- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ordinarily a game in the second week of the NBA season would qualify as just one of 82 for the Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz, two teams with a brighter future than present.

But as occasionally happens in the endless marathon of an NBA regular season, something dramatic came out of the Jazz-Magic matchup on Nov.17 — something everyone associated with the NBA wanted but no one anticipated.

At 32 years old, Grant Hill was re-born.

The rebirth came late in the fourth quarter of a game Orlando was trying to fumble away. Jazz forward Andre Kirilenko, one of the NBA’s best defenders, was matched one-on-one with Hill, and not even a compulsive gambler would have bet on Hill in that situation.

Kirilenko averages an NBA-leading 4.43 blocked shots per game, an astounding accomplishment for a perimeter defender. He is today’s news, a 23-year-old maturing star from Russia whose all-around game is so good he can be considered one of the best players in the league — even when he’s averaging only 15 points a game.

Hill, who grew up in Reston and starred at South Lakes High School, was just eight games into his fourth comeback attempt from an ankle injury — and until that night, was yesterday’s news. The son of former NFL star Calvin Hill flopped so miserably in his first three comebacks few people even wanted him to try a fourth.

And even though he made it through training camp and the first week of the regular season, the doubters still outnumbered the hopefuls 10-1.

Then Hill scored 32 points against Kirilenko and the Jazz, the first time in five seasons he had put 30 on the board for Orlando.

But it was one basket late in the game that everyone will remember as the sign that Grant Hill is healthy again.

“That little crossover number,” Magic coach Johnny Davis said, pinpointing the play without prodding. “Ooooh, that was nice.”

Hill had Kirilenko on the left wing by himself, probably 20 feet from the basket. He charged right toward the lane, abruptly crossed over and started moving left toward the basket. Then, just as abruptly, Hill stopped, backed up a step and lobbed a 10-foot baseline jumper that was all net.

Kirilenko? He was on his rear end.

The agile Russian nearly tripped trying to reverse field when Hill did the cross-over move. When Hill stopped, Kirilenko lost control, tumbling backward like he’d just taken a two-fisted shove from Ben Wallace.

“That was sweet,” said Magic teammate Cuttino Mobley. “Knowing what Grant Hill has been through the last couple of years and watching how hard he worked to get back and then seeing it all come together like that … oh, man, that was sweet.”

Said Utah coach Jerry Sloan: “What you saw, was a guy who knows how to play basketball demonstrate why he’s still one of the greatest players in our game. Grant Hill doesn’t have to have the basketball in his hands every time down the court to beat you. He rebounds, he’s a great passer, he plays defense and if you need him to score, he can and he will.”

To be honest, this is not the Grant Hill who once flew around the NBA like one of those Army Black Hawk helicopters. He has two dunks this season, one a breakaway that took more effort than he ever imagined.

And this is not the Grant Hill who led Detroit in scoring, rebounding and assists three times and came within a few assists of doing it four times during a six-year career as an All-Star for the Pistons. He won’t lead the Magic in any of those categories, though he still fills a box score very nicely.

This is an older, less explosive, more refined version of Grant Hill. This is a guy who five years ago thought he was invulnerable but today realizes the footing at the top can be very fragile.

“I say it a lot, but it’s really true: I’m just thankful that I’m finally healthy enough to play,” Hill said. “I’m just thankful that I can walk in the locker room again and know I’ve contributed something, whether we won or lost the game.

“It’s nice that people get all excited again when I have a good game or make a nice move, but that’s not why I put all that work into getting back. I did it to show myself that no matter what happens to me in life, I can get through it.”

He’s getting through it very nicely indeed, averaging 20 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season. Those would be some of the lowest marks of his career if he played the full season, but no one in Orlando is complaining. He has as much to do with the Magic’s shocking rise from the bottom of the NBA standings to the top of the Eastern Conference as anyone on the team.

“If Grant Hill was this healthy a year ago, I’d still be coaching in Orlando,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was fired by the Magic after a 1-10 start last season. “He’s the best story in our league, the best story in sports right now. Most people, heck most athletes, would have quit rather than go what he went through, and he’s done it four times. I am so happy for him and I know everyone in this league is, too.”

That’s because Hill is the consummate professional. He hasn’t missed a practice yet. He sat out one game at the request of the coaching staff. He is in remarkable shape for a guy who’s played only 49 games since the start of the 2002-03 season. He has averaged 35.1 minutes, second on the team behind former Maryland star Steve Francis.

“He’s the first guy here and the last guy out every day,” Davis said. “He embodies what this sport is really about and what it means to be a professional athlete. He should be the face of the NBA today and forget about all that other stuff people keep bringing up.”

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