In Grant Hill’s Hall of Fame career, his determination to play was his downfall

Grant Hill's time with the Orlando Magic was characterized most by his absence. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Grant Hill's time with the Orlando Magic was characterized most by his absence. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Grant Hill established a Hall of Fame career and could have been one of the greatest players ever. But his determination to play through injury cost him.

Things turned sour for Grant Hill very early in his career with the Orlando Magic. A story and a headline that became regular during the six years he played for the Magic.

Hill returned from a month-long absence for his first game against the Los Angeles Clippers. It seemed he had put his ankle issues behind him. He was ready to resume his All-Star player and help lead the Magic to a new era of dominance with budding young star Tracy McGrady by his side.

This was how the dream was supposed to go. Even with how Hill crutched his way off the plane to sign his new contract. Hill was one of the best players in the NBA — a five-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA player (four 2nd teams and one 1st team). On top of that, he was extremely popular as someone consistently voted into the All-Star Game (even when he was injured in Orlando).

Hill scored 19 points for the Magic that game in Los Angeles. He looked like he had no rust in his 25 minutes. He added seven rebounds to boot, showing off all the versatility and skill that made him such a respected player to that point.

Tragedy was always right around the corner. After playing 25 minutes in that return, the next game proved to be the last one Hill would play in that first season with the Magic.

In Seattle against the Seattle Supersonics, Hill played 39 minutes and scored nine points. He admitted after the game to Tim Povtak of the Orlando Sentinel that he was in a lot of pain and hurt his team ultimately in the loss.

Like when he originally injured his ankle, Hill worked through the pain to try to play. It was the most admirable trait and ultimately his downfall.

Hill would sacrifice everything to play for his team and his teammates. Handing him a seven-year, $93-million contract only made that yearning worse. He had something to live up to and a responsibility to perform.

So much that he developed a staph infection that nearly killed him on the operating table as he worked to get back from one of his many ankle injuries. He admitted to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated that he felt the pressure of that contract and tried to come back too soon from injury.

Of course, many of his ankle problems started — or at least, got worse — when he tried to play through a major ankle injury during the first round of the 2000 Playoffs.

That drive and determination to play characterized his career. It was clear watching him play the passion he played with. But it was clear watching him on the bench in Orlando just how much Hill was willing to hurt himself to play the game and do that.

That passion was what made him great and ultimately what hurt him most in the end.

Even in Orlando, Hill produced when he played. Even though he played in just 47 games in his first three seasons in Orlando, Hill averaged 15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.

For his full six seasons playing in a Magic uniform, Hill averaged 16.4 points per game, 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. After missing the entire 2004 season, Hill started to gain some consistency as he redefined his game, basing it on technique, skill and mid-range jump shooting over his athleticism.

Those numbers do not scream Hall of Fame. Hill was a co-Rookie of the Year and a seven-time All-Star. With the Detroit Pistons, he averaged 21.6 points per game, 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. But he never got out of the first round despite numbers that helped him compare favorably to Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

Hill’s Hall of Fame resume gets a boost from his stellar play for the Duke Blue Devils where he won back-to-back national championships. Those were the first two titles in Mike Krzyzewski’s storied career.

Despite Hill’s Hall of Fame credentials, it is easy to see and feel that his career went largely unfulfilled. There is no great team success at the professional level. And the injuries sapped him of a lot of the qualities that made him a supremely great player.

It is not all of Hill’s doing. So much was out of his control. Most of all the injuries. Those are still largely random. But Hill did not do himself any favors.

He wanted to play and wanted to rise up to the big moments, often ignoring the future repercussions to do so. When his body was telling him to stop, he tried to push through it.

There are many stories throughout NBA history courageously overcoming injuries to play in big moments. Hill felt that pressure to do that, especially as his team’s star in both Detroit and Orlando. And that ultimately hurt him.

His confidence to play at a high level despite his physical ailments was his downfall. It likely cost him a career that would place him among the very top players in the entire league.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Instead, Hill’s career is looked at with regret. A player cut down at the peak of his powers when he was redefining the small forward position as one of the first true point forwards the league had ever seen. A guy who could literally do anything he wanted on the court.

But everything with Hill came back to that simple desire. He wanted to play. He wanted to make his teammates better and be there for them. He saw how much the Magic were struggling, even on Tracy McGrady’s capable back, and he wanted to support his teammates.

It was clear from how Hill talks about that time how frustrated he was he could not play. His body would not let him. Fans shared that frustration too, even if it was hard to understand it.

Hill’s time with the Magic was a disappointment simply because Hill could not will his body to stay on the floor. No matter how much he wanted to and was willing to sacrifice himself to get there.

Very little of that is his fault.

But this storyline has come to define what made Hill special and prevented him from reaching his true heights. Hill wanted to play and help his teammates.

It proved to be his downfall as much as the reason for his success.

Hill will enter the Hall of Fame on Friday. An honor he deserves for how important he is to the story of basketball throughout the 1990s.

Next. Orlando Magic Top 30: Appreciating the role players. dark

But his career will get left with the great what ifs of NBA history.