Flight of the Phoenix: Interview with Grant Hill
Many athletes are not afforded a second chance and ultimately languish among the has beens and what ifs. Grant Hill has become the soul model for athletes that haven’t the courage to fight and find their true sense of career satisfaction in the midst of adversity. He’s overcome injuries that normally cause freakishly talented pros to run from the sights, sounds and once in a lifetime heights of glory associated with super stardom. Legends primitive who become hood stars that saunter apprehensively and settle diminished into a lost world of sitting on stoops and embellishing past stories to any admirer who used to love them.
A new day has dawned. The signing of Hill by Phoenix proves how serious the Suns are in their quest of obtaining the title forever elusive. Playing at Duke, where his Blue Devils were the first team to go back to back since Walton dreams and Kareem teams energized the UCLA dynasty, Grant was able to perform in a comfort zone that most athletes only dream of.
Initially when Grant entered the NBA, he was one of the most gifted ballers to grace the scene. His unique combination of athleticism, intelligence and modesty was instrumental in Grant becoming the first rookie to lead any American sport in fan all-star total balloting. It wasn’t anything unusual for Grant to rack up multiple triple doubles per week as he positioned himself to become a true basketball icon. He was one of the first to be proclaimed the next Jordan and had the classiness and ambassador like presence of one Julius Erving.
GHill was the truth before this generation’s definition of truth ever existed. His African American art has been on tour to give those not accustomed an inspiring renaissance of cultural thought. Grant and his R&B songstress wife Tamia are fam first, and committed to giving back to raise up those who live by means less amid socially distorting life distress.
Simply put, Grant is a winner. This cannot ever be questioned.
Michael Tillery: What prompts you to give so much back to so many organizations and not really receive well-deserved attention?
Grant Hill: I understand to a degree, to whom much is given, much is expected. We as athletes–celebrities and people that have financial security–are in positions where we can help. I think all of us…no matter who you are or where you are from…that achieve a certain level of success, can bring people along the way. My mindset is to try to help. It is as simple as that. Whether that is financial contributions, giving your name or actually getting out there, rolling up your sleeves and doing something for someone for a worthy cause, then that is important. Not to get deep or philosophical or anything like that, it is just how I am. My wife Tamia feels the same way and also does what she can to help in any way possible. We both have our organizations that we feel adamant supporting. It is good to be in a situation to be able to make a difference. Sometimes it is a big difference, sometimes it is on a smaller scale, but it is a difference nonetheless.
MT: It is known Grant that you do not speak of yourself in a flattering manner. You and your wife do so much for the community. How many organizations are the two of you involved in?
GH: I could not really tell you. If you look at a bio, you will see things that we have done over the years. You may read about something, someone may call or right a letter. You might have a friend and we might make an appearance. We might volunteer or give a contribution. You may do that for a year and move on to something else. There are also organizations that we have been supporting through the years. I do not know off the top of my head. I know what we are involved in now, but there is not a criteria, or game plan or goal that we want to do this or that. It is kind of whatever we are feeling or whatever we hear about. Whatever is important to us at that time, we try to do what we can do. What I am really trying to say is that it is no rhyme or reason. We do not say that we want to give to x amount of community service per year or give a certain amount of capital annually. It really rather fluctuates from year to year.
MT: Does the NBA mandate a certain amount of community hours geared to giving back?
GH: The NBA has programs. The NBA has different charities they support. Each team supports charities. I will say the teams I have been a part of do a good job to support charities, raising money, doing various things–which I think is great for the community. It is also great for young players to give them a model. I think it is good that the NBA and teams give a good example and say that we have certain latitude to show the community that we are accessible mentally, physically and financially.
MT: There are professional athletes and there are professional parents. You definitely have professional parents. How have they affected who you are and how can that positive example affect our collective upbringing?
GH: I am lucky. I am blessed for having their genetics that allows me to go out and do what I have done for years. My parents are educated; my parents are professionals. I am lucky to have had them play such a big role in my life. I cannot speak necessarily for other people, but positive parenting is important. I have a daughter and another one on the way any day now. We are excited about that. I know my daughter is watching everything. Not just for an example, but also to teach her right from wrong. I wish everyone had that. I know not everyone is that fortunate. Not everyone is going to have that upbringing from great people who have achieved much as I have. It definitely helps. I am very close with them. I am an only child. I still lean on them for support now like I did when I was younger. The one thing I realized watching them interact with their parents is that you never stop being a parent. Whether your child is in diapers or an adult, it is a very serious responsibility and that never changes.
As far as that affecting society, hopefully we all can try to be better parents. Nobody is perfect; we all make mistakes. I am in a wonderful position to do the best I can to shape, mold and teach my children to be the best they can be.
MT: I thought it was very poignant for your mother and daughter to be at the press conference introducing you to the Phoenix Suns organization. Speak about that moment as you enter a new stage in your career–going to a franchise that is on the cusp of all professional sports and currently one of the models that affect the way we choose to view sports.
GH: Well my wife could not be there because she is pregnant. The way I looked at it–this is going to sound crazy–we had to find a house and my wife could not travel. We also had to get my daughter interviewed and enrolled into a private school. I do not think my wife trusted me to find the right house (Grant and I laugh) so she sent my mom along to make sure we got something more in style.
*Note: Grant and Tamia are now the proud parents of a baby girl. I spoke to him via text message and he says the family is great although the little one is not yet sleeping through the night. Make sure you get ya sleep bruh. Nash’s passes are a beast ;)
The few days that I was there, I spent time with the organization–the owner, the coach and Steve Kerr. It really is a family atmosphere and that is the approach Jerry Colangelo as an owner started. It is one that Sarver the current owner, Steve Kerr and Coach D’Antoni. It was fitting in that regard. They were extremely accommodating to my family and have been very helpful as we transition out there. I am not saying other organizations are not like them, but it just shows a lot about them. I am excited to have joined the Suns family and have my family be a part of their family.
MT: The Suns obviously play at break neck speed and seem to be ahead of the league condition wise. They conjure images of the Sac Kings from earlier in the decade, the Mavericks of the same period, Showtime and the Nuggets of the ‘80’s. Are you ready for this?
GH: The way they play is the way I like to play. I like to get up and down the court. I think I have excelled in the past–and even now–in the open court. You know it is weird. Coach D’Antoni gets credit for this style of play, but it really was the style of play in the ‘80’s. I am a fan. Coach D’Antoni went to Europe and came back and the style changed. It was more methodical–more walk it up and call every play. I think this system is fun. Players enjoy it. It is predicated on ball movement and getting out and running. I do not pretend to know a whole lot about it. I am sure Steve and Raja and those guys will help get me where I need to be. It is exciting. I believe we can win. The Lakers–they won–you know, Showtime. The Celtics of that same time got up and down the court when they needed to. I cannot wait to incorporate myself with the team and learn how the team approaches things. Most importantly, to try to win. Hopefully we can go out there, be successful and achieve our goal. I am very excited.
MT: Have you spoken to your teammates? Do you feel welcome?
GH: Yes, it has been great. Not only does the organization want you, but also talking to Steve, Amare and the rest of the guys, you can feel that they are tight. They have told me that they are glad that I am here. I look forward to not only playing with them, but also getting to know them and developing a repoire on and off the court. I really talked to Steve. We have known each other from competing over the years. He has been very, very helpful. I had many questions. There have been many things we have talked about. He sounds just as excited as I am.
MT: What specifically do you add to an already successful Phoenix Suns team?
GH: Another hungry veteran. A guy that can make plays. I do not like talking about myself, but I can play.
I look forward to proving it.
I want to show my teammates just what I can do. I am a smart player that can run, can finish and create. I am unselfish. These are the things I bring to the table. Like I said before, I do not feel comfortable patting my own back.
MT: Grant, I want to get into the lean years. The injury-riddled period where you were sitting on the bench–seemingly frustrated looking up at the scoreboard. What did you learn about the game and more importantly about yourself? How did you stay inspired?
GH: Wow. (Grant pauses) It was not easy for an athlete that is accustomed to playing all the time to not be out there. Whether it is a coach’s decision or in my case an injury, it is definitely hard. I went from being a player used to playing at a certain ability level to all the sudden have my career come to a halt. You are not able to compete, when you do compete you hurt. There is a frustration of not knowing if you are ever going to be healthy. Not knowing if I will ever compete. If my body is going to hold up. The desire is always there, but you start to have doubts. Doubting your health, doubting if you are ever going to play on a high level. I am not saying it is there all the time, but it starts to creep in. As these young guys say, you lose your swagger. Life is a bunch of peaks and valleys. From a career standpoint, it was a valley.
You do not let it beat you. You become stronger. You become better as a person. You become better as a teammate. You get a better appreciation and perspective for the game and a better understanding of life. That is how life is.
Yeah, I missed some prime years. I cannot get them back. It did not kill me. It was definitely a tough time. Even now, this is the first time that I finished the season healthy and walked off the court in so long. It is the first time I have been able to go into a summer and work on my game. I have not done that since the summer of ‘99.
MT: Wow! I had no idea it has been that long.
GH: Yeah, every summer I have been rehabbing. I was not working on my ball handling or working on this or that to get a better result. It was just rehab. I was testing my body. Will this hold up? Then all of the sudden the sports hernia–which was a different thing. It was never a case of doing what ballplayers do–which is wanting to get better and working on getting that done. It was always working on strategy. It felt like I have been focusing for so long on trying to get right and trying to get healthy. This summer is fun. I am having fun just working on things. I see an improvement in certain areas. These seven years have been very hard and I am just glad that I did not go crazy and I am given this opportunity. This is a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to play with this team and have a chance to do something very special.
MT: Who was instrumental in you getting better? Was it physiotherapist Alex McKechnie?
GH: There have been many guys that have been helpful. I had the sports hernia not this past year but the year before last. That kept me out most of the season. I went to see Alex after taking three months off and I still was hurting. I was in Vancouver for twelve weeks. Ten of those twelve weeks that I was up there, I worked my tail off. The sports hernia almost made me walk away from the game. He got me right and I went through the season without one problem. He was a lot of fun to work with. We spent hours working on drills to get me healthy. Now, I go on the court, do my drills and I am not thinking about my body. It is refreshing to be in this situation.
MT: I cannot help to make a comparison between you and Chris Webber. You both came into the league with gifted and almost ridiculous athleticism. You both were at the top of the league in triple doubles, which speaks of your all around talent. Then all of the sudden the debilitating injuries happen. It takes away from your basketball sense. Do you ever get the sense you were placed here to transcend the sport of basketball–using more of your being to become a more prominent figure in society?
GH: Wow. I have never really thought about it like that. I think everybody that goes through something always asks, “why me?” But, like you said, maybe there is a bigger purpose there. Bigger than our careers, bigger than our awards and bigger than something that I have not quite realized. Webber…I have known Chris since I was thirteen from playing against each other. We have two different injuries and issues surrounding them, but the thing is that we keep fighting. I am a neighbor of a different sport–Ken Griffey Jr. It is funny because we really did not know each other that well but we got to know one another a few years back. I am not comparing myself to him, but we can kind of relate to each other because I have been one to understand what he has been through and vice versa. We have both been robbed of some years. With all of us–we are different players with different styles and in Griffey’s case, a different sport–we are still doing it. We have not quit and we have not given up or mentally mailed it in. I am still here fighting. As a parent, you try to tell your children that when you get knocked down, you have to get back up. I am sure there have been guys that have packed it in. I have had teammates tell me that they would have quit a long time ago. They would say that I already have the money. It is all guaranteed.
I love to play. Once it is over, it is over.
I never looked at things quite this way, but now that I have been hurt, I have reached out to Sean Livingston. I call him and am in his ear to encourage him so he will not get frustrated. There is going to be a lot of emotion that he is going through and has gone through and will continue to go through as he gets back. You pull for guys like that because you know how tough it is. You know how lonely it is. You know exactly what that particular player is going through day in and day out. Guys get hurt and come back, but when they have the serious, serious injury where people question whether or not they will ever play again, you have to earn your way back. It is not going to be given to you.
MT: Hot topic question for you. What do you think about the referee gambling scandal involving–as far as we know–Tim Donaghy?
GH: I do not know a whole lot about it. Mainly just what I have read. It is very unfortunate. Hopefully, it is an isolated incident. I know the league right now has to defer to the federal investigation. I know Stern has the league’s best interest at heart and will make the right decisions regarding that. If someone is going to go through those kinds of measures, then gambling is a problem. I am sure there are guys in the league that like to play cards sometimes it can become an addiction. This particular case is the worse case scenario. The owner of the Philadelphia Eagles back in the eighties–Leonard Tose–spent all the money he had and went bankrupt because of a gambling addiction.
The league will do all they can to make this better and keep it moving forward. I have the utmost confidence in that.
MT: What are your experiences with USA Basketball? Will our country get back on track and claim what is rightfully ours?
GH: I was on the ‘96 team that won Gold in Atlanta. I was also a member of the 2000 team but broke my ankle and did not play. I was also a member of the developmental team that practiced with the Dream Team in 1992. We beat them in a scrimmage the first day. They came back and beat us the next three days. I found the tape of that game. The video guy for the Pistons when Chuck Daley was coach was also in Detroit when I was there and is still there now. He gave me a copy of it a couple of years ago, but I never looked at it. I found it the other day and watched it and was like wow that was a long time ago. I played in the Pan Am Games in 1991. It seems like now it is more organized. It is more structured. It is a little bit more serious. The rest of the world has definitely caught up. The NBA and USA basketball are definitely taking the right approach that hopefully will lead to the ultimate success–which is a Gold medal next summer.
MT: Is your collection of African American art still on exhibition?
GH: No, it is back. Most of it is in storage. We may in the future–as we continue to add more pieces–have something go out in the future on tour. It was a great opportunity to bring people out to museums that would not normally go. It was good to expose all young people, but more specifically kids in the inner-city schools come through and also take field trips to see the art exhibited.
It is important that they see more than great athletes and great entertainers. It is important that they see artists of color exhibit quality art at quality museums. It is not just an athletic thing. That was really important to me and the feedback was great.
Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles Austin are some of the artists featured. All of them except Elizabeth Catlett are deceased. They were the masters or originators of an entire genre of African American art. There are some amazing works. I am lucky to be an owner of such a collection.
MT: When players see a would be champion developing in Boston, does the league take notice?
GH: You have to definitely take a look at the players that they have put together.
That is a great team.
Immediately, for that team, the fans there and the rest of the fans of the league the expectation level is raised. You are going to look at that team differently. You expect a team like that to be there at the end of the day. Teams that definitely have a chance to win will take notice. At some point, you have to focus on you.
Take a page out of the Spurs book last year. They focused on what they needed to do as a team. They go out, execute and do what they need to do day in and day out and they end up winning a championship.
Teams are going to make changes. Teams are going to get better. It does not make it any easier or any harder to win a championship. It is still the same. You have to go out there and do it. Boston, Milwaukee and New York were out of the playoffs last year. New York brings in Zach Randolph and potentially is better. They are coming off a year where they feel better about themselves. Milwaukee was a seven, eight seed last year that had to endure a lot of injuries. They expect to be better. You have Charlotte and Atlanta. Are those teams ready to take a step or are they two years away? You have legit teams fighting for eight spots. The Eastern Conference is going to be very competitive and that is somewhat new. The West is the West. The conference has been competitive for a while and will continue to be such next season. I think it is going to be very interesting to see who things play out in the Eastern Conference.
MT: Hypothetically–for fans, I am sure not for you personally–the final horn goes off in June. You have the ball in your hand and your other hand is raised. What kind of feeling will you have to finally be crowned NBA champion as a member of the Phoenix Suns?
GH: Wow! That’s everybody’s dream. To have that happen will be amazing. Because of what I have been through, that would be great. I do not know what I would do or what I would fee. I am hoping that I year from now I can tell you.
The three highlights of my career were winning two straight championships at Duke and winning a Gold medal. There is no greater feeling to know that at the end of the season or tournament that you are the best. You could sit here and debate who the better player is. Is this person better than that person. Either person can be right or wrong, but you cannot debate who is champion. It is the best. I always reflect on those three experiences and hopefully I can add a fourth.
A version of this interview appears in SLAM Magazine issue 112. If you haven’t copped it, please do so ASAP. It’ll be on sale for another week before the SLAM NBA preview issue hits the stands. OJ Mayo graces the cover and SLAM has posted a nice Q&A with Mayo on their website. Check it out.
Also please keep Washington Wizard and fellow SLAM colleague, Etan Thomas in your thoughts. Etan underwent successful heart surgery Thursday. Let’s all hope and pray for a speedy recovery. The world needs your consciousness Etan. Get well bruh. Thanks, Mizzo.