THE DAY HILL WENT HOUSE HUNTING

Grant Hill wanted to buy a house. This was years ago, when he was still a Piston, still figuring his future would be in Michigan. He asked if I could show him around a particular neighborhood.

So one afternoon, in the off-season, we took a ride. Hill was looking for privacy, and we saw a “for sale” sign at the bottom of a long, hidden driveway. We drove up through a thickly wooded area and emerged into a clearing that surrounded a huge, modern house.

“Whoa, this is nice,” Hill said.

The house appeared to be empty, perhaps built on spec. So we got out and walked around. In the backyard, we approached the large patio windows, which reflected the sun. We put our hands over our eyes, peered inside – and were face-to-face with a woman and her son, staring back at us.

We did what all grown men would do.

We ran.

“Whuh-ohhh!” I think I yelled.

Of course, by the time we reached the front lawn – making like John Belushi in “Animal House”- the mother and child were waiting in the doorway. “Sorry, sorry,” we mumbled, as we stumbled to the car.

And then the woman yelled, “Aren’t you Grant Hill?”

And Hill stopped and said, “Yes, ma’am,” because, well, that’s what Grant Hill does.

A half-hour later, we had been given a tour, offered food, had our shoes off to protect the floors, and Hill had signed an autograph for the boy, who still seemed dazed that an NBA superstar had been poking around his backyard.

Back to the Palace

But a house is not a home, and of course, Grant Hill never bought that house, nor did this stay his home. He went to Orlando seven months into the new millennium. And then he tumbled down a rabbit hole you wouldn’t wish on anyone, countless surgeries, entire seasons missed, a misdiagnosis that almost killed him, and the cruel news that his beautiful wife, Tamia, was afflicted with multiple sclerosis.

There were moments where just being alive and walking around were long odds for Grant Hill. Yet Friday night, he returns with the Orlando Magic as a bona fide NBA star once more, his first appearance at the Palace since he wore a Pistons uniform nearly five years ago.

I called him Tuesday. And as is our custom, I first asked if he’d been poking around any houses down in Florida.

“Nah, nah,” he laughed, with that low explosion giggle that hasn’t changed, “but maybe when I get back to Detroit, I should go by that house and see if those people still live there.”

Much will be said and written in the next two days about Hill: about his relationship with former teammate and boss Joe Dumars (they get along fine); about Hill’s departure from Detroit (he says he’d probably still do it, but he’d handle it more gracefully); about his seemingly endless injuries (see his favorite quote from Thomas Edison, “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”)

But when I ask him the single most life-changing event since he has left Detroit, it isn’t anything from his crown-to-crutches story.

“The birth of my daughter,” he said. “To be there when she was born, to watch her grow up, to talk to her now on the phone, and she says, ‘Daddy, I saw you on TV … ‘

“I think before, even with my wife, my life was about me. It was pretty selfish. I’m in-season, out-of-season, taking a pregame nap – everything was about me and my career. Then, suddenly, you have somebody else who tops you.”

A matter of perspective

Hill is 32 now. Because he came into the league as a college graduate – a rarity these days – he never had those “early” years to throw away on development. And the prime of his career was chewed up by ruptures, scalpels, sutures and crutches.

So here he is, at both the end and, in some ways, the beginning of his basketball glory. He has played all but one game this season. He is likely to make the All-Star Game. He is being cheered wherever he goes, as much for showing up as anything else.

As to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Well, that assumes it was all a bad thing.

“In a lot of ways, I’m a much better person,” Hill said. “I wish I could have those years back in Detroit with the perspective I have now and all the appreciation I have now. I might have handled things better.”

There are plenty of overhyped stories in pro sports, and few truly remarkable ones. Grant Hill is a remarkable one. To be back at this level, after all his setbacks, borders on the miraculous.

It’s funny. Years ago, that day at the house, I joked with Hill that had the police nabbed us, the headline would have read “Grant Hill, Other Arrested In Scandal.” He laughed, because all the headlines were about Grant Hill those days.

Now, after some hard, parched years, they are again. Sometimes you take the long way to find your house – and your home.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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