- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

Grant Hill, the one-time heir to Michael Jordan’s marketing riches, is expected to miss next season following the fourth surgery on his problematic left ankle in March.

Hill has appeared in only 47 of a possible 246 games since going to the Magic in August 2000.

Hill is the cautionary tale of this hype-driven week leading to the NBA Draft.

Hill was one of the spiffily dressed young men waiting to hear his name called on draft night in 1994.

He had it all: the charm, the smarts, the basketball skills, the Duke University pedigree.

He was the can’t-miss kid from South Lakes High School in Reston, the son of an ex-NFL running back who had the hopes of a city on his 6-foot-8 frame. He was the anointed one, ready to make the Pistons relevant again.

Hill had that easy way about him on the court. He could fill up a box score without disturbing those around him. He could see beyond the NBA’s single-minded obsession with gaudy scoring numbers. He felt no need to put up 30 points if it meant ignoring his teammates in the offense.

Hill was en route to a Hall of Fame career in Detroit, putting the lie to the notion that Duke’s fundamentally sound players are somehow ill-equipped to flourish in the NBA’s one-on-one game. Hill was a five-time All-Star in Detroit who, in his last season there, averaged 25.8 points and 6.6 rebounds.

He was destined to lead the Magic to the NBA Finals, or so it was assumed three summers ago, when the Magic acquired both Hill and Tracy McGrady on the same day. McGrady, not yet an All-Star then, was the complement to Hill, upside-down as that view is today.

Three years later, the Magic are haunted by what might have been with Hill and McGrady in the mediocre-steeped Eastern Conference. It could have been their conference. These could have been their halcyon seasons.

Instead, the Magic are like so many other flawed teams in the East, looking to get lucky this week.

Hill, who will turn 31 in August, is broken down, perhaps done as a player, although no one is inclined to express that sentiment.

The notion seems too unfair, indelicate, even harsh.

As one of the NBA’s good guys, Hill deserves better than to have another date with uncertainty.

Yet his athletic clock is ticking as his capacity to be what he once was dwindles with each surgery and with each new block of absences from the lineup.

It was that way with Bill Walton, arguably the game’s most skilled center ever when he entered the NBA in 1974 with the Trail Blazers. It was the feet with Walton. They seemingly were made of china, always breaking. Except for one shining season in 1977, when Walton was at the peak of his physical powers, his career was mostly littered with frustration and pain.

In 14 NBA seasons, Walton was limited to 468 games, which comes out to five-plus seasons of active duty.

In a perverse twist of fate, Hill has become the Walton of his generation, a telling reminder of the game’s fragility.

Now Hill is left to hope against hope while clinging, in the worst way, to a conviction to play again.

It is not about the money. Hill has plenty of money, more than he ever will need to live comfortably. This is about who he is. He is a basketball player. He is accustomed to interacting with his body, NBA player or not. He probably would settle for just being able to play in a pickup game at the moment, as opposed to being on crutches and awaiting anew the unknown outcome of an intricate surgical procedure.

Hill was young once, his body whole, a long NBA career before him. There was so much to like about him. He had an easygoing manner and a clarity about him. It was his world, the NBA was, and it was going to be one glorious ride. One day, they would mention him with the best of the best, and his name would bring a smile to the face instead of a look of sympathy.

The game can be so cruel.

Hill remains in a kind of athletic purgatory, making compromises with himself along the way. He just wants to feel right again, to be on the floor in whatever limited form he has become.

It is a difficult proposition. But it is all he has left.

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