Grant's Hill To Climb

Grant Hill isn't afraid to show off his wounds. So after a long, one-on-one workout with a fellow Duke alum, Hill slumps down on a row of wooden benches and takes off his left sneaker. "Don't look at my ugly feet," he says, rolling down his sock to bare a swollen ankle with three large, dark slashes running across it. "Just look at the scars."

The scars, from three surgeries that derailed the Orlando Magic forward's career for two full seasons, represent just the visible challenge to Hill's comeback. In 2000, after six all-star seasons in Detroit, Hill jumped to Orlando for $93 million over seven years. But the ankle injury he suffered during his final months in Detroit proved far more severe than he realized. "It bothered me all the time, but you know how it is--when you're a man, you're supposed to play through the pain and not complain," he says. That summer doctors inserted a steel plate and pins to secure fractures in the bone. But Hill kept rushing his recovery and reinjuring his ankle. During his two seasons in Orlando, Hill has played only 18 games total and endured two more surgeries. "By the third surgery, well, sometimes God whispers to get your attention and sometimes he shouts," says Hill. "This last time he shouted." The message: heal thyself.

After his third surgery, last December, Hill put aside his nagging impatience and this time didn't hurry through the rehab. He spent the rest of last season off the court and off his feet. But inactivity for a professional athlete brings on problems of its own--both physical and psychological. "My constant companion was an ice bag, and I had to have my foot elevated at all times," he says. "It was crazy." The craziness was exacerbated by painful memories of the nagging injuries his father, Calvin, experienced through his 12-year career as an NFL running back. "My most vivid memory of my dad was just sort of him being hurt all the time and iced up," says Hill, who was forbidden to play football as a young child to spare him the inevitable comparisons.

Hill is a little less certain what to expect now. At 30, he's on the older side for an NBA star. His injury isolated him from his new teammates, including 23-year-old Tracy McGrady, who averaged 26 points a game during Hill's absence and established himself as a legitimate star in his own right. "Tracy and I will be cool--there'll be no egos going on," says Hill. "Tracy got a chance this past season to see that you can't do it alone. I mean, he's the young gun, but experience counts for something, and I think he knows that."

Hill certainly knows that many people are counting him out "because I would do the same looking at my situation." Still, he is dead set on reclaiming not only a career, but his stature as one of the league's premier players. He arrived in the NBA in 1994 during Michael Jordan's baseball sabbatical. A college legend at Duke, Hill was one of the first to be touted as the "next Michael." Hill proved as good, both on and off the court, as any of the wannabes who would come along. On it, he was a triple-double powerhouse waiting to happen, averaging 21 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists with the Pistons. Off the court, Hill was one of sports' most sought-after pitchmen. He led all-star voting as a rookie and again the next year even after Jordan returned.

With X-rays of his ankle revealing no cracks or spurs, there is more reason for optimism than in either of his abortive comebacks the previous two seasons. And there is palpable excitement around the league, especially among some of the young guns schooled by Hill during their NBA infancy. "I can't wait to play him again," says L.A.'s Kobe Bryant. Nobody is more excited than Orlando coach Doc Rivers. "This time Grant looks like he has his old stride back," says Rivers, who played Hill a team-high 28 minutes in the team's exhibition opener last week. The coach believes Hill will quickly re-emerge among the NBA elite, but concedes he has little choice but to subscribe to that faith. "We have more riding on him than ever because we didn't get a lot of new players," says Rivers. "We don't have much of a plan B this year."

Hill isn't quite ready to admit to one either. His injury came shortly after his marriage to the popular R&B singer Tamia. She describes the long ordeal as a trial "that can test your faith," but one that ultimately brought them closer. And she says the birth of their daughter, Myla, last year helped shift Grant's focus off his own problems onto life's more important matters. "I think this time he's in a better place mentally and he understands the limits of his body," she says. But Hill says right now there is nothing limited about his basketball aspirations. "My dad used to say athletes die two deaths--the first one coming when they leave the game," he says. Having just celebrated his 30th birthday this month, Grant is not yet ready to fade away.