Last night in Portland, the Phoenix Suns defeated the Blazers to wrap up their first-round series 4-2. It was a very professional performance from a team that, in the past, needed to shoot lights out to put teams away, especially on the road. This win was distinctly different in that Steve Nash had a poor shooting night (although he did hit perhaps the biggest shot of the night late in the fourth quarter) as did starting forward Grant Hill.
For 37-year-old Hill, this marks the first time in his long career that he will play in a second-round playoff series. That tag of not winning in the playoffs for many athletes has a negative connotation (e.g., Tracy McGrady). Things are different with Hill, however. The sentiment surrounding the Suns’ victory was one of genuine happiness for Hill given the obstacles he has had to overcome in his career and the dignity with which he has tackled them.
Hill is the son of a professional athlete whose prowess as a high school basketball player in Virginia led him to Duke where he put together one of the great college careers of all time. As a freshman, Hill was a major contributor to the title team that got Coach Mike Krzyzewski over the hump, and he converted a rim-rattling alley-oop against UNLV in what many consider one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history. The next year, Hill was the trigger man on Christian Laettner’s buzzer beater against Kentucky that many consider the greatest single shot in college basketball history. As a senior, Hill was the go-to-guy and almost single-handedly took the Blue Devils to the championship game where they lost narrowly to Arkansas. Later that year, Hill was the third pick in the NBA draft for the Detroit Pistons.
Hill’s triple-double type ability was more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan; but his athleticism and aerial abilities led to the inevitable comparisons to His Airness. Hill did not disappoint, sharing ROY honors with Jason Kidd and eventually becoming one of the NBA’s marquee attractions. Following a trade to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2000 (where he was ironically teamed with Mcgrady), Hill was poised to take his game to the next level of greatness. Unfortunately that never happened as a series of season-ending foot injuries and a very serious staph infection derailed what was destined to be a Hall-of-Fame career.
Hill continued to battle, although the injuries and age eventually limited his contributions to those of a role player. In 2007, after turning down an offer to play with the champion Spurs, Hill landed in Phoenix where his career has been rehabilitated. Clearly not the high flyer he used to be, Hill has used a very high basketball IQ and dogged determination to become a valued and, more importantly, a durable starter. Last night was a good example – while his jump shot wasn’t working, Hill did pull down 12 boards, defended effectively and did a number of the little things to help the Suns win. The three-time NBA Sportsmanship Award winner’s professionalism has clearly rubbed off on this version of the Suns. While it must be frustrating for Hill that younger NBA fans won’t remember how great a player he once was, he appears to be at peace with it and is embracing the moment.