Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the great Grant Hill formally announced his retirement from the NBA. It’s been a long, bumpy road for the seven-time All-Star, and though he wound up as a more-than-solid pro baller, during the early days of his career, the Duke grad was seen as an up-and-comer who could become one of—if not the—best players in the League. In April of 1997, we put Hill on the front of SLAM 17 and Scoop Jackson penned the issue’s cover story, which you can read in its entirety below. Enjoy.—Ed.

by Scoop Jackson / photos via Getty Images

On July 1, I met Grant Hill. On August 13, my son was born. Both days are significant, and it is between these two dates where the first part of this story rests.

Every child is born with a sense of destiny, a sense of purpose. Every father wants his son to do things that he himself was unable to do: better society, enhance culture, make a difference. Some days, a child’s life is lived vicariously through the deferred dreams of chosen individuals whose life’s work changed the world. It is on these days that the child hears the names Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Fitzgerald Kennedy…Tiger Woods.

I’ve always wanted my son to be a basketball player. There’s something about the game that transcends life itself. Basketball, I was once told, is an analogy for life. And while history’s great men have their omnipresent place in my household, Chris Webber’s name is mentioned more often than the Pope’s or Nelson Mandela’s. It’s not disrespectful; that’s just the way it is when—on a daily basis—you witness more people putting balls through iron rims than changing the course of humanity.

I never looked at Grant Hill as anything other than a special ballplayer who had the ability to change the game. I never held him in high reverence, I never thought he’d save mankind. I couldn’t put such demands on a brotha who was nine years younger than me. Here was a gifted man trying to continue the legacy that Julius Erving started and Michael Jordan is holding down. Here, in my mind, is simply a young man who is fighting to find his place in the world of professional sports and separate himself from Penny Hardaway at the same time. Here is Grant Hill—not Gandhi, not Dr. King, not JFK—putting basketballs through iron rims for a living.

Two days after my son was born, someone asked my wife the question, “Is there a person alive that you would like to pattern your son’s life after?” She answered without hesitation, “Grant Hill.”

Part 1

At the Dream Team III practice on July 1, Grant Hill works out. Nobody knows this, but he is using this time—playing in the Olympics—to make himself a better basketball player. As far as he’s concerned, this summer will be the most important off-season in his life. Not because he has a chance to win a gold medal, but because every day for two months he gets to test his game against the best defensive forward the game may ever see, Scottie Pippen. He also gets to study Pip’s total game. It is an ingenious strategy Grant uses to get his game to that next level, to get where Mike and Scottie already call home.

“To become the best, you must learn from those that are the best,” he would quietly say to me. Keep your predecessors close and regard everything as vital.

In the evolution of becoming the best basketball player alive, Grant Hill knew he had to change. All his life he has been the one. The chosen one. The one whom mothers want their sons to resemble. The one who gets the most votes for the All-Star game but never the MVP. And after 23 years of being “the one” but not the best, Grant Hill decided to change. Frederick Douglas once said that power surrenders nothing without demand. It’s my guess that Grant heard that just before his summer began.

July 3, ‘96

SLAM: So I heard you are going to save sports [laughs].

Grant Hill: That’s crazy!

SLAM: But GQ said…

GH: I was 22 years old when that story came out—“Can Grant Hill Save Sports?” Man, I’m just trying to help save the Pistons [laughs]. Maybe someday I can be that ambassador that everybody wants, but I wasn’t ready for that then, and I’m not ready for it now.

SLAM: So you had a problem with that?

GH: I had a problem with that and I didn’t like the article.

SLAM: Racist? The whole “hoodlum” thing?

GH: I thought the entire article was racist. I take [Tom Junod] to a party, and him calling everybody there hoodlums, I thought was wrong. But then because I was there having fun, I felt that he was calling me a hoodlum. He even made the reference, “Grant Hill’s here, he’s king of the hoodlums.” And it wasn’t even like that. He even said, “there were guys in long mink coats and those big mink hats, and you just knew they had guns in their pockets.” What’s that all about? First of all, I had fun there, and I still go to parties [with black people]. I really thought the story was disrespectful towards black folks.

SLAM: It also said that you “act white” and “play black.” So should I call you, like, Newt Jordan?

GH: [Laughing] Man, you have no idea. So much has been made of me just being some type of perfect person, and anyone that knows me knows that I’m not perfect. I’m real just like everybody else. I’m no different than the next man.

I don’t know. It’s like, now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m curious as to how people really perceive me. Like when they think of Grant Hill, what do they really think of? You know? I mean, it’s flattering that people like you and appreciate you, but more than likely what they think of is not necessarily what I am. I’m not saying what I am is bad, I just think what I am is real. [Long pause] I don’t know man, it’s crazy.

SLAM: Are you trying to change?

GH: Yeah, but I don’t want you to think that I’m going to all of a sudden be like [Dennis] Rodman; I’m just trying to be more comfortable being me, you know. I’m only 23 years old now, so I’m still trying to figure life out.

They say nice guys usually finish last. Not saying that I’m not trying to be nice, but I’m going to do what I have to do to, most importantly, win. When I was in college, I was cool with everybody, but my senior year it was my team, leadership-wise. I’m pretty sure, during that time, I said things people didn’t always like, but they respected it. I think I’m trying to establish that respect right now. It’s at the point where, who cares if people don’t like me? If you want to win—if you want to be a leader—you are going to say things that people are not going to want to hear. I just think it’s a part of growing up.

On the court, it’s like, forget about, this is Doug Collins’ way of doing things, or because Joe Dumars is a veteran I should always defer to him and not really be myself. I respect them both as men, but hey, this is my time and I have to assert myself accordingly. On the court, in the locker room, with my teammates. Not to disrespect anybody, but in the past I always deferred to others, held back, bit my tongue—I’m not going to do that any more. I don’t want to look back and be like, “Well, if I had dome this, or if I had done that, things would’ve been different.” No, I want to look back and say that I gave it all that I could. I was right in some cases, I was wrong in some cases, but I’ve got to live.

SLAM: Still, you have the whole image thing that people expect you to live. You know [mimicking the commercial] “Wow, Grant Hill drinks Sprite,” right?

GH: Yeah, I know what you mean. It even got into my personal life. I know I’m drifting off, but getting caught up in this image thing…I had a girlfriend for two years, and she was really a good person. Intelligent. Med school, right background, family; you know, she fit the mode of a girl that I thought I was supposed to be with. I’m with her because I’m thinking to myself, “This is the type of girl I’m supposed to be with.” It’s deep. It even got down to the clothes that I wore. It got to the point where I would tell myself that I had to dress a certain way because I was supposed to project this image. It was like, “Okay, my image is this.” Here I am, 23 years old, I’m a good guy—but if I want to wear long shorts, I should be able to wear long shorts.

My father is still very protective and still thinks I should do things the way he wants me to do them. I’m at a point now where I’m like, “Look Dad, I’m gonna do what I want to do. I’m going to listen to your advice, I’m going to think about everything you tell me, but ultimately, now, I’m going to make my own decisions.” Then again, I guess this is just my way of rebelling.

SLAM: When do you think you will get to that at-one-ment in basketball? I mean, I know your internal image change has a lot to do with the way you are going to approach the game from now on. You’ve already been called, “the Savior”, “the next Michael Jordan”; players in the League that are “at one” with their games, it’s them [laughs]. I just want to know, where do you think you stand?

GH: I really don’t know, but I do know that I want to get to the point where at both ends of the court I put fear in somebody’s heart. Like Scottie—I’m just trying to play with him for the next four to five weeks [on DTIII]; I can’t help but get better. I’m using this as an experience. As much fun as it’s going to be, I’m working. No telling when I’m going to get another chance like this.

Michael and Scottie are on top of a mountain, and all of us are trying to catch them. What they are doing on the court, I’m trying to do myself. They know how to win. I’m not there yet, but I want to be, I will be. Individually, I think I got better from last year to this year, but there’s still room for improvement. As a player, I want to get to that point where Scottie is, where you get out there and you are just, just a bitch out there—the man. You know, where people don’t even want to play against you.

SLAM: So is this all a part of the evolution of Grant Hill?

GH: It’s more mental than anything. Last year, in April, mentally I wasn’t where I should have been—and even in my career I haven’t been there [mentally] yet. From December to March, I think I did really well, but in April, I was bad. I was terrible, at my worst. I look back at last year, but there’s a lot more I could do. I really haven’t been pleased with my performance up until now.

This summer’s going to be the difference. I feel that I have a lot more to show, I feel like I’ve got something to prove. Not just to everybody, but to my teammates and to myself.

The way I look at my life right now is that this is my window of opportunity. I can’t put limits on me. I’ve always been like, “I want to be like Scottie, I want to be like Michael”—you know what I mean? Those guys are great players, but I think saying you want to be like somebody or better yet, saying you’ll never get to that level, is putting a limit on you.

I’m striving to be the best; that’s my whole thing. And I’m not going to be able to take that step to the next level unless internally, within myself, I change a few things. I just feel like I have a lot to prove, and I just, well, [deep breath] I’m ready to take that step to another level and hopefully my game is ready too.