There are days when I wouldn’t wish my job on anybody. Getting a bucket of ice water dumped on your head, for example. Or interviewing naked linemen in a losers’ locker room. Not fun. Trust me.
But there are some days when this job is a delight. And there are days when, no matter how delicately I craft my words, I still can’t fully convey the experience.
Talking to the Pistons’ Grant Hill, as he has grown through the years, has been something I wished I could share with readers. So this week, we sat down for a rambling conversation — on everything from Michael Jordan’s leaving to pickup lines at bars — the highlights of which I am printing here, word for word.
It’s as close as I can bring you to one of the nicest parts of the job. And to prove that, unlike certain football players, not every athlete needs a dog collar to be glib.
Mitch: Is the NBA an open league now that Michael Jordan is gone?
Grant: Yes. The wealth will be spread out. The league’s focus and NBC’s focus used to be so much on the Bulls and on Michael. You can’t blame the league. They rode the horse as long as they could ride it. They probably wish they could continue to ride it now, especially with the lockout season. But I think now there will be opportunities for the spotlight to shift on some other players. A lot of young players will get an opportunity to shine.
Do you get the feeling the league wants you to be one of its biggest stars?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. It’s not like I get phone calls from David Stern every day. But I think that they would probably want me to do well. And I think they would want me to be on a team that wins. It’s hard to spotlight a player when he’s on a losing team.
Who’s the greatest athlete of all time?
As a fan, I would probably say Muhammad Ali. I’m not saying Michael Jordan isn’t great, but I think Ali used his forum as an athlete to do so much. It’s Jordan’s prerogative not to do that, of course, but for Ali to be as big as he was in his day, when TV wasn’t as big, that’s something. Jordan benefited not just from his skills but also from one of the biggest marketing firms and PR firms in the world and that’s the NBA, ESPN and the whole bit. When Ali was doing his thing, all this wasn’t there, and it still seemed like he was a giant. He just took over a room. “Ali-boom-ba-yay, Ali boom-ba-yay.” Do you ever wish you could be as bombastic as he was?
No, no. I’m happy being me. Ali was an original in my eyes because he wasn’t supposed to do that. Now everyone does it. You see that all the boxers do it. A lot of guys in our league do it. But when Ali did it, that was Ali. Even now, even with his disease and his inability to talk, he still has a lot of personality, and he still has a lot of confidence, a lot of arrogance. Just the way he carries himself. And, you know, that’s him, not me.
You couldn’t be arrogant?
I don’t know. I’m sure my fiancee would say I’m very arrogant (laughs). Nah, it’s just that, when Ali walked into a room, he was the life of the party. And, you know, I’m shy. I walk in a room …I don’t really wanna be the life of the party. I want to blend in, sit against the wall, whatever.
Did you ever try to be the life of the party?
I’ve tried a lot of times. I tried in college, especially the first year of school. And then my first year in the league, going to parties and trying, you know, to be the man. It was just not me.
Give me an example.
OK. I threw a party in 1995, at Legends. And I was trying to be, like, cool with everybody. I didn’t want anything to go down. I had no insurance for the party, so I was like if anything goes down, let people say anything they want to — the music was bad, the food was bad — you know, whatever — but they’re not gonna say Grant Hill was rude. So I was just trying to act all cool and after a while I just said hey, this is not me.
Why did you decide to get married? (He’s engaged to the singer Tamia, who’s from Windsor).
Um …(laughs) …you mean why did I get engaged? I’m not married yet
(laughs). No …I just …found somebody that I’m real compatible with. When we both started seeing each other that first two or three months, I kind of knew that this was the one. I’ve dated a few people but never really had that chemistry. But when I first met my fiancee it was like we’d known each other for a long time. So I’m ready to settle down. It’s a sign of maturity.
You’re still young to be married, by today’s standards.
It’s funny, ’cause I was always of the mind that I’m gonna wait till I’m done playing…. But I guess when you fall, you fall hard.
How did you meet her?
Anita Baker kind of hooked it up. Kind of a blind date. But we kind of knew who each other was, so it wasn’t that blind of a date.
Are you smooth when you first meet a woman?
That’s one thing I’ve never been good at! Never! I feel like, you know, doing interviews, I’m not great, but I’m relaxed. But when I talk to the opposite sex — that initial meeting — I’m terrible. Terrible. Always been terrible. Even when I got in the league, and I was at a party and I saw a female, I just got nervous — I could not get up enough nerve to go over and talk to anybody. I guess it’s the fear of rejection.
Did you ever get the nerve up to talk to a woman, only to have it backfire?
There was a girl at Duke who I liked for four years. I won’t say her name — but I liked her for four years. I mean, from freshman year on. All the guys on the team liked her, too. And we were at beach week at Myrtle Beach — right after my junior year — and I think we were at a party and the guys were pumping me up to go over there and talk to her. Talk to her! Talk to her! So I went over there and asked her to dance, and she said no.
She said no?
What did you do?
I asked her what time it was. I played it off like I was really asking her what time it was. So she looked at her watch. So this way, when I came back over, the guys wouldn’t clown me. I said oh, I didn’t ask her to dance — I just asked her what time it was.
Do you think she regrets it now?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since (laughs). And after she said no, I didn’t like her so much.
Have you improved your delivery?
I think once I get to know somebody, I can be cool. But that initial rap. Like, “Hey, baby, let me knock the stuffing off your Egg McMuffin.” Or “Do almonds come with all that chocolate?” You know, whatever these pickup lines are, I’m not good at that.
“Do almonds come with all that chocolate?”
You never heard that one?
That shows you how hip I am. Let’s switch topics. When it comes to your basketball life, do you feel young, middle-aged or old?
I started playing when I was about 10. So more than half of my life has been playing basketball. I feel middle-aged in a young body. I’m 26, but I feel older than 26.
Wow. Not 30!
What’s your idea of a good locker room speech?
It’s weird. In college, every game Coach K gave a locker room speech. And after his speech, you were ready to go out there and dive through a wall, you know? In the NBA, there are so many games, I don’t know how effective a rah-rah speech would be. I don’t think any speech would work.
What’s the best pep talk you ever heard?
It’s probably one of Coach K’s. He had so many. I remember one time, before a game, he turned off all the lights. And he came in with candles — and he was like: “I’m just an old Polish guy looking for a team with heart.” You know, it was …(laughs) …it was college, you buy into everything the coach says. We went out there and just kicked butt. We played Virginia at home my senior year and we killed them!
(Mike Krzyzewski was Hill’s coach at Duke.)
What is your least favorite public activity?
I’ll be honest — signing autographs. And the reason why, I guess, is when I was little and I was out with my dad — not that my dad was a superstar, although he thought he was — and being out in public, being in a restaurant, after a football game, and people coming up and wanting my dad’s autograph — it’s kind of like taking time away from me. You know, selfishly, I said,
“That’s my dad,” and I didn’t wanna share him. So I never really quite understood the significance of giving autographs. I never really liked it, you know? I understand that’s part of the job, but when somebody comes up and wants you to sign a napkin? I have a problem with that. But I’ll sign it.
After all that, you’ll sign it.
Yeah — I’m not Ali. But Ali probably would have signed it, too.
Is the president’s sex life his own business?
I think so. I’m not one to judge if he’s right or wrong. But I think he should be judged on what he’s done as president, and I think we’re just making a mockery of the whole situation. Hey, if you spend $40 million investigating my life or your life or anyone’s life, I’m sure you’ll find things that aren’t perfect.
How much does someone have to spend before they find an imperfection with Grant Hill?
(Laughs) Uh …it wouldn’t be $40 million, I’ll tell you that. Maybe $40. All you gotta do is call my mom. She’ll tell you everything (laughs).
What’s the smartest thing Michael Jordan ever said to you?
Um …smartest thing Michael Jordan said to me? (Laughs.) I can’t say that
OK. He said, “Get a good pre-nup.” (Laughs.)
“Get a good pre-nup”?
That’s what he told me (laughs).
Hmm. If you could go back over your career in the NBA to date and change any one thing, what would you change?
As far as professionally? Nothing. I mean, I’m glad I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. I’ve struggled at times, I’ve had success at times. It’s all helped me be the person I am now. Privately, you know, I probably wouldn’t have bought a house after my first year — at least not as big a house as I bought.
Do you wish you had spoken up more to management?
I’ve spoken up enough. I talk to management, and I respect that this is their team and their organization. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. And I don’t feel as if everything I say necessarily has to go. I just would hope
— and it has been the case, and I hope it would continue — that if I make a suggestion, they would listen and at least hear me out.
But I don’t feel as though every time I say this or say that, that they have to do that. It’s not my organization. It’s Mr. Davidson’s and Tom Wilson’s — they’re in charge. I can only give suggestions …and I’ve done that. Some of them I’ve been right on, some of them I’ve been wrong on.
What were you wrong on?
Um …endorsing someone. But I didn’t know. I was a rookie.
You’re talking about Doug Collins.
Yeah. I think it was good at the time. I think it got us from A to B, you know. But we somehow allowed it to get back from B back to A. So …(laughs)
…I mean, it’s weird. I think people think I don’t speak up to management. But I’ve had plenty of conversations with Mr. D, with Tom Wilson, with Rick Sund. I just don’t feel as though I need to go out and tell everybody what those conversations are. Just like I’m not gonna sit up here and negotiate on behalf of the players association through the press.
Did it hurt your feelings that people accused you of not doing enough during this whole lockout thing?
No. I’m sure with your job there are good things and bad things, and in my job there are good things and bad things. I don’t know what more I was supposed to do. I don’t feel like I was out here saying anything that made us as players look bad. People are mad ’cause I didn’t sit up here and say, “Fight the power!” and “Screw David Stern!” And that’s just ignorant. I don’t have time for ignorance. But it was a little disappointing.
How much do you feel the NBA is where you work, but it’s not you?
There are a lot of things that I’m not comfortable with regarding my position in the NBA. This whole last six, seven months, the lockout. It was like Rex Chapman said