Hill rises to the legend

Ian Whittell reports from San Antonio on a genius set to match Michael Jordan
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The Independent Online
WHEN Grant Hill entered the world of professional basketball, he did so with a heavy burden. The sport was in a state of flux: Larry Bird had retired; Magic Johnson had recently been diagnosed HIV positive and Michael Jordan had turned his attentions to baseball. The clean-cut Hill was a marketing man's dream, the player to replace Jordan in the affections of the nation. Today, 18 months on, Hill and Jordan play on the same side in the NBA's All Star game, a celebration of all that is finest in the sport, in San Antonio, Texas.

The only son of only children - the American football legend Calvin Hill, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, and Janet, who counts Hillary Clinton among her friends - Hill has hardly used professional sport as an escape from the ghetto as convention would suggest is usual. By high school he was already driving his first Mercedes.

Indeed, his upbringing was so idyllic that schoolfriends christened his family the Huxtables after the black, middle-class nuclear family headed by the comedian Bill Cosby in the TV show.

Hill also happened to be one of the most stunning basketball prospects to emerge in many seasons. A stand-out at Duke University in North Carolina, Hill is a graceful, athletic, versatile 6ft 8in player who lacks the arrogance of many other young sportsmen. He speaks eloquently and he even performed an impressive piano recital on the David Letterman chat show.

Within months of his debut, and despite playing for the Detroit Pistons, a desperately average team, he became the first rookie to win the NBA's All-Star ballot, a system that allows fans to vote for their favourite players, thereby selecting the line- ups for the league's mid-season exhibition game.

Then things became complicated - Jordan ended his self-imposed retirement and returned to the sport. It is one thing to cope with the pressure of replacing a retired legend, quite another to face nightly comparisons with Jordan, who is playing somewhere near the best basketball of his career in his first full season back with the Chicago Bulls.

That comparison comes into sharper focus in San Antonio tonight when the pair play on the Eastern Conference team in the All-Star Game, a match that marks the start of Channel 4's three-year coverage of the NBA.

"I think it's great that Michael is back," said the 23-year-old, who has a deserved reputation for being comfortable with the media, even if his well-rehearsed responses can make Alan Shearer sound like Oscar Wilde.

"I now have the opportunity to play against Michael and really watch him play while I am in the league. I have even more respect for him now I am in the league and I know what it takes for him to do what he does. He is still the messiah, I guess. With him being here, playing and competing and handling himself the way he always does makes things easier for me. I can just be a second-year player, work on things and get better.

"The Jordan thing has died off a bit this year, at least over here in the States. Whether or not it is fair that I was thrust into the position of being the next so-called Michael Jordan, it happened. I had to adjust last year not only to being a rookie and being in a new city but also to this new-found celebrity role.

Fame does have its consolations, such as the $45m (pounds 30m), eight-year contract Hill was handed when he signed for the Pistons. It is that sort of wealth that allows him to insist that $128,000 of his shoe endorsement deal be donated to basketball for deprived youngsters in Detroit. Some may dismiss that as cheap public relations fodder, but many players earning far more do not match his generosity.

The fierce sense of responsibility instilled in him by his parents also compels him to play his part in the NBA's aggressive and frighteningly successful global marketing strategy. It is a philosophy the majority of Britain's elite sportsmen would find incomprehensible. "Why should that be?" Hill asked. "The NBA is doing such a good job of marketing us and the game. I was in Europe last summer and was recognised more than I am at home. In places like France and Germany I felt like I was in the Beatles or something.

That may be a bit far-fetched, but tonight, at least, he and Jordan will be part of a Fab Five.