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Waiting for the return of Grant Hill

Imagine what the Clippers might be when Hill and his superstar's soul returns to action.

December 19, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Grant Hill, the second-oldest player in the NBA, isn't likely to return to the Clippers lineup until mid-January.
Grant Hill, the second-oldest player in the NBA, isn't likely to return… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

The best pro basketball team in Los Angeles isn't thinking much about tomorrow. It's having too much fun with today.

But tomorrow, also known as Grant Hill, sat behind the Clippers bench Wednesday night, looking dapper in a light brown sport coat and matching tie. It was a good seat for yet another good night for the Clippers, who beat the New Orleans Hornets at Staples, 93-77, to match a franchise winning-streak record of 11 games.

Hill is likely to return to the team in mid-January. His bruised knee will be healed enough by then to start getting in on the fun. Think of it, Clippers fans. All this and Grant Hill too.

Hill has the perfect phrase for his projected role. He calls the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan trio, plus one of the best benches in the league, "the meat and potatoes." And Hill? "Guys like me and Chauncey Billups," he says, "we're the garnish."

Don't be mistaken. Inside that 40-year-old body is the soul of a superstar. Hill is the second-oldest player in the NBA, a day younger than the Knicks' Kurt Thomas. He has also been among the more celebrated players in the league, and the preseason knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines until now for this, his 18th season, is the only thing allowing him to exist in a huge media market with little fanfare.

The last time the Clippers lost was to New Orleans. That was Nov. 26. The Hornets celebrated as if they had just won the NBA Finals. The Clippers took note.

That brought unusual energy in the first half by the Clippers, who turned it into somewhat of a dunkfest, much to the delight of the now usual Staples sellout crowd (19,188). Chris Paul, the conductor of the jam session, finished the half with 10 assists and they stopped the game to recognize the 5,000th assist of Paul's career. The two kangaroos in the Clippers' front line, Jordan and Griffin — always the beneficiaries of Paul's magic baton — finished the half with 12 and 10 points, respectively. The rim on the Clippers' basket kept quivering a bit during halftime.

The Clippers' 48-38 lead was that close only because the Hornets tossed in a three-pointer at the buzzer and added a foul shot.

If the NBA had used Grant Hill for its logo model, it would have been a perfectly proportioned 6-foot-8 player, taking a midrange jump shot. Or a guy in basketball shoes and cap and gown. Maybe even a basketball shaped like a brain.

Hill came out of Duke after the 1994 season. He had won two NCAA titles for Coach K, including the Christian Laettner last-second fling. The long pass on that play came from Hill.

By the time Hill had graduated — yes, they did that back in the day — and was ready for the pros, the fanfare left the impression he'd be the next Michael Jordan. For a while, until injuries and a horrible staph infection that almost killed him interrupted that, he was.

In '94-95, he led all vote-getters for the NBA All-Star game, the first rookie in any major sport to do that.

The Clippers' payback continued in the third period. In the Nov. 26 victory, the Hornets were 15 for 25 on three-point shots. Late in the third period, they were one of 13.

Griffin went on an eight-point splurge and Paul, all 6-feet of him, added to the fun with a dunk of his own. Little Kangaroo. They entered the final period ahead, 75-56. The meat and potatoes were taking care of business and a garnish was sitting back in his seat and enjoying it all.

Hill's father, Calvin, graduated from Yale and was an All-Pro running back for the Dallas Cowboys. His mother, Janet, graduated from a female Ivy League version of Harvard, Wellesley, where she was Hillary Clinton's roommate at one time, and also has been a friend of Michelle Obama's.

"I was at an election rally in Phoenix in 2008," Hill says, "and Michelle Obama was speaking. Pretty soon, she starts talking about her mentors and names my mom. I had no idea. I called my mom and she said, 'Oh, yes. I guess I forgot to tell you we knew each other.'"

When Michelle Obama flew to London this summer for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, flying with her, and sitting next to her in Olympic Stadium, was Grant Hill.

As the Clippers desired, the game slipped into garbage time as the final period began. Jamal Crawford took over and Matt Barnes continued his solid contributions. Even Ryan Hollins got to play.

Hill is an elder statesmen on this Clippers team in the best sense of the phrase. He embraces how this team actually is one.

"It is one thing getting Chauncey and Lamar [Odom] and me to buy into that," Hill says. "But to get DeAndre and Blake and Eric Bledsoe, that's a whole different thing. I admire the young guys' willingness to share, to not play just for stats."

Hill says he still plays because he feels he can.

"When you wake up in the morning, 40 is still 40," he says. "I know that. But I just love it. And I know that, once you walk away, you can't go back."

Hill once quoted his mother as telling him, "You can live without Chaucer and you can live without calculus, but you can't make it in this world without common sense."

Common sense says that, as good as these Clippers are now, they will improve noticeably with the addition of a little "garnish."

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