By J.P. Pelosi
Grant Hill played basketball with such finesse that it made His Airness rub his chin knowingly.
Okay, I'm assuming that. But, even Michael Jordan must have watched Hill and thought, 'this guy might actually be the next in line'.
There have been too many Next Jordans. And yet, few have come close to fulfilling the impossible expectation - with the exception of Kobe Bryant, who it could be argued, is so close a replication that it's unnerving to liken him to Jordan.
Hill was different. He was Michael Jordan but bigger, silkier, more versatile from the very beginning, and for what it's worth, seemingly a warmer personality. It was the latter that has inspired so many tributary words about Hill this past weekend, when he announced his retirement from the NBA after 19 seasons.
That he's a great person, loyal, dedicated, determined and professional, appears paramount to any account of No.33's career. And he deserves this of course. But for many of us, Hill will be so much more. He'll be the player, who for a brief time, rivaled the likes of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bryant with wonderous vision and a sense of artistry. One Slam Magazine cover proclaimed in 1997, 'Just Like Mike. Only Better.'
That was his initial impact in the league.
We know he fell short of greatness, ultimately. Short of Jordan, and even others. But he certainly had moments. He'd skip down the floor with a masterful handle on his dribble, initiating the offense like a quarterback. He was unselfish. But could also take over, an aqua-blue blur (it was during that strange pastel Pistons phase) sweeping around his man with a lightning quick crossover, before launching and soaring to the hoop with as crisp a finish as you will ever see.
Actually, I can't think of many players who have driven to the basket with the same combination of grace and power. And don't say LeBron. He doesn't have grace. He doesn't step with the agility of a figure skater, or swivel baseline like he's sitting on a giant spinning top. Nor does James swoop to the hoop with a confusing balance of dexterity and restraint. No, by contrast, James is mostly force. Hill's movements were far more subtle and smooth...before the injuries.
Maybe it's because Hill has always been such a likeable guy, but everything he did on the court had great appeal. He was scorer who moved with elegance, even when there was fury fueling his play. He'd posterize you but then look like he wanted to throw an arm over your shoulder in consolation. When twenty-something points come so easily you have time for compassion.
He also lobbed the ball over defenders with superb touch. Some of his passes from the point forward spot were Bird-like. He rebounded effortlessly. He was a strong defender too, with length and speed, and the ability to create turnovers like Pippen. But mostly it was the way he sauntered around the court with poise and patience, eyeing off the target before meandering his way there: Be it past Pippen, over Bryant, or around Jordan.
In the nineties, he glided with the best of them.
Hill was like Jordan, to be sure, but he was also one of a kind. The type of player that stirred a sense of anticipation before he even received the ball. He had that quick first step, which sprang into action at the sight of a defender's hesitation. His eyes lit up ahead of space, or a gap to drive into, or a wind tunnel to fly through, or to capture a neatly tossed Joe Dumars pass.
Sure, most of the good stuff happened in the first phase - in Detroit, drinking Sprite and wearing Fila. But just take a look back. It was short glory, but enough. It was beautiful work from a genuine master of his craft.