fila” logo marked the side of the outer heel and a deep tire-like tread gave the shoe its stability. White round laces on the navy tongue gave The Hill more pop, and some kids who wore The GH1 actually tied the shoe through the collar’s eyelets with a bow tie hanging on the back of the foot. The shoe was going to be that which would dethrone the Air Jordan, presumably.
Despite all the fanfare and newfound NBA glory, neither Fila nor the Pistons did anything for Hill to make them an instant contender. Outside of Grant actually dunking the ball (hard to remember, huh?) and actually playing the vast majority of the 82 games in the ’95 season, Hill used his first year as a significant stepping stone to reach the heights of his career that were yet to come. Sadly, the Pistons were merely nothing in his later years with the team. He became an elite player (despite self-admittedly not being able to even finish at the basket with his left hand), broke his foot in the wrong place, and well, you know the story… the former Duke Blue Devil was never the same player again after the year 2000 (though he did play in later All-Star games with the Orlando Magic). He’s still making great strides with the Phoenix Suns to this very day.
Fila soon lost credibility after his injury (and if you check the last designs of the Grant Hill signature shoes, it might have been before the injury took place). Lacking the technology and proper design team to compete with the challenges that Nike and adidas were responsible for presenting to the rest of the sneaker world, Fila minimized its U.S. market share and reemerged years later as a non-basketball athletic and lifestyle company.
Even though it was brief, for a short while, Grant and Fila were a match seemingly made for the stars.
But even constellations don’t show up in the sky every night.
Sandy Dover is a novelist/writer, artist, fitness and shoe enthusiast, as well as an unrepentant Prince fan (please, refrain from cackling). You can find him frequently here at SLAMonline, as well as at Associated Content and Twitter.