Sunday, October 22, 2006

Interview with Grant Hill -- NOVA's Greatest Athlete of All Time

I interviewed NBA great Grant Hill to complete a project entitled "The Greatest of All Time" at The Connection Newspapers. The project, which can be found here click, featured in-depth profiles on the Top-100 athletes ever to emerge from the Northern Region's public school system.

The Hill story was, and still is, one of my favorites as he was truly a pleasure to speak with.


#1, Grant Hill
South Lakes, Basketball
1990Seahawks superstar championed Duke to two titles and made the leap to NBA All-Star and Olympic Team.
BJ Koubaroulis
August 15, 2006

There was a time before Grant Hill belonged to the rest of the world. There was a time before Hill was a 7-time NBA All-Star and member of the Orlando Magic or Detroit Pistons or even before he was a member of two NCAA champion Duke University basketball teams. There was a "special time," said South Lakes basketball coach Wendell Byrd, who took a young 14-year-old Hill and forced him on to the Reston-based high school's varsity basketball team. Hill became the first freshman to ever skip the freshman and junior varsity teams and go straight to the varsity squad at the Northern Region's powerhouse program. And he didn't like it."He struggled with it at the beginning, he didn’t want to surpass his peers, he wanted to continue to stay with them and not hurt their feelings," said Byrd, who called the freshman Hill a "gentle giant," who eventually "saw the light," Byrd added.Once Hill realized his potential, it was obvious that he would go far. "Coach Byrd was huge," said Hill. "I think for me first and foremost putting me on varsity as a freshman. At first, I kind of resisted it, but he led me to varsity. I think he saw the ability and talent before I saw it myself." Hill had seen a lot of talent flow through South Lakes himself in the years prior to suiting up for Byrd's Seahawks. He wanted to be like Michael Jackson ["Greatest of All Time" #55, 1982], a Seahawk guard that dazzled the region with his quickness and ability to score rapidly. "I probably went to almost every home game at South Lakes that was on a Friday," said Hill, whose parents would take him to football and basketball games at the local high school. "Going to those games and being involved in the summer camps, by the time I was in junior high school, I was part of the family." The Langston Hughes eighth grader would race to South Lakes after school to watch the former Seahawk assistant and current Herndon head coach Gary Hall's freshman team practice. "I was like an unofficial water boy. I would get those guys water when they came off the court," said Hill. "I was already a part of the program, by the time I came in as a freshman."

IT DIDN'T TAKE long for Hill, whose AAU team the Flying Tigers had been winning national titles against teams like the Superfriends from Michigan which boasted future NBA stars like Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Howard Eisley, to become a fixture in the South Lakes starting lineup. He was an instant impact and helped create a basketball tradition that has carried South Lakes to basketball immortality in the Northern Region.He made a name for himself early."Grant would score 18, 20 points, but could hurt you in 10 different ways," said Chantilly coach Jim Smith in a December interview with The Connection.Hill was also known for his defensive prowess. "I don't think we realized [what we were building]," said Hill. "We were teenagers. We were just trying to win. For a lot of us, because we all grew up together, there was some consistency and camaraderie between us all."

The camaraderie between Hill and his teammates resulted in a junior year in which the team finished with the best record (27-2) in Byrd's 21 years. Hill's senior year he carried the Seahawks to the school's first Northern Region championship after winning the Great Falls district titles in every season since his freshman year. Hill is still the school's second all-time leading scorer with 2,028 points (No. 1 Joey Beard, 2,138, 1993). He holds the school records for rebounds (942), blocked shots (160), steals (274) and assists (311)."He was just head and shoulders above everybody," said Beard, who played with Hill as a freshman. "Not just in Virginia, but in any tournament we played in, you could tell he was going to do great things, he had that talent and demeanor."Hill's defining moment is one that he shares with teammate Jerome Scott [Greatest Of All Time, No. 71], who went on to play at the University of Miami.Byrd recalled the 1988 Great Falls District Championship game with the district title game deadlocked at 69-69 against Washington-Lee. Hill scored 16 of his game-high 36 points in the last 4:58 of the contest to help the Seahawks back from the 67-55 deficit. With less than 10 seconds left on the clock and the contest tied at 69-69, Scott — who according to Byrd had the option to take the jump-shot — instead, tossed the alley oop to Hill, who finished with a "thunderous dunk," said Byrd, to cap the 1988 Great Falls district championship game victory at 71-69 in favor of the Seahawks."It was very selfless of [Scott] to allow me to emerge and blossom and grow into the player that I was," said Hill, who remembered the standing-room only crowd. "I marvel more at what he did than what I did. He had the audacity to throw an alley oop."

HILL SOON BECAME one of the most highly recruited players in the nation. He became one of few McDonald's All-American selections in the Northern Region's history. Top college coaches were making time to travel to Reston to see the 6-foot-8 guard/forward dominate games and the mailbox was overflowing with letters from colleges. "We didn't want it to get out of control, so we set up with Wendell a protocol," said Grant's 59-year-old father Calvin, who played professional football with the Dallas Cowboys and was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 1969. "We wanted to bring some sanity to the process. We tried to emphasize, to us doing it the right way was very important. From our part and from the part of the people that were recruiting Grant, if once we had set up a protocol and it wasn't adhered to, then that wasn't a place we were interested in going to." But even with the attention he received and the awards that flowed in, Hill remained level-headed. Improving his game was his main focus. "We used to have something called the PGA, the postgame analysis, you were analytical about everything," said Calvin. "Sometimes I was too analytical particularly because I didn't know too much about basketball."Hill committed to play with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils squad. "The kid was hamstrung by his mother," said Hill's 58-year-old mother Janet, who runs a consulting firm on Capitol Hill. She laughs when she remembers how strict she was with Grant. "He was not allowed any independent thoughts or actions before he went to college. I was obsessive with discipline. I had not had a child before, but thought that was the best thing to do. Obviously he turned out okay."In his first true time away from home, Hill turned out more than okay.Hill became the first player in ACC history to score more than 1,900 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists, 200 steals and 100 blocked shots to help Duke to two national titles (1991, 1992). Hill tossed the inbounds pass to Duke's Christian Laettner in the 103-102 overtime NCAA tournament regional final against Kentucky in 1992 — a game regarded by many as the greatest college basketball game of all time. His jersey was only the eighth jersey retired in Duke's basketball history. He was the No. 3 overall draft pick in the 1994 NBA draft and was the league's co-rookie of the year, an honor he shared with Jason Kidd.

Hill has since been named an all-star seven times and was a part of the 1996 Summer Olympic basketball team that won gold in Atlanta.Hill has fought a battle with injuries, mostly which has kept him from achieving the level of success that he and many around him believed was attainable."Grant handled his injury very well," said Janet. "Four of the seven years that he has been married, he has been recovering from surgery. When you tally it all up it's 24 months on crutches." Hill lives in Florida with his wife Tamia Hill — a singer songwriter and actress — and their four-year-old daughter Myla Grace. Hill remains very much in contact with Byrd and the South Lakes basketball program. He has also given several generous donations to the Reston-based high school and its basketball program. He was recently inducted into South Lakes's first Hall of Fame class."He's a really just an outstanding first of all person and as outstanding as he is as a person, he is as a player," said Byrd. "He's the type of person that never quits."

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