Evolution of the Man
A Grant Hill cover story penned by Scoop Jackson, originally published in April, ’97.
Destiny and purpose. Both have crashed in on Grant Hill’s life. It’s Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, and the man who would be king is fulfilling a dream. It has been six months since Grant and I have spoken in depth. Both of our lives have been changed considerably since we were together during the Olympics: I became a father and he became the best player in the NBA.
Just like Mike, only better. The argument never starts. I expected Grant to take the politically correct stand and disagree. “No way am I better than Mike,” is the response I looked for. Instead, he says two things: “I’m comfortable with that,” and “It’s all good.”
In a shocked silence I stood. This is not the same man I talked to in July. Better than Mike?!? Maybe he thought I was joking. I try again. “Grant, I’m putting in the story that you’re better than Mike—for real.”
His reply, “Oh Lord. Let me call Mike and forewarn him. Tell him, ‘I ain’t had nothin’ to do with this!’ [Laughing]. Naw, I’m just joking. Go ahead. Do it. How can I argue with you?”
Every year, there’s an open spot on the All-NBA First Team. Most of the regulars (Jordan, Pippen, Stockton, Malone, Olajuwon, Robinson, sometimes Barkley) have their spots. Three years ago Latrell Sprewell snuck in, and the next year Penny Hardaway slipped through. This year, Grant Hill will get MVP (or at least place second in voting). This year, Grant Hill stepped past “the regulars” to grab that pound-for-pound title too often missed by the average basketball critic. And just three days after our latest conversation, he added credibility to his theory by scoring 35 points, grabbing 15 rodmans and handing out 14 assists against the Lakers in a double-overtime game where 1) he sent it into overtime with a 33-foot jumper off glass, 2) the Pistons won in L.A. and 3) no cameramen got kicked.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley are—as players—at the top of that mountain Grant Hill spoke of earlier. In them you (arguably) have the four best players in the NBA. If not the best, then without doubt the most complete. For argument’s sake, let’s say one of them didn’t have another to feed off of—Mike didn’t have Scottie and Scottie didn’t have MJ, or Hakeem didn’t have Charles (or Clyde) and Charles didn’t have Dream (or Clyde). Would their teams still have the best records in the NBA? Could any one of them still put the necessary numbers in all categories while being triple-teamed every night because their team’s entire offense runs through them? Could they carry an entire franchise and still compete for respect among the league’s elite?
For argument’s sake, let’s say Grant Hill had some help.
The mission Grant set out on this summer is paying dividends. Nice dividends. He has evolved into the player he felt growing inside of himself, the player he wanted to be last April. His game now is a more learned one. Not only is his outside game tighter, his approach is more intelligent. The game comes more easily to him—or at least that’s the way it seems on the court. He is doing for basketball what Tiger Woods is doing for golf. He is also making me understand why my wife answered the question the way she did. He is becoming complete, the man who should be king. His quest, almost reached.
January 15, ‘97
SLAM: So you agree that you are, right now, the best basketball player in the League?
GH: Hey Dog, I can’t control what they say [laughing].
SLAM: You’re serious aren’t you? [Not laughing.]
GH: Do I agree with it? I think…right now, I’m having as good a season as anybody. Whether or not I’m the best…let’s put it this way: I look at it…well let me see…yeah…yeah, I think I’m up there. I don’t know about the best, but one of ‘em. I think I’ve gotten better each year. I feel like I belong as one of the top three or top five players in the League. I feel as if I’m the best; whether I am or not is really up to whoever’s judging me.
SLAM: I thought you were going to come with that, “Naw man, not me. Not with everybody doing this and that. I’m not there yet” routine…
GH: Naw man, it’s all good. I’ll take it. But I still think that I can get better. On a personal level, I think there’s a lot of improvement in my game.
The environment with the Pistons is different. I think last year was like a feeling-out process for everybody, you know. Whereas this year, things are different. Doug [Collins, head coach] is different. I’m different. He told me, “I’m not going to ride you as much [this year]. I’m not going to push you as hard. You’re getting to the point now where you’re going to push yourself.” And not only now do I have the freedom on the court, but, you know, he’s letting me play. Letting me go out there and do my thing and not worry about making mistakes, which has allowed me to grow as a player a little bit more.
SLAM: So this is the new you, the matured Grant Hill—not the same brotha I met six months ago.
GH: Basically, but hopefully I’ll continue to mature and get better. This all has been a learning experience, especially from my first year. Last year, I learned that you can have a good season, win some games, but the bottom line is that you’ve got to be at your best when the playoffs roll around. And all this, right here, is just preparing for the Playoffs. I’m doing well, but I know deep down in the back of my head that this doesn’t mean anything unless we do well as a team in the Playoffs.
SLAM: Has the game all of a sudden become easy to you?
GH: Not easy, maybe easier. I don’t know…You know what it is? I’m having fun. That’s the thing. It’s a game. Last year, my approach to the game was like a job. Like [talking to himself], “Uh, I got all these responsibilities. I gotta do this, I gotta do that. I gotta cover the other team’s best player.” Last year, my whole approach was different; now I’m just out there having fun. It’s like going to the playground ‘n’ hoopin’. It’s different. You can’t let the pressures or the expectations get to you. I just go out there now and have fun.
I remember my rookie year, Magic talked to me one time. At the time, they were talking about me being the next Michael Jordan and all of that stuff. Anyway, he said to me, “You’re not Michael Jordan, you’re Grant Hill. Don’t worry about trying to be like him. You’re not a scorer, you know who you are and what you can do. Enjoy it. Go out there and have fun.”
I guess at the time I really didn’t understand it, but now it’s like, I am who I am. People are going to make comparisons, but I’m Grant Hill. And I’m just going to go out there and do what I gotta do and have fun doin’ it. And if there’s one thing I learned last summer, [it’s that] Scottie and them work hard, but they have fun on the court. Treat it as a game, because that’s what it is.
SLAM: OK, so what’s going to happen when you get MVP this year?
GH: Uh…[caught off-guard, humble laugh] man, uh…I don’t know, man. My goal for this season really was just to try and become a first team NBAer. I’m trying to get up in there. I mean, the one person—if you look at position—in the way is Scottie. I was a little ticked off last year that I didn’t get it. But it was understandable. I mean, if you compare seasons and stats and all that, I thought maybe I should have been there. Second team is good, but I just want to get on the first team. Just to be recognized by everybody as one of the top five players in the League will be an accomplishment.
SLAM: If I said to you right now that I think G Robinson deserved the Rookie of the Year award [in ‘94], what would you say?
GH: I wouldn’t care. I think Glenn had a great rookie season. I think that if you’re going to give it to one person, that’s one thing. But if you’re going to give it to more than one, then it’s hard to leave out a guy that had the year that he had. He had a great year, Jason [Kidd] had a great year, I had a great year. I mean, I’m glad I got it, but maybe he deserved to get it. Maybe it’s not about what happens on the court. I don’t know. The powers that be made a decision, and I’ll live with it. But at the time I kind of felt bad, because I felt that he had a great year, but now I could care less.
SLAM: It seems that you’ve become so much more comfortable with dealing with the image thing, that now you are more into being a 23-year-old man instead of what everybody else wants.
GH: Yeah. For the first time I’m just being myself. When you come into this game, you’re naïve about things, and I was definitely naïve about professional sports, especially the whole image and perception of Grant Hill. I don’t think I have to go out of my way to be a nice guy; I think I’m already a nice guy—I’m just going to do what I always do and be me. It’s made life off and on the court a lot easier.
SLAM: And you are sure that you don’t have a problem with being called better than Mike?
GH: Naw, I don’t have a problem. I just have to call Mike and let him know that I didn’t have anything to do with this [laughs].
SLAM: So in the year 2047 when the NBA names their top 100 players of all time, you’re going to be on there, right?
GH: I better be on there, or something didn’t go right.