Hill rises to the legend

Ian Whittell reports from San Antonio on a genius set to match Michael Jordan

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit