THERE GOES the franchise player, out the door, headed for Space Mountain. What began with great fanfare six years ago — a press conference, smiles for the cameras, a new uniform, a promise of a long-term future — ended with one late-night phone call Thursday from Grant Hill, a phone call that should have come days earlier, a phone call that, truth be told, should not have been a call at all, but an in-person meeting, if only out of respect.
Hill, a man of manners, was lacking those manners this week. He dissed the Pistons, in NBA parlance, then apologized over the phone. Ah, well. That’s how it goes when you change partners. The new love gets the hugs and kisses. The old one gets the uncomfortable “sorry …thanks for everything” before the click of the receiver.
So Hill finally made it official, finally confirmed to Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, a man who had been his teammate and tutor, a man he supposedly respected as much as any person in the league, and told him that he was going to Orlando, no matter what — even if the Magic didn’t make the playoffs last season, even if Tim Duncan doesn’t join him.
“Too good an opportunity to pass up” was the operative explanation Hill gave. While I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how it’s such a good opportunity if Duncan doesn’t go to Orlando — basically, that leaves Hill and the junior varsity there — Detroit now has to live with the flip side of his statement. That is: Staying with the Pistons, for more money, with Dumars in charge, with George Irvine as coach, is still not a good enough opportunity to make Hill stick.
That hurts. Don’t you wonder when somebody — hello, Barry Sanders, hello, Juan Gonzalez — is going to say, “Detroit is too good an opportunity to pass up”?
Not this time. To his credit, Dumars reportedly did not beg or plead with Hill. He’s smarter than that. Whatever is in Grant’s head now is not being shaken out anytime soon.
Others tried. Five teams were wooing Hill here in Detroit the last two days. I’m not sure if you count the Pistons in that.
I’m not sure Grant wanted wooing from the Pistons, anyhow.
Played out his deal
There goes the franchise player, out the door, after six years. Give him this much: He played out his deal. He never demanded a renegotiated contract, even when lesser players were getting twice the money. He behaved honorably, was a good citizen, gave his all when he played and had some spectacular highlights. He made us proud.
Which is why it hurts to lose him.
On the other hand — and perhaps I offer this simply to soften the blow this morning — it wasn’t as if Detroiters marveled at Grant’s performances night after night. It wasn’t as if we lived in a constant state of Hillmania, was it?
Let’s face it. The Pistons, for most of Hill’s tenure, had side-stage status. Their regular-season games were hardly packed. Empty seats abounded. The chance to see Hill perform never ignited a passion for basketball in this town. Only when the playoffs came did the fans get remotely excited, and because the playoffs always ended after the first round, that’s not a lot of excitement.
Detroit might miss the idea of Grant Hill more than the man himself. We liked the idea that he played here. We liked him as an ambassador of this town. We liked that the rest of league envied him, that the NBA commissioner celebrated him, that he was Olympic material and an endorsement king. We liked the promise we could feel with him every autumn, because he did improve each season, he did seem to be pointing to something bigger.
But unlike Barry Sanders, who was literally electric — and absolutely worth the price of admission even when the season was hopeless — Hill was dragged down by the mediocrity of the team. Detroit is not alone. Many NBA cities are finding fans less than interested in teams that are middle of the pack.
Just ask Orlando.
An exalted hero
There goes the franchise player, off to the sunshine. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was the ownership. I think it was the attractiveness of a clean slate, a chance to wipe away the few tarnishes on his holster (his playoff record, criticisms of his toughness) and ride into a town the same exalted hero he was when he arrived here six years ago.
If it makes you feel any better, Grant will find that Orlando is no great excitement center — ask any athlete who has lived there, the best part is the weekend wooing trip and the obligatory tour of Tiger Woods’ neighborhood. Hill will find the fans there are no better than the ones in Detroit, and that, as a market, Orlando is not exactly endorsement city. And by the way, it’s humid as hell.
But what’s the point? That’s all sour grapes. The Pistons gave him the coaches he wanted, the general manager he wanted, and offered him more money than anyone else. If that’s not enough, you have to believe that what he truly desired lay beyond this town and this franchise.
He isn’t divorcing Detroit. He’s simply walking away when the paperwork allows him to do so. There’s nothing illegal about that. And his momentary lack of manners doesn’t erase all the good he did while he was here, or the example he set for six years.
Hill reportedly will make a statement Monday. The Pistons will release one today. Never mind all that. You can predict the words.
The sound that said it all was one we won’t get to hear, when Dumars reached the end of the conversation Thursday night and had that awkward moment where you say something like “see you around,” but you both know you won’t be seeing each other around at all.
There goes the franchise. But the franchise is still here. And how the Pistons solve that paradox becomes the issue now, even as No. 33 disappears into the hazy sunset.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).