ORLANDO, Fla. — There are times when a graying Grant Hill wonders why he’s still chasing kids — some literally half his age — through screens, battling them for rebounds, and taking charges from bruisers that make him ache the next day.
Then he answers himself:
Because he still can. And he still can do it surprisingly well. And he feels great.
Hill, at age 38, has given himself an extension on a basketball career that almost ended years ago, reaping the benefits now of the seasons he lost in his prime.
Anyone waiting for his pre-retirement tour around the league, and his expected start in politics, better prepare to wait a lot longer. There are too many career milestones out there awaiting him.
Hill is the third-oldest player in NBA today, trailing Shaquille O’Neal in Boston and Kurt Thomas in Chicago (who both also are 38), but he likely will outlast the other two.
“The way I feel now, I want to go another couple of seasons,” he told FanHouse Thursday night before another very efficient performance for his Phoenix Suns. “I’d like to be playing when I’m 40.”
Hill is expected to receive an unusually warm welcome for a visiting player when his Suns play in Charlotte against the Bobcats Saturday night. Hill spent four years at nearby Duke University, leading them to back-to-back NCAA titles (1991, ’92), and his return to the area as an elder statesman has been marked by increasing admiration.
Where he was once an extremely athletic, high-flying headliner — once billed as the next Michael Jordan — he has transformed his game into a more grounded, more well-rounded variety, playing a key but more supporting role for a team led by Steve Nash.
Hill is the Suns second-leading rebounder (4.9 per game) and third-leading scorer (12.2), coming off a game in Orlando where he made 8 of 9 shots and 5 of 6 free throws for a team-high 21 points in just 31 minutes.
“Sometimes, there is a little feeling of disconnect with the young kids, but mostly it’s a pleasure to be around them. My legs feel good. I still enjoy what I’m doing and my enthusiasm is up there,” he said. “You take it year to year — and I’ll wait to see how I feel at the end of this season — but it’s fun playing this game when you’re healthy.”
Most impressively has been Hill’s recent durability, particularly with all the problems he once had. He played 82 and 81 games, respectively, the past two seasons for Phoenix.
He became just the 11th player in league history over the age of 36 to play in 80 or more games in back-to-back seasons. He became the first player since Cliff Robinson (2003-04) over the age of 36 to play in all 82.
He has played in all 12 games this season, saving his best for the second-half of back-to-back nights when he has averaged 19 points and shot 68 percent from the field. Where most older players have lagged, he has shined.
“Grant takes care of himself. We don’t talk about age, we talk about fitness,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who also was Hill’s coach in Detroit from 1997-2000. “He and Steve (Nash) are probably the two fittest guys on the team. That’s how he’s been able to be so consistent for us.”
Hill was once a dominating player for Gentry in Detroit, averaging 25.8 points his final season there when he sustained a left ankle fracture in the playoffs that haunted him through the next six years, requiring multiple surgeries as doctors struggled to correct the problem. In what should have been the prime of his athletic career, he missed 292 of a possible 492 games, ruining his years in Orlando after arriving as a celebrated free agent.
His three seasons in Phoenix have been much happier ones, making up for all the frustration he felt going in and out of the lineup during those painful years in Orlando, often feeling the wrath of angry fans there.
He is making only a fraction ($3.3 million) now of the big money he once made during his earlier years, but he is perfectly content, knowing how close he once was to walking away from the game after repeated surgeries.
“I’ve talked to former players, coaches here who have played, my father (former NFL running back Calvin Hill), too, and the one thing they all say is ‘once it’s over, it’s over. There is no going back once you walk away,”’ he said. “They tell me, before you turn that page, make sure you’ve given it your all, played all you want to play. And for me that time hasn’t come yet. I’m not even close.”