Grant Hill must feel like the boy in the bubble. Every autumn, people come to peek at how he’s progressing. Has he changed? Is he ready to wear the crown? Has he grown fangs? Adopted a scowl? Is this the year of Grant Hill, finally? Is this the year? Is this the year? . . .

Problem is, the years are going by. And eventually, we have to accept that the Grant you see is the Grant you get. Which is not a bad thing. Not at all. It’s a driving, scoring, slashing, passing, sometimes-amazing basketball machine. But it is not Michael Jordan. It is not Wilt Chamberlain. It’s not swagger, pose, attitude, ego, dominance, or dictatorship.

Grant Hill is who Grant Hill is. Since his arrival in Detroit, certain fans, like patrons at a strip bar, have been applauding his skills while anticipating something else. What exactly are they waiting for? Nothing short of a Jordan-like takeover.

They expect Hill to win it by himself.

Never mind that Jordan would be the first to tell you that in order to win he needed star teammates like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, he needed role players like Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley, he needed a perfectly malleable coach like Phil Jackson. Never mind. Most people think that if you popped Michael Jordan onto any team, he would drag it to the top.

And they want to think that about Hill.

Well, let’s kill that idea right here. It has been six years already. Give it up. It isn’t true. Grant Hill is not Chamberlain in the ’60s. He’s not Jordan in the early ’90s. He’s not going to take any team — this one, or anyone else’s — all the way all by himself.

And you know what?

He never said he would.

Maybe we couldn’t hear him outside the bubble.

Crossroads of career are here

Now the reason this is important right now, as the Pistons play their home opener tonight against the New York Knicks, is that Hill is at the crossroads of his career, chronologically and contractually.

He is likely at his physical peak — age 27 — and he is in the last year of his original six-year deal, a deal that, by the way, to his credit, he has never challenged nor complained about, even though that at an average of $5.6 million a year, he is woefully underpaid compared to other NBA players.
(Former Fab Fivers Chris Webber of Sacramento and Juwan Howard of Washington, whom Hill dominated in college, make far more than he does, just as an example.)

Hill has patiently waited. He has listened to others. This is the year he determines his own fate.

And my concern is that, if the Pistons falter this season — if they go out again in the first round of the playoffs — Hill might see himself trapped in Detroit by a sticky shadow of disappointment. He might view the Palace as a place where he is doomed to sing the never-win-the-big-one blues.

In which case, some other market might not only offer Hill a different roster and coaching staff, but, more important, a chance to reinvent himself, to go someplace where there is no disappointment dragging like tin cans from his fender, where no one says, “It’s been six years, and he hasn’t gotten it done yet. He’s overrated.”

So he leaves. And then what do the Pistons have to show for their long investment? Just an empty bubble, and a chorus of what-might-have-been.

Early returns are good

“I’m looking forward to this season more than any I ever have,” Hill told me this week. “I haven’t felt this good about my position and my teammates since
…I don’t know when.”

Early returns suggest that’s true. Hill scored 41 points in the opener against Miami and 30 points the next night against Orlando.

But both games were losses.

Which only proves my point. Hill’s going hog-wild will not, by itself, win the Pistons anything. They still need rebounds. They still need shot-blocking, They need defense. They need someone to shut down the opposing big man.

Hill can play the lead. But he can’t play all the parts.

“Are you comfortable now with the sentence, ‘Give me the damn ball’?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I am,” he said. “I feel I’m wiser and better than when I first got here. I want the ball in my hands now. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but if I pass the ball to an inferior player and let him determine the fate of a game, I’m doing the team a disservice. The ball should be in the best player’s hands.”

I’m glad Grant thinks of himself as the best player. He didn’t always. And his leadership skills should be equally heightened, now that Joe Dumars is retired, and Grant doesn’t feel an obligation to defer to Joe’s experience.

But keep this in mind: Grant Hill will not bring a title to this town by himself. He is best as a complementary superstar, the way he was at Duke with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. And as this season unfolds, and the biggest story will be whether Hill comes back or not — and whether he’s worth the money he will command — we should all remember that.

Grant Hill can only be who Grant Hill is.

But he can choose to be it anyplace he wants.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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