The ball had to stop bouncing eventually, but when it finally did, many disoriented onlookers needed a minute to pause and regain their bearings.
Could he really be done? Could Grant Hill, the oldest player in the NBA, a mainstay in the league long before the world knew LeBron James or even the Internet, really be calling it quits?
Even Shaquille O’Neal, whose own NBA perpetuity finally ended two years ago on the day, waved his hand in disbelief when the man only a few months his junior made the June 1 announcement on TNT’s NBA Finals pregame show. Hill’s casual declaration of closure took a minute to sink in, as if his contemporaries were suddenly unable to recognize him for a moment.
The retirement of a 40-year-old athlete well past his prime was hardly earthshattering news, but it seemed to throw off some kind of order, like removing a star from the night sky. Here was a man who had been making his presence felt in the NBA longer than just about any high school student today has been alive, someone who was turning heads on the court before Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Kevin Durant were even born. And here he was looking relieved, ready to drop 33 years of basketball with the same ease he dropped all those buckets.
But the most accomplished baller ever to come out of Reston isn’t really done. In fact, he’s just getting started.
“I refuse to believe that the best is behind me,” Hill said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of great opportunities for me moving forward. I’m just so excited about what the future has in store.”
Hill’s eagerness for the next phase in his life helps explain why his retirement announcement came during a lighthearted one-minute TV segment rather than a heart-wrenching 30-minute press conference.
A cerebral, well-spoken public figure from the start, Hill has long carried expansive interests outside of basketball, not least of them politics. His childhood on the fringes of Washington, D.C., pulled him into the political realm at a young age — he interned for former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and worked for his mother, Janet, in the offices of former Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander Jr. during the Carter administration. Hill showed support for the Democratic Party during his playing years by way of fundraisers and speaking appearances on behalf of various U.S. senators and congressmen. Among those was Sen. Barack Obama, whose 2008 presidential campaign saw contributions from the Phoenix Suns’ team captain.
Some have speculated that Hill’s political background and strong people skills make the basketball player well-suited for a smooth transition into some kind of campaign of his own, but Hill isn’t thinking that ambitiously just yet.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean being a politician, but being more involved in the political process,” said Hill, who earned his degree from Duke University with a double major in history and political science. “I’ve done some things, some minor things, but I look forward to exploring it more. I really like the world of politics, and I look forward to just participating more than I have in the last 20 years.”
Hill also holds experience in the business world, having overseen his marketing and management company, Hill Ventures Inc., since his entrance into the NBA in 1994. He has used Hill Ventures to build multi-family apartments and commercial real estate, in addition to handling various charitable donations and promoting his extensive collection of African-American art.
Before he can take all those endeavors further, though, Hill is keeping his biggest priority on his family in Florida, where he wants to spend more time with his wife, Tamia, and his daughters, Myla and Lael Rose. And whenever he gets a chance, he’ll make more trips up to Northern Virginia to visit his parents, who now reside in Great Falls.
“D.C. and Northern Virginia, that’s always going to be home,” Hill said. “It’s really fun to go back and see people, see your family — it certainly brings back a lot of wonderful memories every time I go back there.”
Those memories all funnel back to the basketball courts at Twin Branches Park, the place where Hill says “it all sort of came together for me.” He recalls how packed those courts were during weekends and summers, how his height and prodigious skill always forced him to run with the older kids, even if he felt outclassed.
Hill’s humble demeanor was apparent from an early age. The son of Calvin Hill, a Super Bowl-winning running back for the Dallas Cowboys, Grant always tried to downplay his family’s athletic gifts and blend seamlessly with his friends. As an eighth grader at Langston Hughes Middle School, Grant would race over to South Lakes High after school to join his ninth-grade friends at the freshman basketball team’s practice. Though too young to play for them, he was clearly better than anybody on the team. Yet he was content to just sit behind the bench at every game, passing out waters and fetching towels.
When Hill became a freshman, he looked forward to playing alongside his friends on that team, but varsity coach Wendell Byrd had other ideas for the 6-foot-4inch 13-year-old. Byrd, who had become familiar with Hill’s abilities at summer basketball camps, was going to make Hill the first freshman at South Lakes to ever make the jump straight into the varsity squad’s starting lineup. A tearful Hill took plenty of convincing from his coach and his father, but eventually he came around.
“They just seemed so old to me, and I wanted to play with my friends,” Hill recalled. “I felt like my freshman team was really good and we could be really good if I played. As it so happened, the freshman team went undefeated without me. I guess they were good enough and I would have messed things up if I had played.”
As he became more comfortable with his role on the varsity team, interest from college programs began to mount. Longtime Herndon basketball coach Gary Hall, who was then the freshman coach at South Lakes, remembers how Coach Byrd used to leave college letters on his desk for his players to pick up.
“As a freshman, Grant was receiving 25, 30 letters a day,” Hall said. “One day he came to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to leave my backpack in the office. When I get letters, if you would just put them in my backpack and put it near the desk because I don’t want my teammates to get jealous.’ Most kids if they get one letter, they carry it around school and brag about it. Today there’s such a sense of entitlement, and Grant displayed none of that. It’s why he is who he is today.”
Coach Byrd remembers Hill as a lanky freshman who wasn’t physically massive but who could dunk, rebound and get to the rack with ease. That season the Seahawks had a relatively small lineup that needed help rebounding, so Byrd mainly tasked Hill to get his points through stick-backs and occasional jumpers. But as his confidence blossomed toward the end of the season, Hill was consistently gliding to the basket as if the age difference between him and the hapless guy in his path was reversed.
By the time he was a senior, Byrd had designated Hill as his team’s 6-foot-8-inch point guard, allowing Hill to use his height to see the floor and his handling ability to burn defenders off the dribble. At times he seemed to be mimicking Magic Johnson, a 6-8 point guard of slightly greater fame, but television on the East Coast didn’t regularly blazon Magic’s likeness when Hill was coming of age in the 1980s.
Instead, Hill was copying his childhood idol Michael Jackson, a 6-2 South Lakes point guard whose impressive dribbling ability and quickness carried him to Georgetown and eventually a brief stint in the NBA. Hill grew up watching Jackson every Friday at South Lakes and continued to follow him when his family recorded Georgetown games on Betamax tapes.
Even with all the alley oops and records and accolades his best player would go on to attain, Byrd remembers Hill most for the selfless style he never betrayed.
“He was obviously a great player, but great players have to learn how to blend with other players,” Byrd said. “He was never the type of player that wanted to not blend and understand what the word ‘team’ was all about. He never felt that he was an individual that could win and do everything for the team, so he was on the same page as his teammates. He pushed his teammates to become better, which made our teams better.”
A restless desire to help those around him is likely what kept Hill in the upper echelons of the basketball world for so long, and it will be what drives him going forward. It’s the mark of a man who has never let the game define him completely.
“Certainly there’s a large commitment necessary to play at a high level, and I made that sacrifice,” Hill said. “But I look forward to exploring new things and trying new things and seeing what’s next. My challenge is to not do it all at once.”