Grant Hill Was LeBron Before LeBron. Y’all Just Forgot!

Hill was the first player to with the perfect blend of Magic & Michael. Photo Courtesy: NBA

LeBron James is the best all-around player in the NBA. He has been for the past decade. I even have him on my All-Time NBA Mt. Rushmore. I have really enjoyed watching his game the last couple of seasons, especially in the last two NBA Playoffs and NBA Finals versus the Golden State Warriors.

In 2015, James averaged 35.8 points 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the six game NBA Finals series. In the 2016 Finals he went for 27.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game. LeBron led the Cavs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and minutes played. That had NEVER been done in NBA History.

In the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, he moved into second place all-time in most playoff triple–doubles. He now has fifteen, Magic Johnson who’s in first place has twice as many. James just missed being the first player in over twelve years to average a triple-double for a series (Jason Kidd, 2003).

LBJ’s exploits have left fans, peers and past greats of the Association mesmerized. Year in and year out he is proving he can be both Michael and Magic as he has captured three NBA titles and brought the city of Cleveland it’s first pro championship in over a half century. Seeing LeBron at his peak has left me wondering what could’ve been, because nearly a decade before he entered the Association out of Akron Saint Vincent–Saint Mary High School (OH), Grant Hill was that guy. 23 in wine and gold is what Grant Hill should have been.

These days Grant Hill is remembered or known one of three ways. People above the age of thirty remember him as the standout All-American at Duke, that played in three Final Fours, won two National Titles, and started one of the greatest moments in NCAA Tournament history….

Till this day he’s still probably the least hated Duke player in their history because of the class and humility he exhibited amongst a group of guys who had the aura of snobby, pampered, silver spoon fed preppies who thought they were in titled. I’m pointing directly at you Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick.

They’ll also remember the guy who was a seven-time All-Star, five of which came in his first six seasons in the NBA. The only reason he wasn’t six for six is because the NBA didn’t have an All-Star game in 1999 due to the lockout. He was a five-time All-NBA selection, First-team All-Rookie (1995) and Co-Rookie of the Year in 1995.

Those around 15 years of age or so, especially the ones living in the Central Florida area, may remember him as the often injured former All-Star who was a shell of himself after he signed the big contract with the Orlando Magic in 2000. Some of those fans are still angry at him for what they deem as him “stealing money” from the organization. He missed 374 games out of a possible 574 in seven seasons with Orlando.

And, many now mostly know him as the guy who has successfully transitioned from retired professional athlete to broadcaster, staring on the reincarnation of the popular 1990’s hit NBA show “Inside Stuff”, while also doing in game analysis for NBA TV and NBA on TNT telecasts.

Grant was the first successful “Next MJ.” Photo Credit: NBA

But, what all three forget is that in the mid 90’s he was the next Michael Jordan on and off the court. And, unlike others who were labeled the next MJ or Baby Jordan, he took the mantle and was running smoothly with it while also setting a new standard. He was his “Airness” and “Magic” combined, looooooong before anybody knew who LeBron James was. And, he was one of the first to be tagged with the “Point Forward” label.

From 1994 to 2000 he was clearly the best small forward in the game, I mean that with no disrespect to six-time NBA Champion and one of the 50th Greatest Players of All-Time in Scottie Pippen. During his time in Detroit, Hill averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals in 39.1 minutes per game while leading a Pistons franchise, that was in rebuilding mode after the “Bad Boys” era when it drafted him with the third overall pick in the 1994 draft, to the playoffs four times.

He won a gold medal as a key member of Dream Team II at the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta. During the 1996-1997 season he collected thirteen triple-doubles which was the most in the Association that season. He finished with twenty-nine in his career. More importantly, he never played fewer than seventy games, except for the lockout shortened season of 1998-99 when he played all fifty on the schedule. We’ll get to why that’s important later.

Even when his team wasn’t playing he was still on television endorsing products like Peyton Manning has been for the past five years or so. Hill had the Sprite commercials, was on every magazine cover from GQ to Ebony to Sports Illustrated. And, like MJ when he first came into the Association, he was carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire up and coming, but lesser known shoe company (FILA) and doing it well.

  

Grant was my guy. His crossover was sick enough to make Allen Iverson and Tim Hardaway “ooh and Ahh.” Then he could posterize the best shot blockers in a way that could make Vince Carter and LeBron James jump out their seat. Oh, and his mid range jumper, was as pure as Steph Curry’s three-point daggers.

Even though I wasn’t 6’8 225 like Grant, I’m 6’3″ 205I molded my game after him. Like I mentioned before, he was, and by all accounts still the classy, humble guy his former NFL Pro Bowl running back father Calvin and successful attorney and consultant mother Janet—who is was the college roommate of 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee, former U.S. Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton—raised him to be.

But, his career isn’t the fairytale that it looked as though it was headed to be. Instead of being named alongside Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe, LeBron as one of the top five or ten players to ever play, most will list him along with Bill Walton, Penny Hardaway, Brandon Roy and even guys from other sports like Gayle Sayers, Terrell Davis and Ken Griffey Junior who’s careers were cut short or injury plagued in their primes.

G-Hill played the 2000 NBA playoffs on a sprained ankle, that eventually got worse while trying to gut it out for his team. Reference Grant Hill next time you want your favorite or franchise player to suck it up and play through injuries, because some don’t realize or ignore the fact that his injuries almost cost him his life, forget his career.

After several surgeries to repair his chronic ankle issues, Grant contracted MRSA in 2003, an infection that could’ve led to his death had it not been quickly treated. After all that, at times he struggled to walk normal, who would’ve thought he’d ever play again?

But like the triumphant hero in your favorite movie, he returned and even made the All-Star team in 2005. He never returned to his pre-injury form, but he was still a significant contributor on playoffs teams with the Magic, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers.

He finished his 18-year career at age 40 with per game averages of 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists in 1,026 games. How about that for a guy who many thought was done at the age of 31? He didn’t win an NBA Championship, but the hero in this story had his triumphant return by just being able to play the game he loved again.

They say nice guys finished last, but I don’t think this will be one of those times. I’m confident in saying Hill will be in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, hopefully on the first ballot when he is eligible in 2018. I just hope his career gets the fanfare that it deserves. This is my attempt to make sure it does.

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