Not Fade Away: On Grant Hill

Grant Hill was a great player who could've had a greater career. Instead, he embodied a different type of greatness.
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There’s not just one way to be a fan, and nothing preventing people from picking a team or a sport because it works with their commute or place of birth or television watching habits or whatever. But caring about sports is both easier and more rewarding when you know something about the sport’s history. This is true in a basic knowing-what-you’re-talking-about sense, but also because some sense of history provides context for the present, and both sanctifies and explains the monuments and heroes of the past we use to measure our current stars; it serves as a link between fans of different generations, and helps the various achievements of this generation make a little more sense. But there’s only so much we can know, or might want to know.

There is just so much ghost basketball back there; we can’t appreciate the paleo-game in the way we do today, both because the information we have is spotty and because that game is fundamentally different from this one. We remember the Jordans and the Birds, as we should, but with time we lose the finer, weirder points of their context; Chris Gatling and Vin Baker are reduced to bit part players. Which, in the broad sweep of things, they were. But this is sad in the same sweet way as nostalgia, this sense of justified fade. It’s for the best not to be 18, toting around a head full of the stats and highlights of some decent, idiosyncratic mid-90’s power forwards. The great stars, the ones everyone remembers, define the shape of the league and our memories of it, but one of the greatest joys of following the NBA are the players who give the league its color. By the time the next generation of dominant players rolls around and LeBron James retires, the life-affirming wackiness of dear J.R. Smith will be lost to history. And this is a loss: if we only remember LeBron and forget J.R., we’re not necessarily remembering what’s most fun about watching basketball right now.

There will be new characters, maybe even new J.R.’s, but it will be different, and they’ll be doomed, too. As the seasons pile up, in the record books and in our minds, whole careers get swallowed up, leaving only a few names from each decade. The awesome Kings teams I grew up cheering for were really important to me, but nobody will remember them. They will remember who they lost to, one last defeat.

***

I never really watched Grant Hill play in the NBA until it was too late. When he was a defensive ace and generally useful guy on the late-period Nash Suns, he was discussed in a hushed tone that suggested he was a living ghost. This seemed absurd, even at the time: Hill was a very effective player and time steals athleticism from everyone. But Hill didn’t work his way up to being a third option on a decent team; he was then making his way down from the All-NBA penthouse. Lost greatness, or at least greatness in decline, is sadder than empty promise, and Grant Hill’s case is a particularly keen example of this. Rather than the slow, steady unravelling common to his peers, losing a few points per game and tenths-of-a-second per first step, Hill broke down all at once and then was left to rebuild what he could. Turns out, ‘what he could’ was fight through four lost seasons’ worth of injuries before playing six more relatively healthy, if not All-Star level, years out West. A good final act, all told, if not the one for which he seemed destined during his zenith. Even a player as great as Grant Hill doesn’t get to choose how it all ends.

***

Because of the three distinct acts of his career, the historical perspective on Grant Hill is murky; the three pieces have bled together. He had the potential for a much clearer story. In the timeline where Hill doesn’t hurt himself, the intertidal zone between Jordan and Duncan/Bryant would have belonged to Hill; he could have shared it, who knows. I’ve grown up with LeBron James emerging as the most transcendent talent of his era; looking for comparisons to LeBron is a losing endeavor, but one that turns up more often than I expected was a young Grant Hill. This perhaps explains that weird tone of regret from his Phoenix years: at his realized peak ability, Hill was years ahead of his time.

There were no churning cosmic forces behind Hill’s lost years, just the familiar cruel frailty of the human body. It would be easy to focus on a sad story of transcendence lost, but Hill’s refusal to bend to circumstance and wrest back control of his legacy is, for all those brilliantly dominant seasons, what is maybe most impressive about him. That’s what he got in this world, and he took it and he was not sorry.

I might as well admit that I am deeply bummed the fuck out I never got to see Hill use his full set of powers, but there are some positives to the way things turned out, and there was a subtle grace to the diminished player he became. They player he was when I knew him was one of the smartest NBA-ers in the modern game, and watching the craft and toughness with which he made the most of his remaining strength was as affecting as it was impressive. The tradecraft was the impressive part; the affecting part is how Hill must have loved the game to stick with it, millions of dollars after he needed his last paycheck and years after what he had to know was his last great day on the court. He had to have been so hopelessly in it for life that all he’d already done was not enough.

This matters, or at least it matters to me. It isn’t about entry-level pundit speak, “heart” or “guts.” This is a connection with the sport on an elemental level, in good times and bad. Dedication is something of a cliche, too, admittedly. But there’s no other name for what kept Grant Hill in the game after he stopped being the Grant Hill he’d been.

Hill’s place in the Hall of Fame is probably ensured. He was one of the best five players in the league during his heyday; his college career remains unfuckwithable. NBA history will always be defined by the biggest and brightest, but players like Grant Hill, who aren’t quite era-defining players, fill in the gaps and create the texture for today’s game. In terms of setting the course of the league, Hill falls short. He was great, but the memory of him will fade; it already has, and his greatest years seem long ago. But he taught us something all the same. If his earliest years is fading, the dedication that earned him his final NBA act will be harder to forget.


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