- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

ORLANDO — The Orlando Magic's Doc Rivers is one of those NBA coaches who always sees the cup as half full. So when he is asked about the similarity between Grant Hill and Muhammad Ali, who both were out of action during the prime of their careers, he stays in character."After his prime Ali won two titles," Rivers says through a smile, "so in that regard I hope you're right." When the Magic signed Hill to a seven-year, $93 million deal in the summer of 2000, he and Tracy McGrady were supposed to form the most lethal one-two punch in the NBA this side of Los Angeles.
But almost two years later, Hill, 29, has appeared in just 18 games. In December, after playing in the 14 of his team's first 15 games this season, Hill had surgery on his left ankle for the third time in 20 months. The procedure removed a painful bone spur and tried to reinforce the area of a stress fracture diagnosed in April 2000.
The pain from the surgery is long gone, but he is taking his time with recovery. Pool exercises make up most of his rehabilitation.
And while many have suggested Hill should call it a career, he points confidently to training camp 2002 as his return to the court.
But just how good he will be when he returns he averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists in his last full season (1999-2000) with Detroit is anyone's guess.
"Once I get on the court I'm just going to appreciate being out there," said Hill, who is from Reston. "That's first and foremost. But I believe I will be able to come back and play at a high level. Now, what exactly will my numbers be, and will I be the man? I don't know and I don't care. I just think that physically I'll be able to come back and be somebody that my teammates can be confident in. And I don't think I was confident the last time around."
Hill admits that when he came back at the start of this season, after appearing in just four games last season, he was still feeling pain in his ankle and was not 100 percent.
This was reflected in his play. He averaged 16.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists as the Magic began the season 7-8.
"I wasn't the type of player that my teammates could be confident in; I was a role player. But I was willing to accept it and say that this is the way it's going to be," Hill said.
All the while, though, he did not want to accept the fact that he needed surgery again. At the same time, Hill wondered how his teammates would feel about his hefty contract.
"Anytime you come to a new team after signing a big contract you want to come in and prove yourself," Hill said. "Even though you've already shown what you can do, deep down inside you don't think they really know what you can do. You want to justify your existence; you want to justify being there.
"It was worse because I thought I would just bounce back. By no means did I ever think I would be at this point. And when you don't bounce back you wonder if you'll ever get it back."
However, once he accepted that surgery might hold the key to his return to past form or at least better than the one he was finding himself out to be a weight was lited from his shoulders.
"It was almost a relief," Hill said. "Because then I knew it wasn't my head. I knew I wasn't making this up. I knew it wasn't so much a mental hurdle that I had to get through. There was something that was still wrong."
Orlando's medical staff believes that the worst is behind Hill, and it is optimistic that he will return to a high level, perhaps close to the ability he exhibited in his All-Star years with the Pistons.
"Obviously there are no guarantees. This is not an exact science," said Dr. Joe Billings, the Magic's team physician. "But the specialists on our panel all felt this was not career-ending. It is something that needs to heal. It will heal, and he'll be better once it's fixed."
Meanwhile, McGrady has emerged as a full-fledged star. An All-NBA second-team selection last season, McGrady was even better this season. Hill believes that having the 6-foot-8, 22-year old on his team will allow him to pace himself slowly during his comeback.
"Having T-Mac, I don't have to shoulder everything," Hill said. "If he weren't here, I think I might put a little more pressure on myself to return quicker."
Said McGrady: "He can't come back soon enough. He's a great player and a great teammate. We could use him now, but it's more important that he comes back 100 percent healthy."
To stay involved with the team, Hill has made it a point to make some extended road trips with the Magic something injured players are not required to do. And the coaching staff often has Hill sit in on meetings where his input is welcome.
"He probably has as much knowledge about our team as any single guy on our team," Rivers said. "He is a student of the game and when he sees something that we can do better, this year he'll say something. Last year he'd stay quiet."
Hill's life will be much different when he returns to the court next season. He will be 30. He is a husband, married to R&B; singer Tamia, and in January he became a father for the first time. In addition, he has become more devout in his faith, which he said has helped him through all his troubles.
"One thing this has done is really strengthened my faith and brought me closer to a relationship with Jesus Christ," Hill said."My faith has been tested and I'm sure it will continue to be tested."
But until that time comes for Hill to return, the guessing what will Hill be like? Can he come back all the way? will continue.
"I think it's a little too early yet to tell," Hill said. "I think Grant Hill in the next two or three years will decide and find out what's going on. But it's too early right now. None of us the writers, the reporters is going to feel better about the Grant Hill thing until Grant Hill is actually on the floor playing. We speculate, we hope, we wish. But the bottom line is next year we'll know."

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