So the Suns have played their first preseason game, and they won, which is great, but for me, the best part of the evening was the fact that Grant Hill walked not just on the floor, but off it.
Grant Hill smiles at the camera as he is introduced at a Phoenix Suns press conference. (NBAE Photos)
I’m not sure what my worst fear was, perhaps that at some point his foot would just fly off his leg into the third row. Everyone knows the woes this superstar has endured with his ankle over the last half-decade, the surgeries, the missed games, the comebacks and the setbacks. Last year, he was finally healthier than he’d been in a long time, played in more games than he’d played in a long time, and both of those circumstances went a long way toward the Suns bringing him in as a free agent this summer.
I, for one, was cautiously thrilled. Grant, at his best, can do literally everything on the basketball court. Run, shoot, pass, defend, slash, dribble, you name it. And he’s nothing but a positive presence, the kind of teammate any player would want. But I was cautious, because his ankle…Any conversation about Grant Hill inevitably features the phrase “but the ankle…”
Like Grant, I’ve broken my ankle. Unlike Grant, I don’t rely on mine to make my living. I don’t pretend to have endured what he’s gone through, or anything close to it, but from the fraction of what we’ve endured that we do have in common, I can’t help but admire his commitment, his dedication and his sheer will to persevere. They’re more reasons I’m glad he’s wearing the orange and purple.
I am not much of an athlete. I grew up playing sports and loving them, but I’m not at all gifted athletically. I’m a typical weekend warrior – pickup basketball here and there, and a semi-regular appearance at a Sunday softball game played by fellow writers here in Los Angeles. I joined that league a couple years ago, and had a steep learning curve. I’d never played bat-and-ball sports as a kid, and was really only learning the nuances of the game as an adult. My fellow players were very kind to me about it, and stationed me way out in right field on defense – actually in foul territory – where I couldn’t hurt anyone and would see minimal action.
I was a little better in the batter’s box, and could usually slap through a hit and get on base. Well, one Sunday, I was on first base, and a guy singled up the middle, and I ran around second toward third, and our third base coach started yelling, “Slide! Slide!” So I started to slide. And then I realized I don’t know how to slide. And running full speed is not the time to really stop and try to figure out the mechanics, you just sort of have to either commit to trying to slide, or don’t. I, of course, tried something halfway between trying to slide and not sliding, and wound up about six feet short of the bag with a broken ankle. I was out, by the way.
I’ve never been in more pain in my entire life.
And I screamed. I’m not too macho to admit it. I screamed and screamed, hoping maybe to disperse some of the pain in the form of sound. It didn’t work. I swore. Loudly. And I kept repeating, “I don’t know how to slide!” As if anyone needed reminding, at that point.
So I got a nice ride to the hospital in an ambulance, a few Vicodin (whee, pretty colors…), some X-rays and some crutches. Come back tomorrow and see the orthopedist, Mr. Beechen.
I went back the next day (someone had to drive me, as I’d broken my “driving” ankle), and I got into the elevator with two older women and a man I’d never seen before. The women looked at me sympathetically, and asked how I’d broken my ankle. I told them. The man asked, “Were you at Beeman Park?” I looked at him, surprised, and told him I had been. He nodded. “I heard you.”
Did I mention I had yelled pretty loudly?
Anyway, the orthopedist told me it was a simple fracture, very clean, six weeks to heal, a little physical therapy, good as new. But it was hard. Hard to deal with the pain the first few days, hard to be off my feet for several weeks, and really hard to be away from playing sports I loved so much. Then, when I was able, physical therapy was hard, too. And when I got back on the basketball court, back on the softball diamond, then came the hardest part: Trusting my ankle, to the point where I could run full speed, make cuts, jump and not worry about coming down on someone’s foot and cracking the bone all over again. The psychological hurdle. Even now, years later, it’s still there in the back of my mind. It probably always will be.
And that’s just me, Average Adam, who suffered the cleanest, simplest bone break you could ask for. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a world-class superstar athlete like Grant Hill who’s been down that track with more serious injuries to the same joint multiple times. But I can admire him for how he kept pushing, how he kept working, how he returned to form last season, and how he (and the Suns, and their fans) expects him to flourish this year. Not hopes. Expects.
Welcome to Phoenix, Grant. We’re delighted you’re here and wish you good health, lots of baskets, and a championship ring.
And because we wish you those things, don’t be surprised if, should I ever see you on a softball field, I turn on the sprinklers so you can’t play.