Grant Hill likely won’t make the NBA Hall of Fame.
He won’t make first-team All-NBA this season. Or second, or third. He won’t make the All-Star team. He won’t make anyone’s All-Defensive team. The numbers aren’t there.
But has anyone been more important to the Suns this season?
I saw the Suns play here in Los Angeles against the Clippers a couple weeks ago. I have a partial season-ticket package to the Clips, mostly so I can see other teams come to town, but if you see any team play enough times, you develop some level of interest in them, and like a lot of people, I’ve become fascinated by Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ rookie sensation who’s been tearing down backboards coast-to-coast. The Suns had just made their big trade and were trying to figure out who they were (something they’ve only seemed to start to accomplish over the last few games), but their big problem remained glaring – They didn’t really have anyone to guard the strong, fast, young, athletic power forwards of today’s NBA. And they don’t come any stronger (6’10”, 251 lbs.), faster (watch him go from half-court to the rim when he knows there’s an alley-oop coming, or watch him spin around a taller defender sometime), younger (not even 22 yet) or more athletic than Blake Griffin. And so, I worried BG might go for 40 points and 20 rebounds…or worse. Then, when I saw Grant Hill would be guarding him, I thought Griffin might tally 50 and 30…and put poor Grant in the hospital.
Well, our distinguished (when you get to be 38, you’re either distinguished or grizzled, and Grant is definitely the former) hero, giving up two inches, twenty-five pounds, good ankles and a decade-and-a-half’s worth of spring, didn’t exactly stop Griffin – but no one has this year. Instead, he “held” Griffin to a very respectable 28 points and 12 rebounds. And thought Griffin shot well (and his team won), he had to work for every inch of space, and he fouled out. There were obvious moments when Griffin was more focused on Hill than the game – the poking, the prodding, the forearms in the back, the consistently good defensive position – and that’s really all a guy in Grant’s position could hope for…to take an athletically dominant player away from what he wanted to do, even if only for a few moments.
It’s a task Grant’s been asked to take on many times this season. In recent weeks, I’ve watched him take on everyone from Deron Williams and Amar’e Stoudemire to LeBron James, one-on-one. It’s no way for a man to spend what should be his athletic golden years, but there’s simply no one else in purple and orange to do it. Hill has called himself the team’s “fire extinguisher,” as in, “in case of emergency, break glass.” And this season, life has been one long emergency for the Suns. Grant has answered every challenge willingly, without complaint, and with maximum effort. Lord knows, it can’t have been easy. But, then, nothing’s been easy for Grant Hill since 2000.
He was the league’s darling when he arrived in 1994 (meaning there are college kids today to whom Grant’s legendary pass to Christian Laettner in Duke’s landmark 1992 NCAA Tournament victory over Kentucky is nothing more than a piece of videotape), and quickly became one of the NBA’s best all-around players, scoring close to 20 points a game, tallying 7 or 8 rebounds per contest, as well as 6 to 7 assists. And he did it without a lot of support, playing for once-proud Detroit teams sliding to mediocrity and worse. He was All-Rookie, All-NBA, all-everything, and a surefire bet for the Hall of Fame.
Then he was traded to Orlando, and everything went to Hell. His feet and ankles betrayed him, and Grant lost the better part of five seasons, and significant portions of six out of the next eight. He essentially lost three years of his prime – between the ages of 28 and 30. It was a real question whether or not he’d ever play again…or if he’d want to. After all, he’d made tens of millions of dollars mostly wearing a cast for Orlando, so it wasn’t like he needed the money. But he did want to play, he did want to contribute, and he didn’t want to go out like that.
So when Hill came to the Suns in 2007, he was seen not as an arriving former superstar, but as an inexpensive free agent gamble, taking a fifteen-million dollar pay cut (read those numbers again) to see what he had left.
Turns out, he had a lot. Maybe not as much in terms of points, rebounds, and assists, but certainly in terms of determination, skill, and inspiration. Because he’d been idle for most of six years, he’d saved six years of wear, tear and mileage on his joints, and had enough athleticism to surprise a lot of people…not to mention to handle defensive duties on Young Masters Williams, Stoudemire, James and Griffin. If there’s such a thing as a “young 38” in the NBA, he wears number 33 for the Phoenix Suns.
And, to everyone’s surprise, he’s become an ironman in his dotage. In four seasons with the Suns, he’s missed 13 regular season games…12 of them in his first season. Who saw that coming? It’s a testament to Phoenix’s deservedly well-regarded training staff…and to his own determination. Imagine missing six years after a storybook opening to your career. Imagine the work it would take to return to a competitive place. Imagine the challenges, hurdles, obstacles…and then imagine Blake Griffin waiting for you when you get back. Imagine how young players must (or, at the very least, should) regard him.
The NBA Hall of Fame, like those of most other sports, is largely based on statistics. It’s too bad. If it was based on character, leadership by example, spirit and determination, Grant Hill would be a first-ballot shoo-in.