FAST BREAKJOE DUMARS EXPECTS THE WORST, THAT GRANT HILL WILL TAKE HIS GAME TO ORLANDO

If Grant Hill leaves …

He leaves a team that hasn’t won a title in a decade for a team that has never won a title, period.

He leaves a climate that is oppressive in winter for a climate that is oppressive in summer.

He leaves a promising older coach for a promising younger coach. He leaves an organization that let key players slip away (Allan Houston, Theo Ratliff) for another organization that let key players slip away (Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway).

He leaves a city that has good points and bad points for another city that has good points and bad points.

If Grant Hill leaves, and that is indeed what Pistons president Joe Dumars expects when he sits down with the free agent this morning, mostly because if Hill were planning on staying, he wouldn’t have told the media he was “99.5 percent sure” he was leaving after months of dogged silence on the issue, he wouldn’t have needed a day “to rest” from his exhausting trip to Orlando, as his agent said — heck, he wouldn’t have had his agent call the Pistons, he would have called Dumars himself — but if and when Hill leaves, everyone will want a scapegoat.

Don’t they always? I’ve already laughed at some media pundits who single-handedly fault owner Bill Davidson, saying he didn’t acknowledge Grant’s wife in a recent conversation. (As if that alone would chase Grant to Orlando. Hmm. If it does, maybe, on his way out, Grant would return those special season floor seats for his wife and family that Davidson gave him?)

No. As I pointed out, if Grant Hill leaves, he’s exchanging one situation for another fairly similar. When someone does that, you don’t need agents to explain things, you need only this: human nature.

It is human nature to see what’s new as more exciting. It is human nature to see what’s not yet experienced as more tantalizing.

In baby talk, the grass is always greener.

“He got recruited,” Dumars said upon learning of Hill’s swooning reaction to a weekend in Orlando. This is no surprise. Dumars had been talking to Hill for several weeks before his trip south. “I even talked to him the day before he left.”

Dumars spelled out his plans as new team president. Shared the blueprint he hoped to follow to a championship.

He also warned Grant that the Magic would try to dazzle him.

And after several days in the Magic Kingdom, Grant told reporters, “I am leaning towards coming here.”

Apparently, he was bedazzled.

A case for the Magic

But if he makes it official this morning, before anyone jumps off a building screaming, “Why, Grant, WHYYYY?” let’s separate the smoke from the fire. (Or as they say in Orlando, the heat from the humidity.)

First, from Hill’s point of view:

1) It’s not a dumb decision. Assuming Hill knows something we don’t — namely, that Spurs free agent Tim Duncan is going to Orlando as well — this is a rare opportunity. Hill is in his prime. His best shot at a championship is the next five years. The team to beat will be the Lakers, with giant O’Neal and streaking Kobe Bryant. Only a team with a 1-2 punch like that can hope to match up. With Duncan and Hill, the Magic would solve the hardest part of the equation. The rest — finding supplemental players — is an easier task than what the Pistons face, which is finding a big man the likes of Duncan or O’Neal.

2) Everyone loves to re-invent themselves. Hill was in Detroit six years. Didn’t win a single playoff round. That bothers him. It also bothers the fans. And Hill is not used to disappointing people. He is used to exceeding expectations. He’s the good Boy Scout. But in Detroit, he has heard whispers that he is not tough enough — and sorry, Grant, but at times they were true
— and those whispers bug him. In Orlando? No whispers. They see a superstar willing to sign up where previous superstars checked out. They’ll adore Hill unconditionally — for at least two years. They call that a honeymoon. His honeymoon in Detroit is over.

3) Orlando is a clean slate. The Magic has been preparing for this moment the way your grandmother prepares the guest bedroom. Its decks are swabbed. It is not burdened by fat players who take up salary cap room. The Pistons are not so lucky. Even with Dumars’ best intentions, he still has to unload weight like Christian Laettner and Loy Vaught before he can sign new talent in their place. That takes time. In Orlando, Hill won’t have to wait.

4) Sharing the load. I have always believed Hill is more comfortable being a complementary superstar than the only show in town. If Duncan is in Orlando, the scene will be more like Hill’s glory days at Duke, where he shared championships with Laettner and Bobby Hurley. Duncan is reportedly a solid citizen, nice-guy type, like Hill. That’s a good match — better than the rocky Hill and Jerry Stackhouse marriage any day.

5) Pistons’ track record. In his time here, Hill saw Houston depart for New York, Ratliff depart for Philadelphia, acquired players like Bison Dele and Laettner go bust while proven players like Dikembe Mutombo said no thanks. Although the promises of improvement are new under Dumars, the sour taste of old promises lingers in Hill’s mouth.

A case for the Pistons

OK. Having said all that, before you absolve Hill of all responsibility and vow to never watch the Pistons again, remember the home team has a few solid points of its own:

1) Six years, no second round. Hill was paid superstar money at the time of his signing. Expecting him to lead the Pistons beyond one first-round playoff series was not asking a lot. He failed. Six times. There were sometimes good reasons and sometimes not.

2) First-class status. Before anyone accuses Pistons management of somehow ignoring Hill’s desires, remember the following: When Hill got tired of Doug Collins, Collins was gone; when Hill wanted Alvin Gentry as coach, Gentry was coach; when Hill wanted George Irvine as coach, Irvine was coach; when Hill wanted a personal shooting guru on the bench and team plane, it was done. Grant got what he wanted whenever he bothered to speak up. Certainly more than Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dumars or Dennis Rodman got when they played here
— and they won championships.

3) Money. The Pistons offered Grant whatever he wanted, from a one-year deal to a seven-year deal, and offered more money than Orlando. They can’t be faulted for that.

4) A front office is a front office. The Pistons aren’t the only ones with smears on their personnel blotters. Seems to me the same folks who own the Magic also owned them when O’Neal left for L.A. and Li’l Penny closed his puppet show.

Read this quote: “It was a hard decision to leave, but sometimes change is for the good.”

Know who said that? Not Grant Hill. Shaquille O’Neal, four years ago.

Now this quote: “I still love the organization, I was there six years. …But the organization wasn’t always behind me 100 percent. …There was too much pressure on me to stay there and play. …I wish things could have worked out the way they should have. . . .”

Know who said that? Not Grant Hill. Penny Hardaway, last summer, when he left the Magic.

Now you tell me, how much different is Orlando from Detroit?

Time for Plan B

One more thing. Enough with this Isiah Thomas lunacy. People who suggest that Isiah’s fractured relationship with Davidson is somehow behind Hill’s decision to leave obviously don’t know squat about Thomas, Davidson or what really went on between them. I never heard anything so insane. If Hill worries that the way Thomas was treated is what he has to look forward to, then what about how Dumars is being treated? Davidson has embraced Dumars like a son, both emotionally and financially.

Isiah Thomas dug his own holes, and Grant is more than smart enough to figure that out, even if certain other folks aren’t.

The final truth of all this is simple: There are good arguments on both sides, and there’s a little blame on both sides as well. It comes down to a decision between two likes, and the plopping of Duncan on the scale apparently tips it.

Already, Hill has not handled this well, spilling quotes to reporters when he hadn’t even talked to Dumars. That’s not very considerate. If Hill does leave, let’s hope he has the class to explain his reasons loud and clear, because fans here were good to him, and they deserve that much.

OK. If a farewell is necessary, here goes: Grant Hill has been a pleasure to watch, a pleasure to cover, and a pleasure to have as a citizen of this town. He never asked for more money, never embarrassed himself or his team, never broke the law, never acted embarrassingly. As Dumars said, “If we lose him, we lose an awful lot.”

But teams go on. Barry Sanders — who took the Lions farther in the playoffs than Hill did the Pistons — walked away from the team and the team continued to play. Dumars allows that he has “a Plan B” although “we weren’t hoping to put it into action. Teams like Orlando and Chicago have been waiting all year to pitch these guys. We’d be getting in on the second wave.”

Whatever. Tides rise and fall.

Today we should know for sure. If Grant Hill leaves, he will be terribly missed, but life will go on, bills will be paid, meals will be eaten and sleep will end the day. That, too, is human nature. And, like most things, that, in the end, is what this deal is all about.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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