When he began his speech as one of the Manny Jackson Human Spirit Award winners Thursday night in Springfield, Grant Hill mentioned that he was a nearly 40-year-old man still playing against 20-year-olds, trying to chase his dream of an NBA championship.
Hill was perhaps the youngest current or former player in the room, the lone current NBA player to appear at the first night of the Hall of Fame festivities. On this night, he was a young man amongst elders, an admittedly humbling experience as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Bill Sharman were among those watching his speech.
But in his regular job, Hill is considered a fossil. Many NBA players don’t make it to 35, let alone 40, and he will enter the season as the second-oldest player in the league — but one who was robbed of four years of his career because of ankle surgery. He feels fresh enough to continue.
Hill signed with the Clippers in July, having spent the past five seasons with the Suns, unable to win a title with Steve Nash. He will join Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan with the Clippers, who will challenge Nash and the Lakers for Los Angeles supremacy.
Hill has yet another chance —
“As you go through this whole experience, it’s all about reflecting on your career, and you think back at those dark times and whether you’d play again,” he said. “I may not have come back the player I was before because of the injuries but I made it back. I’m still going.
“To be turning 40 and having teams that are contenders trying to get me to play for them, it is humbling. It’s a great feeling and I’m glad that I am blessed and fortunate to continue to do it.”
The injuries taught Hill to never take his career for granted. He was set for superstardom after a storied career at Duke and six stellar seasons with the Pistons. But playing in the 2000 playoffs still bothered by a fractured ankle and a botched surgery threatened his career. He was never able to return to elite status, although he returned to the All-Star Game in 2005.
After missing 61 games in the 2005-06 season with the Magic, Hill played in at least 80 games in three of the next five seasons and in 49 of the Suns’ 66 games last season. Health is no longer a major issue for Hill, and he has transformed himself from an unfortunate sports story to an “ageless” competitor, perhaps the ultimate compliment for an athlete.
Hill said he will take his wisdom about preservation and spread it to his new teammates, especially Griffin, who is coming off knee surgery and has already missed a full season because of his reckless, physical style.
The two were in a Los Angeles barber shop recently when Griffin declared himself ready for what is expected to be a big season for the Clippers. Hill had a message for his 20-something teammate.
“Blake’s a great kid, and I said, ‘Look man, take your time. If I learned anything, take your time,’ ” Hill said. “He wants to get back so fast.
“I said, ‘I need you in June, I don’t need you in October.’ So he’s a great kid and got a great career ahead of him, and hopefully I can share a little about the highs and the lows and the things that I’ve gone though.’’
As usual, the Clippers took a back seat this offseason to the Lakers, who acquired Nash and Dwight Howard to join Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace to form a championship contender.
“It reminds me a little bit of college, Duke-Carolina, living with the enemy,” said Hill. “I think it will be great for the city, great for the fans.
“What I’ve seen and experienced thus far is the fans on both sides are so passionate, so it should be an exciting season and hopefully both teams can do well, except when we play each other.”
Sister’s lead drove Miller
Reggie Miller’s road to the Naismith Hall of Fame began well before he scored those 8 points in 8.9 seconds for the Pacers in a playoff game against the Knicks in 1995. Miller became the all-time 3-point leader — before being supplanted by Ray Allen — using a bravado he freely admits he took from his sister.
Cheryl Miller, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 at age 31, spent her early years tutoring her little brother — or tormenting him — because she was a better player. Reggie has no issue acknowledging that Cheryl was the best player in the family and overshadowed many of his accomplishments.
“Hopefully we pushed one another,” he said. “Hopefully we made one another better. We rooted for one another. We laughed and we cried together.
“It’s special. We have bragging rights until I guess maybe the Mannings will be brother-brother in the Football Hall of Fame, but for now, I don’t see anybody coming down the pipe. So Cheryl and I have bragging rights.”
Miller described his childhood days in Riverside, Calif., in the 1970s when he and his sister would hustle boys on the basketball court, earning money by duping those who underestimated Cheryl’s game.
“We’d be playing one-on-one and she’d act like she couldn’t play and she’d see two other guys over there and she’d give me the wink and go over there and ask if they wanted to play two-on-two,” he said.
“We’d go over there and she’d have her ponytails and high socks on and look very awkward and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is easy money.’ We’re on our way to McDonald’s [after winning], laughing, joking, and these guys are shaking their heads, ‘We just got done bamboozled, hoodwinked.’ ”
Of course, Reggie did not follow his sister’s path to college. She attended Southern Cal and won back-to-back national titles in the early 1980s, the Trojans becoming one of the first NCAA women’s dynasties. Reggie entered UCLA in 1983 and helped the Bruins win an NIT title in 1985 under Walt Hazzard.
There is a major rivalry between the schools, but Reggie said his allegiance would always be to his sister when the teams matched up during their college days.
“My whole family really never wanted me to go to USC,” Reggie said. “I didn’t want to go to USC as well. I loathe most Trojans but I have Trojan blood in me because of Cheryl. And when her Lady Trojans played UCLA, I came in my — whatever they call it, scarlet and gold — because that’s my sister. Blood comes first, and vice-versa. When we played USC, she was in blue and gold as well.”
Because of hip deformities, Miller used braces to walk as a child and was unable to play basketball with his brothers and sisters right away.
“I remember being in the kitchen and looking out and watching Tammy and Cheryl and Saul and Darryl play outside, having the braces on my legs, and shaking my head and my mom saying, ‘Just be patient, it’s a matter of time,’ ” said Miller. “ ‘You want to be out there with your brothers and sisters having a good time, you’re so anxious.’
“Once I got them off, they were all accepting of me. They never shoved things in my face knowing I couldn’t be out there early on.”
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
ABL readies for takeoff
While the NBA has tried to monopolize the minor leagues in the United States with the NBADL — which has proven to be an effective means for players to season themselves for an opportunity to make NBA rosters —
The league is set to begin in January and will attempt to compete with the NBADL, playing FIBA rules such as disqualification after five fouls and the relaxed goaltending that allows players to knock shots off the rim.
The 12-team league will play a 24-game schedule and has targeted Miami, San Antonio, San Marcos (Texas), Sugarland (Texas), College Station (Texas), Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Fort Walton Beach (Fla.), Sebring (Fla.), Fort Myers (Fla.), Panama City (Fla.), and Corpus Christi, as its inaugural cities.
This appears to be a serious endeavor, as the league has a website and plans to hold predraft workouts in October and November. One of the franchises, the Texas Surge, has hired former community college coach Curtis McGlown.
It will be difficult to compete with the NBADL because of the NBA’s backing, and the talent level of players who are likely to begin the new league will be low, but playing with FIBA rules could be appealing, and Rifkind will add flair.
“Integrating the worlds of entertainment and basketball poses a challenge to make sports history,” Rifkind said in a release. “The ABL offers a platform to present an entertainment product which will integrate the US and global basketball worlds. Our vision could change the course of professional basketball.”
Former Magic Johnson agent Steve Haney will serve as the league’s CEO.
WNBA at head of class
The WNBA was given an A+ in the Race and Gender Report Card, released last week by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The organization is headed by Dr. Richard Lapchick, who received a Manny Jackson Human Spirit Award Thursday in Springfield.
The study lauds the WNBA for its diversity in hiring, and for 10 of the past 12 years, the league has received an A on race and gender equity.
“The standard for racial and gender diversity amongst all professional leagues is led by the WNBA,” Lapchick said in a statement. “They have continually set the bar high in racial and gender equality, and they should be used as an example for other leagues to follow. Receiving the highest combined grade in the history of the Racial and Gender Report Cards speaks volumes.”
The WNBA has 10 women and seven minority owners, and according to the report, 29 percent of those who own staff positions in the league are African-American and the percentage of women assistant coaches increased to 64 percent.
Meanwhile, the NBA has yet to hire a female assistant coach.
The NBA usually receives favorable grades for its diversity, and generally has no issue in terms of coach hirings, as there is in the NFL. The league does not have a Rooney-type rule that calls for mandatory minority interviews in coaching searches, but hopefully we’re not that far away from the NBA hiring its first female assistant coach.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport may want to research the diversity and hiring practices in professional sports public relations staffs. There is definitely room for improvement for the hiring of women and people of color in public relations and management staff positions.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.