Grant Hill exclusive: Why teal Detroit Pistons never got over the hump

Detroit Free Press

Grant Hill repeatedly returned to a single word that described the process of writing his autobiography — interesting.

Hill, of course, had a basketball career that was more interesting than most. He starred at Duke and won two championships before the Detroit Pistons drafted him third overall in 1994. He became a superstar with the Pistons, earning five All-Star appearances and establishing himself as a culture-setter off of the court with his own signature shoe deal with Fila and endorsements with Sprite and McDonalds.

But Hill was never able to win a championship in Detroit despite multiple playoff appearances, and the back half of his career was characterized by ankle injuries, and an eventual resurgence. Multiple ankle surgeries limited his time with the Orlando Magic, who he departed the Pistons for in 2000. He revived his career with the Phoenix Suns in 2007 and played 82 games for the first time during the 2008-09 season, and retired in 2013 after a season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Hill inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

In his new book titled “Game: An Autobiography,” Hill walks readers through the highs and lows of his basketball career. It includes the numerous challenges with his ankle injury, a life-threatening MRSA infection in 2003 and his time with the Pistons.

Hill sat down with the Free Press on Saturday to discuss his book, career and fond memories in Detroit.

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How much of the book was already written in your head, and how much stuff did you have to recall as you were writing? Was there anything that jogged your memory? 

“I think we all, at different points, can be reflective and we can look back — a song, you can go back to a childhood location, we can see a picture, something can spark that. We don’t necessarily spend a lot of time, it’s a moment when you might reflect. The process of the book forces you to almost go back and really think about, ok, who I was, what I was experiencing, what were my emotions, all of that, at different stages of your life. We all evolve, we grow, we mature, we change sometimes. I don’t think I knew how difficult it would be. I also don’t think I knew, and difficult, one, in terms of confronting some things that maybe you weren’t fully aware that it still bothered you. Trying to remember certain things, what you remember versus what you don’t remember. It was definitely more than I thought it would be, and it was also more, I don’t want to say therapeutic, liberating, frightening, all of these things. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Anyway, I’m glad I did. You learn a little bit about yourself and your journey when you go through an exercise like that.”

You were the third overall pick in 1994. You write about how you felt Detroit was the right landing spot for you. What are your recollections of Detroit and the Pistons at the time, and how would you say they evolved as your career progressed?

“I wanted to be in Detroit. Not that I manipulated or anything, but I did everything possible leading up to the draft to make sure I was in Detroit. I had a good visit, the team had won the championship and I wanted to be here. I didn’t know much about the city and the team, other than watching on television a few years earlier. But when I got here, I was excited. I felt there was a real pride in this city. And I felt people from Detroit were proud, and there’s a loyalty. I wanted to be a part of that. I always felt like there was a tradition here. Pistons had won two championships in ’89 and ’90. That was the thought process leading into it. And then when I got here, I didn’t feel that the quote-en-quote reputation of Detroit reflected the true reality. I felt like it was a great place to live. I lived here six years year round. I tried to really embrace the city, just the whole community. And I enjoyed it. It’s weird because I obviously left, but I never thought I would leave. I thought I’d be here my entire career, and that was sort of the thought process early in my career. Isiah (Thomas), who I always admired and looked up to, how he began and ended here as a Piston. That was the goal. Didn’t happen, but that was what I was thinking, particularly early on in my time.”

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The book gets into the highs and lows of your time in Detroit, but looking back, what are some of your fondest memories?

“I talked about the exercise of the book, I’m going to go a little further deep here than you probably want to know. Because I was chasing Isiah, and chasing this idea of winning, and we didn’t come close to that. But, I had some great individual success, and All-Stars and all the accomplishments even off the court. I didn’t give myself permission to really appreciate and celebrate those moments because we weren’t winning. I didn’t enjoy those moments like I probably should have. And I took the blame. I blamed myself while I was going through it. The exercise of going through the book and reflecting, like wow, you almost appreciate it later and celebrate it later like ‘wow, I did a lot of cool things.’ In the moment, I was trying to get to there. I was constantly pursuing and not really taking it all in while it was happening.

“I say all that to say, I think it’s the relationships. It’s the people. Like (public address announcer John) Mason. I remember before I even signed with the Pistons, I did an event at Belle Isle and I went on his radio show. I used to give Mason tickets to the games. I had seats on the floor and he would come to the games and now he’s the best PA announcer in sports. It’s those relationships. It’s people on the teams, it’s the organization. Cindy (Button, a former Pistons operations manager), who used to park our cars. These are like family. These are people who you spend a considerable amount of time with. A lot of them are no longer around, sadly, or some of them have retired. But those are the things that you remember the most. It’s not the games or the accomplishments, but it’s those interactions, those relationships, those experiences that you shared that ultimately you take with you.”

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You talk about basketball fit a lot in the book — how your Duke teams fit together each year you were there, how your game meshed with Allan Houston here in Detroit, and Jerry Stackhouse. When you look back, what do you think was the key that those Pistons teams needed to get over that hump?

“We had a nice young core. I look at this team and I see they’re in the early stages, but you had Allan, you had Lindsey (Hunter), you had myself, you had Theo Ratliff. In three consecutive drafts, you get some nice pieces that complement each other. And then Allan leaves, and that’s tough. Allan left, and that whole free agency could’ve been handled differently. We regrouped and we make it work, and we trade some of that core and bring in Brian Williams (Bison Dele), who you all know eventually passed away in an unfortunate situation. That didn’t fit. We talk about mental health now, that was probably a topic that was more taboo in the ’90s. I’ll just say I’m not sure he loved to play basketball. He ended up retiring. You’ve got two cornerstone pieces that you lose for nothing, and that was tough. At the end, Stack and I, I remember my last year we had to score 60 points between the two of us. And most nights, we did. The Duke and Carolina guy, we were able to play together and thrive out there. There was some momentum and then it tapered off there during the span of my six years.

“Chemistry is important, but also having talent. I feel like that was part of the problem and looking back at it now. One thing I’ve learned on the ownership side, it’s hard. Success is not linear, it’s not easy. Everybody’s vying for that one thing, a championship. But looking back at it, I can appreciate it all. The good and the bad, the ups and the downs, and celebrate it, look back on it with pride. I know we didn’t win the ultimate, but there were good times and good memories there and something I’m certainly every proud of.”

When did your perspective on your career begin to shift so you were able to focus on the positives more? Was it immediately after retirement, or when you sat down and started writing the book.

“When I left, I was hurt and I never got a chance to come back and play until four or five years removed from leaving. A lot happened. Obviously the team had won a championship and so on. But when I did come back, even before, those relationships with those people didn’t change. People in the organization, we used to come play the Pistons. I would always come by and see Joe and John Hammond and (Mike) Abdenour and Arnie (Kander). These were people I was in constant interaction with even though I had left. Fans, and I’m a fan of the Cowboys. I’m passionate, I’m a fanatic. So I understand what that is. When you share moments and you bond and you’ve been in the trenches with people, that doesn’t change when you change teams. Those connections remain. They remained. Those relationships were always there in that foundation. I just think the totality of my experience, really kind of looking at it, happened with the process of writing this book.”

Arnie Kander was one of the first people to take a holistic approach to your body. He was the first one who told you to get an X-ray when you first injured your foot toward the end of the 2000 season. And when you revitalized your career in Phoenix, you said their medical staff was following updated principles that Arnie followed a decade prior. What was your relationship with him like?

“That whole thing (with my ankle) was tricky when everything went down. Arnie was ahead of his time, not just as it relates to sports performance, but nutrition and the mentality and motions. He was way ahead of his time in a lot of ways. We were all very lucky back then and also in the 2000s, when he was a part of the franchise on a full-time basis. I learned so much about him and constantly sharing and exchanging ideas. We talk about training and rest and recovery, things that are starting to be en vogue now he was incorporating way back then. Even from afar, now my daughter gets hurt and I’m calling Arnie. He’s telling me to do this, do that. He was a valuable resource for the organization back then, and he was a good tennis player. I used to play tennis against him a lot, and he used to kick my butt all the time.”

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In 2007, Joe Dumars reached out to you and gave you an opportunity to come back to Detroit. You went to Phoenix, where you revitalized your career and got the medical care for your ankle you needed. Looking back, do you wish you had gotten a chance to play here again? Or are you content with how it went?

“Those (Pistons) teams were really special, and the way they played and their unselfishness, I would’ve fit right in and I wouldn’t have felt the weight of, because he was going to move somebody from that group. He was talking about moving Tayshaun (Prince).”

So they would’ve given you a big role?

“Yeah, that’s at least how it would’ve been presented to me. I don’t know. I felt like I knew what I had done before was good, and I knew I wasn’t the same player. To come back here and be a shell of yourself, or not at the level or standard that you had for yourself while you were here, I think that probably scared me. Not unpacking it too much, but we talked about it and we talked about Mr. D (Bill Davidson), let’s make it right and the situation is better now. I ultimately felt that going out to Phoenix and just a change of scenery. Things had been not great, probably a little toxic in Orlando, that that was probably the best thing. I don’t know if I unpacked everything that had happened in Orlando mentally and emotionally at that point. We played the Pistons in Orlando that last year, we played them in the first round of the playoffs. And they swept us, we were here for Games 1 and 2. But I brought my wife up, and I was telling her it’s a whole different energy in the Palace. We were really thinking about it. But sometimes I think about what that could’ve been like and what it would’ve been like, and full circle coming back. At the time, I felt like that was the right decision for me.”

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What was your relationship with Joe Dumars like? You came in and he was still a star on the team. You watched the Bad Boys so you were already familiar with him. You were teammates with him for several seasons, then he transitions into a front office role and he was the president of the team when you departed to Orlando, and he tried to get you back several years later. The context of your relationship with him changed multiple times during your career.

“I first met Joe during my visit here to work out before the draft. We went to, and my dad and my agent came in, Don Chaney, Billy McKinney and Joe, we all met at Ginopolis, which had the best ribs. I met him and always knew who he was and admired his game. He seemed like the model professional. I was really, really excited. He talked about the team and him just being there at that dinner really meant a lot to me at the time. And then to play with him for five years, he was at the end. As we all do, you’re getting older and you’re not quite the same. But (he) was such a smart player, had a couple of shared All-Star games together. I played with some guys that may have been more talented, but I don’t know if there was a better player.

“But there was a little bit of an age gap. I was young and single and soon to be married at the end, and he was older. Socially there wasn’t a lot of hanging out. I learned a lot from him, really from observing and playing with him and seeing how he thought the game and how he was able to produce on the court. It was weird because he transitioned literally a couple of weeks before free agency. So he was transitioning into a front office role as I was approaching free agency. He was a smart guy, and you’re not surprised at the success he was able to have with some of those great teams that he was a GM for.”

During the Rising Stars Challenge, you interviewed Cade Cunningham. You asked him if he’d been to Flood’s and Beans and Cornbread, and it didn’t seem like he knew what you were referring to. But it seems like you still have a love for Detroit culture and food, because those are two good soul food spots. 

“We were having fun. I think he was just the MVP of the Rising Stars, and I know Cade. I watched Cade in high school a lot and I used to see him all the time in Orlando. People even back then would talk about the similarities in their games, so I’ve known him since before he was in the league. I was being funny forgetting that he was a vegan, and also midway through his first year. COVID protocols and all these things, so I don’t know if these guys are able to get out and about like that. At some point we’ll get to those spots. It was a shoutout to Detroit. 

“I’ve been asked this on this book tour, I left and things got really dark with my injury and so on, and I get into that in the book, and things went very well with the Pistons. But you still root for them. I remember in ’04, I don’t know if they were in the Finals or maybe the Eastern Conference finals, it was one of the two. But I was up here with my in-laws in Windsor, and I took them, my in-laws and brother-in-laws and wife’s cousins, we all went to Cedar Point. Went over there, went on the roller coasters. The Pistons, it was an excitement and obviously an energy even felt over in Windsor. I wanted to see them do well. It doesn’t change your feelings and emotions. You put a lot of time and effort and energy into helping this franchise, and vice versa. That doesn’t change. I’ve always wanted to see them do well, and excited about this young core they have now and the promise and the potential of what’s in store. I root for them except for when they play the Hawks. But other than that, I want to see Detroit do well.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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