A recurring theme among many of the people honored by the Orlando Magic during the franchise’s 25th anniversary is what might have happened if the team that reached the NBA Finals in 1995 stayed intact for several seasons thereafter.
Then there’s the subject of what might have been after that with Grant Hill.
Hill, who will be recognized Tuesday night by the Magic following the first quarter of their game with the Portland Trail Blazers, was the first bonafide superstar to come to Orlando via free agency. Four years after Shaquille O’Neal departed for the Los Angeles Lakers, the player who helped Duke to back-to-back national championships in the early 1990s and then averaged almost 22 points a game over six years with the Detroit Pistons was expected to lead the Magic to new heights.
Instead, his seven years with them were beset by a seemingly never-ending assortment of ailments, stemming primarily from an injury to his left ankle that he sustained toward the end of his time with the Pistons.
Not until 2007 did Hill suit up for a playoff game as a member of the Magic. They wound up being swept in four games by his former team, and less than three months later, he signed with the Phoenix Suns.
"I think of what could have been," Hill said in a phone interview with FOXSportsFlorida.com. "I think of some of the teams, the players, and we were never really able to accurately assess what we could have done. But that’s, sadly, part of professional sports. One of the major components to success is health."
As much as the current edition of the Magic have struggled, those problems pale in comparison to what transpired in late 2003. That team lost 19 games in a row, prompting the firing of coach Doc Rivers — who, a decade later, would be reunited with Hill with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Hill never played a game for the Magic in that 2003-04 season, when they finished with a 21-61 record and Tracy McGrady demanded to be traded away. The previous March, Hill underwent a medical procedure where his ankle was re-fractured and realigned with his leg bone. Five days after the surgery, he had to be rushed to a hospital with fever and convulsions and it was discovered he had contracted a potential fatal infection.
After that latest and scariest setback, the return of Hill to something close to his previous form in the 2004-05 season was welcomed not only in Orlando but also around the NBA.
"Look, there’s obviously frustration at not being able to be me and show the franchise and everyone involved sort of what I can do," he said. "That was always, on one hand, tough for everybody involved. But on the flip side, there were a lot of really good moments and wonderful moments, relationships and people within the organization, a lot of who are still there in various departments. Just good people."
Hill said he has attended "about five or six" Magic games this season, most recently when onetime teammate Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets were in town. He also got a chance to talk with Dennis Scott and Pat Garrity when they were honored separately earlier in the season and came away convinced he wouldn’t hesitate at having a ceremony at center court similar to theirs.
"It’s great for the fans. It’s great for the current crop of guys to see that they’re part of a tradition here. So, yeah, I thought it was a wonderful idea," Hill said.
In addition to the ankle injury which limited him to a total of 47 regular-season games in his first four years with the Magic, Hill needed surgery during the 2005-06 season for a sports hernia and was slowed in his final season in Orlando by injuries to his left knee.
But after coming to the Suns, he turned into something of an iron man. Over a three-year stretch, he played in all but three games. And in 2010, he got past the first round of the playoffs for the only time in his career.
"They do some amazing work," he said of the Suns’ medical and training staff. "Forget about me, and forget about what I went through. You can look at other players. You can look at Steve Nash. In 2004, Dallas didn’t want to bring him back because he had back issues. They basically let him walk away because they didn’t think he could stay healthy. And then the guy goes there and puts together back-to-back MVP years.
"Look at Shaq. Shaq was dealing with some serious health issues, bad hips, just sort of falling apart in Miami. He comes to Phoenix, gets rejuvenated, makes the All-Star Game, is the All-Star Game MVP in 2009. He leaves there, and he’s hobbling the next two years finishing his career."
Hill announced his retirement last June and has immersed himself in his broadcasting career. He’s one of the hosts of Inside Stuff and is a frequent studio analyst on Friday nights for NBA TV. Last weekend, he worked four days in a row helping analyze the NCAA Tournament.
"I know the NBA better than college. I’ll just leave it at that," he said with a laugh. "But it was good learning about these teams and having to quickly on the fly (and) talk about them. It was a crash course in TV broadcasting."
Taking in occasional Magic home games allows Hill to renew acquaintances with senior vice president Pat Williams and current coach Jacque Vaughn, who was a Magic teammate of his in 2002-03, as well as those people who tend to do their jobs out of the spotlight.
"When I go back now, it’s all good," he said. "It’s family. They ask about the girls (Myla, 12, and Lael, 6) and my wife (Tamia). That’s what I’m saying about good people there who have been there for quite some time."
Still, the pangs of regret about how injuries derailed his career will surface from time to time.
"There’s been good and bad," he said. "But the reality is that’s in anything, any life, any experience. You look back and reflect. You remember the good. You remember the bad. And the further you get from the bad, I guess you have a different perspective on it.
"You can’t go back and change it. It’s part of history — good, bad or indifferent."