THE MAGIC OF HEALTH SUITS HEARTBREAK HILL

The day he signed here, as an NBA rookie fresh out of Duke, his father had to race off and purchase a razor and shaving cream to get rid of his son’s “college peach fuzz.” Grant Hill had never used a razor before – always used electric – and all through the news conference, “my face was killing me.”

The day he signed his contract in Orlando – seven years, $92 million – he somehow forgot his dress shoes, so he had to borrow a pair from Julius Erving, who was then an executive with the Magic. It felt funny, he admits, wearing Doctor J’s shoes to sign his deal, but it was cool just the same.

So the days on which Grant Hill has started something have been noteworthy. But the day he finally finished something was 10 times more special.

The other night, for the first time in seven years, for the first time since leaving Detroit, Grant Hill finished a season. He played the last game. After six seasons of nagging, debilitating injuries, he was there at the buzzer, sweat drying on his skin.

There is a tradition in the Orlando franchise of players handing their uniforms to fans after the last home game. “For five of the last six years,” Hill says over the phone from Orlando, “I wore a suit to that. The other year, I was in the hospital.”

Wednesday night was different. Hill was so excited, he “was counting down quarters. Two quarters left. One quarter left … “

When you’re young, you think glory.

When you age, you think survival.

For Grant Hill, they are intertwined.

Trying to prove himself to the Magic

Five surgeries to his left ankle. A hernia surgery last season. A staph infection that made him frighteningly ill. You don’t measure the games Hill missed in weeks or months. You measure in years. His first season, he missed 78. His second, he missed 68. His fourth, he skipped altogether.

In seven years, he has played just 200 games for the Magic. And not one playoff game. Until tomorrow night – against the last team with which he saw a postseason.

At any point, Hill could have called it quits. Negotiated a settlement. Taken the money and gone home. “But I felt bad. I felt like this team wasn’t going to get a return on their investment, that, as hard as the rehab was, as hard as going through all the surgeries was, I was not going to be able to answer the bell. For the first time in my career, I felt like I was letting everybody down.”

That, he says, is what motivated him to come back. To show people who he was. To not be forgotten as a distant memory. It’s funny, when Hill was with Detroit, he used to tease Joe Dumars in Dumars’ final season about how weary the veteran was before practice.

“And Joe used to say, ‘Y’all just wait,’ ” Hill recalls, laughing. “I talk to Joe now, I apologize to him.”

Coping with his wife’s illness

Both men will be at the Palace tomorrow night. But Hill, by his own admission, is “a much different person now.” A few years back, his wife, Tamia, a well-known recording artist, discovered she had multiple sclerosis.

“As an athlete, everything revolves around you,” Hill says. “But all of a sudden, it was about her. She’s dealing with MS, that’s a lot more serious than missing 50 games in season. … It was the kind of thing that could either pull us together or break us apart.”

It pulled them together. They have a young daughter and are expecting a new baby this summer. Hill is 34 now. His long Orlando contract has finally finished, and he is simply happy to be standing at the end of it, contributing, starting, averaging 14.4 points – not superstar numbers, but far better than a “DNP.”

He has come full circle, from a bona fide superstar to the guy who finds excitement in sweating. And he is happily anticipating his return to Motown.

“Part of me is a Piston,” he says.

Then he adds, almost wistfully, “I played my best basketball there.”

NBA players arrive tall. But this one has grown before our eyes. When Grant Hill’s name is called tomorrow night, he ought to get a long ovation. Not because he once played in the building. But because, despite it all, he still is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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