In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
Before Arkansas reached the SEC championship game against Kentucky in March, the Razorbacks hadn’t won a game in the conference tournament since 2008, when Steven Hill’s turnaround jumper over Wayne Chism with 5.3 seconds left in the league semifinal dashed Tennessee’s hopes at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
For many, that game-winning shot is the lasting image of Hill, the hirsute seven-footer known more for his defense than anything during his four years in Fayetteville.
However, if you ask Hill, who won SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, made the conference all-defensive team again as a senior and still stands as the fourth-leading shot-blocker in SEC history, there’s another shot he made — not one of the 318 he rejected at Arkansas — that he considers the biggest in his career, even if it came in a 17-point loss.
"Two points and three rebounds," Hill recalled quickly when asked by FOX Sports about his lone career NBA game — and his perfect career field goal percentage — earlier this year. "I always say I was one of the most efficient NBA players of all time."
Undrafted out of Arkansas, Hill got his first taste of the NBA in the summer of 2008, when the Portland Trail Blazers added the Branson, Missouri, native to their summer league roster. That July, Hill excelled defensively — and drew compliments for his beard — averaging 2.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and, most importantly, 2.2 blocks in just under 18 minutes per game.
Hill’s efforts earned him an invite to training camp, where he served as a self-described "punching bag" for Greg Oden, who was rehabbing after his first microfracture surgery, but after playing sparingly during the preseason that October, recording three points, two rebounds and two blocks over 27 minutes spread across three games, Hill was cut by the Blazers on Oct. 23.
Capable seven-footers are a somewhat rare commodity, though, even in the NBA, so Hill didn’t go without a job for long. A short time after his release, Hill got a call from his agent, who told him that the Thunder had expressed interest in the big man’s services, Then on Nov. 4, three games into the franchise’s first season in Oklahoma City, Hill was added to the roster.
"It was the whole rookie, league minimum, non-guaranteed contract scenario," Hill said.
Still, he was thrilled to be there, even if his place with the NBA squad wasn’t a sure thing.
"I knew I was the 15th man on the roster, and I had a lot of respect and still do for their GM, Sam Presti," he added. "They looked at me as kind of a project and didn’t guarantee me a long-term spot. But because they signed me, they were going to put some time into me, and I knew, definitely, that I was going to be a D-League guy, off and on."
After arriving in OKC, Hill spent the next three games in street clothes, inactive alongside Mouhamed Sene and D.J. White. A knee injury to Chris Wilcox opened up a spot on the active roster for Sene in Hill’s fourth game with the team. Two nights later, reigning Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant took a game off, as well, resting a sore right ankle against the Magic and making space for Hill, on Nov. 12, 2008, to finally swap his suit for a jersey during a regular-season NBA game.
"They weren’t expecting me to play, but they needed me in case of emergency, because Dwight Howard was on the Magic at the time," Hill said. "So they said, ‘We’re going to dress you today, and you may or may not play, but we might need your fouls.’ That was basically the message and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do whatever.’"
Hill didn’t end up having to face Howard, who scored 30 points to go with 19 rebounds and 10 blocks in the only triple-double of his career, to date, but Hill did get to check in with 2:26 remaining in the fourth quarter — 55 seconds after Howard checked out — with the Thunder trailing Orlando 107-85. It wasn’t the most glorious time for a professional debut, but Hill says he was set to make the most of it.
That was my moment in the sun.
"That was my moment in the sun," Hill said. "I’m out there, two and a half minutes to go and we’re getting smoked, but I am working hard. It’s my first — and would end up being my only — opportunity in an NBA game, so I was out there busting it."
After checking in, Hill secured a rebound on his first possession, corralling a Russell Westbrook shot that was blocked by Marcin Gortat. The next OKC possession saw Kyle Weaver score the first two points of his NBA career, and after a Brian Cook offensive foul, a Weaver turnover and a Gortat travel gave the Thunder the ball down 107-87 with 1:35 to go, Hill finally got a chance to score.
Damien Wilkins began the possession with a missed 3-pointer, and after Westbrook missed a putback, Hill cleaned up with a tip-in for his first, and last career points on his only career shot attempt.
"It was just a random, garbage tip-in, but I shook hands with coach (P.J. Carlesimo), and he said, ‘Congratulations on your first NBA point,’ and it was obviously huge for me," Hill said.
After the basket, Hill added one more rebound, grabbing a missed J.J. Redick 3-pointer with 42 seconds left, but when the game was over, Hill says he found it hard to show excitement over his first basket with the team, which fell to 1-7 on the year with the 109-92 loss, sulking in the locker room.
It was just a random, garbage tip-in, but I shook hands with coach (P.J. Carlesimo), and he said, ‘Congratulations on your first NBA point,’ and it was obviously huge for me.
"It was interesting," Hill said. "It was amazing, and I get goose bumps just thinking about it now. It was huge for me. It was the biggest point, the biggest accomplishment of my basketball career at that time. But at the same time, we had just gotten beat badly and the team was not doing that well. So you’re happy, because I accomplished something, but at the same time, the team was not. It sucks to lose, and I didn’t like to lose any more than anyone else."
Two nights after Hill’s debut, Durant returned to the Thunder lineup against the New York Knicks, relegating Hill back to the inactive list, where he would remain for the next four games before being assigned to the D-League.
In Tulsa, Hill averaged 7.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 21 minutes per game, and the Thunder recalled him in mid-December, but his stay was once again short, and he was released outright on Dec. 30 to make room for the signing of Nenad Krstic, another seven-footer who made Hill expendable.
After minor knee surgery and a brief stay with the Minnesota Timberwolves during summer league, Hill broke training camp with the Chicago Bulls in 2009, but was released less than a week after signing with the team, one day before the team’s first preseason game. After another injury-riddled season in Tulsa, Hill joined the Sacramento Kings for summer league in 2010 (along with Chism) but was released before the team’s first game.
In October 2010, Hill got one last NBA shot, back in Portland in the wake of a season-ending injury to Jeff Pendergraph, but Hill did not play in any of the next three preseason games and was subsequently released. Two weeks later, just a few days before his 25th birthday, Hill announced his retirement from basketball, and while it was difficult decision at the time to abandon his pursuit of a career in basketball, he felt it was the best decision for him and his growing family.
"It was disappointing," Hill said. "I just couldn’t stay consistently healthy, and I had gotten married, was about to have a kid, and it was so up-and-down. I was in training camp, getting cut, I was hurt, I was in the D-League, and it was a roller coaster, and it was horrible, but I rode that roller coaster for a year and a half.
Steven Hill went to the D-League to show what he could do.
"I knew I could go overseas and do the whole thing, and maybe it gets better, or maybe it doesn’t, but for me — married, kid, degree — I felt like I should just get a job, and that was a tough decision. But at the same time, because it had been such a grind, it made it a little bit easier. During the process, it sucked, but at the end, I was very much at peace with it."
Five years later, Hill is still working and living in northwest Arkansas, where he’s added a second child to the family. He still gets recognized from time to time by Razorbacks die-hards, and while his two NBA points and his perfect field goal percentage may be an afterthought to most, Hill says he sees them as the embodiment of an entire career spent working toward a singular goal.
"It’s hard to be proud of it publicly, because it’s just two points and I’m seven feet tall," Hill said. "People still look at you and think you didn’t achieve as much as they feel you should have. But privately, I take a lot of pride in it because I feel like I worked hard and I put a lot into it. I try to play it off, but I’m proud of it more (often) than I feel like, ‘Aw, crap, I should have done more.’
"I did what millions dream of doing, and that’s what I have to remind myself," Hill added. "I was on an NBA team. I was on private airplanes with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and all those guys, living that life. It was for a very short period, but nobody gets to do that. So I use that to kind of re-balance myself."