When the University of Michigan reached the pinnacle of college basketball two weeks ago and was ranked No. 1 in the country, references to the Fab Five filled the airwaves.
It was the first time since those five freshmen took college basketball by baggy-shorts-and-black-shoes storm in 1991-92 that the Wolverines had been No. 1. That made Grant Hill smile as he iced his knees following a recent Clippers practice.
Hill went to Duke and played against the Fab Five, and while Jalen Rose and Chris Webber are now analyzing the NBA for TV outlets, Hill is, at 40, the league’s second-oldest player (one day younger than New York’s Kurt Thomas). He is applying the polish on a successful career, but one that screams “what if.”
Who could have predicted that, after missing parts of four seasons and another one entirely with ankle issues, Hill would still be around? He is a voice of reason and still a viable component of the Clippers. Hill remains relevant, an example of fortitude and passion after nearly losing his career several years ago.
He’s a shirt and tie among a throwback-jersey generation. He chats with reporters, carrying on wide-ranging conversations instead of posting misspelled words on Twitter. Hill doesn’t feel like a dinosaur. There is a sense of comfort, yet a desire to finish on top.
“We have some balance there,” said Hill. “We’ve got guys that are in their prime, we’ve got some vets, and” — he added with a smile — “we’ve got some super vets.
“I think everyone is here for a reason and everyone has contributed so far. That’s the mind-set since I’ve been here, is trying to win. It’s not an easy thing to do, but that’s one of our goals and I think realistically there’s a handful of teams that have that as one of their goals as well.
“I like our chances, because of that balance, because of that mix of old and new, a great point guard, a great interior player and then a cast of veterans who have been around.”
With Chauncey Billups present, Hill has someone on the club close to his generation. Hill was Co-Rookie of the Year with Jason Kidd in 1995. His first NBA All-Star Game was 18 years ago, and on his Pistons squad his rookie year were Joe Dumars, Mark West, and Johnny Dawkins.
“Being around youth is certainly a remedy to keeping you young,” he said. “There is a lot of differences, a lot of changes that occur through the league, a different mind-set, different experiences that a lot of these young guys have, different fashion.
“But you stay in your lane. You are who you are. You are only a collection of your experiences, and certainly mine have been different. But it’s fun to be around. It’s fun to learn about [younger guys], it’s amusing, but it keeps you going.”
During his first few years, Hill said, he used to chide his 30-something teammates.
“I used to laugh at some of the older guys on our team,” he said. “I said, ‘Man, when I’m 33, 34, I’m done. When you’re 21, 33 seems very old. And now I wish I were 33.
“It goes by fast and I try to impress upon these young guys that you make the most of this now and you don’t want to look back with any kind of regrets.
“Nineteen years has gone by in a blink of an eye, so you appreciate the little things more now.”
What does Hill cherish now? Trying to respond from tough losses. Plane rides with teammates. Rehabbing from injuries. The closeness that emanates from down times.
“You appreciate that more, just as much as the highs,” he said. “Because you know that soon, when it’s over, those are all nothing but memories. So to be able to live it, go through it and problem-solve as a unit [is rewarding]. I don’t know if I was looking at it like that at 25.”
Rondo injury readily fixable
Rajon Rondo’s torn right anterior cruciate ligament is a serious injury, but a noted orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knee injuries believes Rondo can return to his pre-surgery form with no lingering affects.
Dr. Daniel Kharrazi, team physician for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and a consultant for the Lakers, Dodgers, Angels, and NHL Kings, said the one-time career-threatening injury is no longer so severe.
“The techniques for reconstruction are now so advanced,” said Kharrazi, who pointed out the remarkable recovery of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was coming off ACL surgery yet was named the NFL’s MVP. “Obviously it’s still a devastating injury because you’re out six to nine months, but in the NBA, there are many guards with ACL injuries this year.
“It’s a major injury still, because it’s a major ligament, but bottom line, once the surgery is done and recovered, there is a high likelihood that you could return to the same level of play.”
Kharrazi, of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Pasadena, Calif., said ACL reconstruction is done “anatomically, where the fibers of the ACL attached should be similar to what it was before the injury.”
Rondo was diagnosed with a partial tear, and Kharrazi said complications can arise if there is also cartilage or meniscus damage. In Rondo’s case, that information has not been released.
“Those are the types of things that we still don’t have 100 percent answers to,” said Kharrazi. “We have answers to treat them and fix them surgically, but particular cartilage injury, that’s what may slow down your rehab or may cause some residuals to be present when you return to play.
“But the ligament reconstruction itself has been known in many athletes to be as solid and as good as their own ACL.”
Kharrazi said most ACL injuries in the NBA and NFL are non-contact injuries, which was the case for Rondo, who landed awkwardly after making one of his customary jump passes.
“It looked like basically a hyperextension injury where the forces were just right for him to tear his ACL,” said Kharrazi.
The positive part for Rondo is the state-of-the-art surgery, with fewer incisions and a replication of the ACL fibers. Two decades ago, ACL repairs usually resulted in athletes losing a step and having to change their style of play.
“Rajon is a great candidate [for full recovery], and I think he should do very well,” Kharrazi said. “He’s obviously driven, motivated. He should have a complete return to play when he is fixed, so I don’t anticipate any deficiencies in his game once he’s done.”
Dunlap enjoys young Bobcats
While the Charlotte Bobcats are again headed for the draft lottery, they are making strides. With a talent pool of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, and Gerald Henderson, they are making strides and appear headed toward brighter days under owner Michael Jordan, thanks to the motivational tactics and structure provided by new coach Mike Dunlap.
The Bobcats are still painfully young and seeking a face-of-the-franchise player, but after Larry Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff, and Paul Silas all attempted unsuccessfully to change the losing culture, Dunlap is trying to build with hard work and discipline, and perhaps the region will embrace the team.
“What we’re trying to do is stay with what they do well,” Dunlap said. “A guy like [Brendan] Haywood has been around the block, has a championship ring, so he gives a tilt to our locker room that’s positive.”
The journey has been difficult. The Bobcats lost 18 straight games from late November through December, turning an encouraging 7-5 start to a ghastly 7-23 record. That turned the Bobcats back into their kitten selves, but Dunlap refused to allow the younger players such as Kidd-Gilchrist to get discouraged.
“The disposition of the staff has to be energy, it’s got to be clear every day and the same [message] on that,” said Dunlap. “Their bounce-back has been particularly good. Like with Gilchrist, he was known at Kentucky as a locker-room guy. That’s why we picked him, and he’s showing that.”
Whereas past coaches in Charlotte may have treated their young men like veterans, Dunlap has begun the organization’s rejuvenation from the grass roots. One of his leaders is Walker, a second-year guard who has accepted the tag as the team’s most identifiable player.
“What we’re trying to do is teach them how to be professionals,” Dunlap said. “That includes a lot of things, from food to sleep, you’re playing the Celtics after playing Indianapolis, how to act. You point to a guy like Haywood or [Ben] Gordon. They help us with the young ones.”
Dunlap’s basketball knowledge is well-respected, even if he mostly has been an assistant at college programs such as St. John’s, Oregon, and Arizona. He also has released five basketball DVDs. But he was an interesting choice to lead the new-look Bobcats, who changed their uniforms and team colors as part of an attempt to put a difficult period behind them.
“I knew that it was going to be an extraordinarily hard job,” he said. “But I said this is something that I want, by choice. Everybody on staff here has a reputation as a teacher, even when [Salem High product Rick] Brunson, a point guard, sees the game fast, and he was under [Tom Thibodeau], who was under George Karl in his internship.
“I thought that if we put all this together, it would be a two- to three- to four-year deal, and plant the seeds deep and do the right thing.
“It’s difficult from this standpoint: You’re understanding of your circumstances but you’re unaccepting of the losing. You don’t want to numb yourself to the losing. Basically, stay active, don’t sit around and pout.”
Walker, who has had a breakout season and will be part of the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, is trying to accept the leader role.
“I am only in my second season, so I am still learning,” he said. “But things are better here. Guys are helping each other though this. It’s not easy, but we definitely have a plan and have the talent, so things are looking up.”
LEGAL BATTLE LOOMS
Hunter, union squaring off
The NBA Players Association will conduct a vote during All-Star Weekend to determine the fate of executive director Billy Hunter, who has been embattled for months. Hunter has hired legal representation, Thomas Ashley, who released a statement regarding the NBPA’s ability to oust him. If Hunter is removed by a vote of the executive committee, he may pursue legal action.
“I am deeply troubled by the lack of fundamental fairness shown my client by a group whose authority to take such action is highly questionable,” Ashley wrote in a statement. “The act of placing my client on administrative leave is not supported in either the Constitution or Bylaws of the NBPA. Furthermore, Mr. Hunter was not given any opportunity to respond to the Paul, Weiss report prior to the time that a decision was made to place him on administrative leave.”
Hunter responded to the independent report by making several administrative changes that included firing family members and stripping himself of power, but as Celtics forward Paul Pierce told the Globe last week, “There’s too much accusations. It’s time for a change in leadership.”
“Simply said, he was never given an opportunity to defend himself or refute the allegations made in the report,” Ashley’s statement continued. “In addition to making governance reforms consistent with the report, Mr. Hunter has spoken to various teams and Player Representatives thus refuting the ridiculous suggestion that he was unresponsive to his membership.”
Hunter is expected to release his complete response to the allegations in coming days.
There is a perception that NBPA president Derek Fisher is consulting with the NBA about his desire to remove Hunter and wants to be executive director. But he tweeted last week that he is not interested in the top job, suggesting that someone with a legal background should take over.
Also, union sources say some key members of the executive committee — those who were allies of Hunter — were left out of the process to place him on administrative leave. Chris Paul of the Clippers and Celtics player liaison Keyon Dooling were not aware of Fisher’s actions, although they are members of the executive committee.
Meanwhile, the NBPA (without Hunter) has retained Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP to deal with the legal issues of getting a new executive director.
“The firm will advise the NBPA on legal and business matters related to the findings reported by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP as a result of their internal investigation in response to government subpoenas,” the firm said in a statement.
Regardless of who wins the tussle between Fisher and Hunter, there will be major changes with the Players Association, and it appears many current players are ready for a new leader. But Hunter has many supporters, as well.
Enraptured by this Raptor
The Raptors were careful in making the trade for Rudy Gay not to move rookie Terrence Ross, the swingman from the University of Washington who could be a star in coming years. “It gives us an outside option,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. “He’s been up and down. His shooting has been up and down for us. I think his biggest question mark right now is he’s got to learn to read when he has a shot, and when he has to put it on the floor, or when he has to move the ball. Right now when he gets a rhythm coming off, he’s letting it go. Now he’s got to learn to read those situations, especially teams like Miami and Boston. He’s growing from that standpoint, athletic as all get-up, one of the most athletic guys I’ve been around, but still learning the game and learning situations in the game.”
Three into two
New Orleans coach Monty Williams said rookie Anthony Davis’s Olympic experience wasn’t 100 percent positive. “He was shooting threes when he came back from the Olympics,” said Williams, “and I was like, ‘Look here, brother, we’re not going to call one play for you to shoot a three for a while, so get your butt down in that hole [the key] and let’s try to figure it out.’ ”
The Knicks haven’t won the Atlantic Division since the 1993-94 season, and coach Mike Woodson said unseating in the Celtics in the division is the primary goal. While Celtics coach Doc Rivers downplays such things, Woodson doesn’t hide his desire to take the Atlantic. “Every game is important for our ball club if we’re talking about trying to win our division,” said Woodson. “When you lose a game at home to an Eastern team and you have to go back to their place and play, you try to get it back. That’s the nature of the game.” . . . While New Orleans will change its team nickname to “Pelicans” next year, there is growing sentiment among Charlotte fans to reacquire “Hornets.” The club released a statement saying it would have no comment on a name change . . . Former Celtic Kris Joseph has rejoined NBADL Maine for a chance to catch on with another NBA team. Joseph was waived by the Celtics in a cost-cutting move, and his rights are no longer owned by Boston.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.