During an exclusive, 55-minute interview on my Real Talk podcast at FOXSportsradio.com, NBA star Grant Hill discusses in provocative detail how he believes Detroit and Orlando team doctors and training staffs mismanaged his ankle injury and damaged what potentially could’ve been a transcendent career.
“We could do a whole podcast on just my series of injuries and what I think was the mismanagement of those injuries,” said the 38-year-old Hill, who also talked about his recent “Uncle Tom” dustup with ESPN broadcaster Jalen Rose.
“I did not try to prove at any point how tough I was,” Hill said, dispelling the popular narrative that in his final season in Detroit (2000) he played in a first-round playoff series against Miami on an injured ankle in an effort to prove his toughness to critics. “At no time did I go against doctor’s orders or team orders to play in my time in Detroit or my time in Orlando. I followed the orders.
“Despite my New York Times article (Rose rebuttal), I’m not a rock-the-boat kind of guy.”
At the beginning of the new millennium, Hill was a Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson kind of guy. Playing for the Pistons, Hill was a triple-double machine and arguably the league’s most popular player, the clear heir to Michael Jordan’s NBA throne. Selected with the third pick of the 1994 draft, the season following Isiah Thomas’ retirement, Hill averaged 21.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists through his first six seasons.
His final season in Detroit, Hill had the league’s third-highest scoring average (25.8), behind Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. At age 27, it’s not an exaggeration to say Hill was LeBron James, the NBA’s most complete player.
“At the time I got hurt, I felt like the game was becoming very easy for me,” Hill said. “I was entering my prime. There was an understanding of the game. I felt the next four or five years would be an opportunity and a time to really make my mark and really go for it.”
Things fell apart for Hill as he approached free agency in 2000. He broke his ankle in the Miami playoff series. The injury dogged him the next four years. After signing a $92 million contract with the Magic, Hill played 57 games in four years, sitting out the entire 03-04 season. Labeled as injury-prone and the black Bill Walton, Hill’s prime years were stolen by complications resulting from ankle surgery.
“I don’t think anybody really knows I started to have ankle problems at the end of the 1999-2000 season, probably mid-March,” Hill said. “I was still able to go out and play. I still played well, but I was getting a lot of treatment. It was certainly bothering me. As we got closer to the end of the season, my ankle was really getting worse. I was missing practice. To the point where we had a nationally televised game against Philadelphia and I just pulled myself. My ankle was just killing me. We get back, we get an MRI. They say it’s a bone bruise.”
Hill rested the final three games of the regular season and returned to the lineup for the Miami playoff series.
“It’s still bothering me,” Hill said. “I pull myself in the third quarter. They put me on some heavy medication and we had a long break between Game 1 and Game 2. While I was on this medication I felt great. Obviously it was masking the pain. Went out and played in Game 2 and I felt a pop in the second quarter, continued on in the third quarter and couldn’t go on. When we got back, we found out it was broken.
“I (had been) told everything was fine. I even found out that certain team doctors were questioning whether I was really hurt, thinking I was soft or whatever. This was after I had pulled myself from Game 2 against the Heat. At that time, when I found out I had broken my ankle, as crazy as this sounds, I was relieved. I finally had some confirmation, I finally had proof that I’m really not making it up.”
Hill said Isiah Thomas’ long shadow might have affected the way the Pistons dealt with his injury.
“There was a standard in Detroit and that standard was Isiah,” Hill said. “He grew up in Chicago. He was tough. He played hurt. He had that great game against the Lakers in the Finals (on a twisted ankle). He was the face of the franchise and I’m sort of the exact opposite. I’m sure there were Isiah supporters within the organization. Who knows? I can only speculate. But it was like no matter what I did, it wasn’t as good as Isiah….
“I wasn’t trying to prove how tough I am. I was just trying to win.”
Hill’s pursuit of victories led him to team up with Tracy McGrady in Orlando. Hill had surgery on his ankle in May. He visited Orlando in July while still needing the help of crutches. He signed a contract in August. By Labor Day, the Magic had him participating in pickup games.
“They had me out there playing,” Hill said. “I might play once a week. My ankle was hurting. I wasn’t really supposed to be out there. I wasn’t supposed to be playing. I’d never really been hurt before so I didn’t know what rehab really was. I’m trying to play. I’m icing all the time. I’m getting through the month, probably playing pickup three or four times in the whole month. We get to training camp, I might have practiced once or twice during camp. I stumble through preseason playing three or four games.
On Halloween, the Magic opened the season with an 11-point victory over the Wizards. Hill was in the starting lineup.
“The next day the doctor who performed (my) surgery picks the paper up and saw that I played like 30 minutes and he was irate,” Hill said. “I wasn’t supposed to be on the court doing basketball-related activity until December. So somewhere along the line, the ball was dropped. And certainly I didn’t know that until the doctor informed me of that. Apparently he had forwarded all the information down there to Orlando. I was told to follow the instructions. I played in another game in Miami the next night and they shut me down to do rehab for five or six weeks. By then it was too late. What should’ve been a six- or seven-month recovery before you get on the court to play, I was on the court in three or four months.
“I don’t think it was a conspiracy that, ‘Hey, we gotta get him out there.’ Someone just didn’t read the protocol. Which is crazy. You invest $92 million in somebody … I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe how poorly mismanaged this has been.’ ”
Hill played four games his first season in Orlando. Favoring the ankle, he eventually developed a knee injury.
During the podcast, Hill, who just completed his 15th NBA season, discussed then-Orlando coach Doc Rivers’ role in his injury ordeal, coming to peace with his compromised NBA career, his desire to play at least two more seasons, an interesting conversation with Bill Walton and why Duke and its players are hated.
Hill also revealed he was supposed to participate in Rose’s controversial Fab Five documentary.
“I was excited to see the story and see this documentary,” Hill said. “With the exception of one part, I thought it was well done.”
Rose described Duke’s African-American players as “Uncle Toms.” Hill was most bothered by the post-documentary discussion Rose participated in on ESPN and the impact the controversy had on Hill’s two daughters.
“When I was nine years old, you could get somewhat shielded from that, but now with the way kids receive information … my 9-year-old knew about it,” Hill said. “I’m on the road and she’s calling me, ‘Why is someone calling you an Uncle Tom? What does that mean?’ That certainly played into me wanting to respond to that … I get and understand sort of what he was trying to say. It wasn’t even so much the doc as it was the response the next day on ‘First and 10’ and the various platforms ESPN has to promote. And (Rose) was asked, ‘Do you still feel that way?’ And to not answer that, to me, said a lot. But like I said, we’ve talked. I don’t think he feels that way.”