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Even hurt, Hill shows his worth to Magic

He leads his team, woos free agents and gives Orlando a star once the season starts.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 11, 2001


ORLANDO -- On June 27, the night of the NBA draft, Magic guard Grant Hill had no business being in the war room. The team didn't ask for his input.

But there he was anyway, with the coaching staff, offering ample doses of encouragement.

This is the Grant Hill the Magic has come to know over the past year. A consummate team person. A five-time All-Star who is as impressive off the court as on it.

This is the man -- once recovered from ankle surgery -- the Magic is sure will help catapult it deep into the playoffs next season.

The reason? His leadership.

Out for all but four games last season, Hill never left the area. He sat on the bench for virtually every home game and never failed to be a part of the team.

"I don't think we can really put into words the excitement we felt when we knew we were going to get a guy like Grant Hill as part of this team because of that very thing, for our team and for this community," general manager John Gabriel said. "Look, just showing up in the war room on draft night to say "hi' and offer some encouragement, that goes a long way."

The Magic had giant hopes for Hill, who has career averages of 21.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. He and All-Star Tracy McGrady were critical free-agent acquisitions before the 2000-01 season. But a left ankle injury sustained in the final stages of the previous season, his last season with the Pistons, deteriorated rapidly. Despite advice from the Magic to take it slow, Hill desperately wanted to show his new teammates he was worth every penny of his seven-year, $92.8-million contract.

The ankle got worse. His lateral movement visibly restricted, Hill opted for season-ending surgery.

"It probably was the toughest time for me last year when everyone else was playing and I wasn't," Hill said. "But getting the surgery done and all the rehab from that point on has been great. I learned a lot watching the team play, and now in the off-season I've been working hard. My ankle feels fine. It feels great."

When it wasn't feeling great, when it was locked up in a walking boot, Hill remained a crucial part of the team. He was more than a towel-waving scrub at the end of the bench, team officials said. He was an unofficial assistant coach and an attentive listener in timeout huddles. It wasn't easy for Hill.

"I definitely understand that when you're injured, it's tough to be around because you can't be out there on the court," Hill said. "When you're on or behind the bench, you're so close to the action and yet you can't help the team out. In some ways it's like being teased. It's very difficult.

"You miss the camaraderie. You miss being around the guys. You miss all the action that's going on, and you can feel like you're on an island by yourself."

Hill's dedication did not go unnoticed by an organization that once saw its star player, Penny Hardaway, decide to rehabilitate in Houston during the regular season rather than stay with the team.

"Hopefully my presence meant that I was there with the guys in spirit as well," Hill said. "Even though I was out of commission, my message was that, "I'm here with you guys through it all, and I'll be be back next year.' "

When the Magic made the playoffs, the team unanimously voted him an equal share of the playoff money.

"Our biggest piece of the puzzle was in a three-piece suit (last) year," coach Doc Rivers said. "He'll be back (this) year and will be a great help. That will give us even more confidence as a basketball team."

The Magic is making plans for next season, and Hill is playing a big role.

Even after drafting 6-foot-10 forward Steven Hunter and trading for 7-foot center Brendan Haywood, Orlando hopes to bag one of the experienced free-agent big men available.

Toronto center Antonio Davis has made no secret of his interest in the Magic. He lives in Orlando and was a guest at a recent charity golf tournament Rivers hosted.

Hill has taken Davis to dinner and plans to help woo any free agent the Magic might be interested in.

"I'm here, I'm available, and I'll make time," Hill said. "I think a lot of focus has been in the draft, and I'm sure once this draft is over with, we'll proceed forward as an organization and try to figure out what we're going to do. But I'm here."

Gabriel said that having a team member such as Hill is the trump card needed for a team to come out on top of the free-agent game.

"We would hope that every free agent's need is to go to a place where he could win," Gabriel said. "You associate winning with the players that are winners, with players that are great players, and we have two of them in Grant and (McGrady).

"I think you build on your assets, and that's always been my philosophy. You hold on to them. The team is getting closer and closer to being built, and we still have seven No.1 picks in the next four years. So, just as Doc helped recruit players the year before, Grant can help us this year."

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