PHOENIX — Grant Hill was just a few seconds into his first All-Star Game when he took a pass and tried a jump shot from the corner. It missed. But at least it hit the rim. Considering the pressure he was under, I was surprised it didn’t drop out of his hands, as he fainted.

The NBA All-Star Game has gone from a nice little pickup to a three-day, celebrity-studded corporate blitz — bigger than life, louder than thunder, a prime-time telecast complete with rap commercials and indoor fireworks. You want to know how out of hand this thing has gotten? They fly mascots in to compete in a slam-dunk competition.

No wonder the league is looking for a hero. Who could find anything real in all this smoke?

Enter Hill. Hailed from draft day as a Knight in Shining Gym Shoes, he was the leading vote-getter in Sunday’s game, ridiculously ahead of all the veterans in the league, and he was featured prominently in Sunday’s telecast, probably more than he warranted. He’s endorsing at least four major products
— Sprite, Schick, Fila and GMC. And tonight he is flying to New York — skipping Pistons practice — to do the “ESPY Awards,” and make his second appearance in two months on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” America’s answer to being royally dubbed “Sir Big.”

Enough. Let the kid breathe. He is not the savior of the league, and if this blitzkrieg continues, he’ll sink under the weight of his own legend — before it’s even created. Never mind that his second shot Sunday was a sweet alley-oop jam, or that he drove on Dikembe Mutombo for a nice bank lay-up, or that he scored 10 points in the first half. Hey, we knew he could play.

But the league, the networks and his corporate sponsors are trying to turn Grant Hill into God. And though I am certainly no authority, I do know this about the Almighty: He is not 22 years old.

“Now that this All-Star thing is over, do you think it’s time for Grant to concentrate on being a Piston and not all the other stuff?” Joe Dumars, his pro mentor, was asked after the West blew out the East, 139-112.

“Yeah, it’ll be good for him,” Dumars said. “Too many times in the first half of the season, he’s said to me, ‘Joe, I’m exhausted.’ That’s just unfair. And it’s unfair for people to take advantage of his nature like that.”

Hill, whose nerves gave way to a weak stomach in the second half Sunday, has said yes to almost everything since he signed with Detroit, doing all the charity gigs along with the paying stuff. According to the Pistons, most of his commercials were filmed during the season, which is a bad precedent. But people can’t get enough of him. They want to meet him, hire him, shake his hand, have him talk to their kids.

“Sometimes I wish things would just go in slow motion,” he admitted after the game Sunday. “Or at least spread out over a longer period of time. Even this All-Star weekend, it’s over in a blink. . . .

“And I was busy every second.”

Now, you can understand why the NBA is hungry to milk every drop out of Hill’s “good citizen” image, considering that Sports Illustrated just ran a cover story on NBA crybabies, and that Sunday’s Western Conference team had one player, Mutombo, who recently said “the NBA can go to hell” and another, Charles Barkley, who cracked, “I don’t like white people.”

But Grant Hill didn’t create the hero void in the NBA. He shouldn’t be expected to fill it — at least not alone.

Hey, they’re gonna kill this kid. Most NBA rookies hit the wall in January or February because they pass the 35-game line, which exceeds anything they’ve seen in college. Hill has to deal with that, plus all the commitments, endorsements, appearances and interviews. It’s not just the talking, it’s the standards that are being set. Almost every story glows and promises he’ll win the game, save the princess and kill the dragon.

Who could live up to that? Heaven help this kid the first time he makes a youthful mistake.

“It’s not the high standards so much, because I feel I have even higher standards for myself,” Hill said, “but maybe I need to learn how to use the word ‘no’ more. I’m trying to be nice to everybody. What is so fatiguing is all the stuff away from the court. There’s so much of that.”

But isn’t he the one who decides what he does and doesn’t do?

“I thought I was,” he said, glumly. Stretched beyond the limit

This is clearly a guy being pulled in too many directions. In the end, it will not serve him well. Have you noticed how some of his commercials don’t even show him playing basketball? They have gospel choirs singing while he talks about the good way he was raised, his parents, his memories. Memories? That’s some feat for a kid who two years ago wasn’t old enough to drink.

But that’s corporate America — and the NBA. Both want you to love Hill, so you’ll love their products. Nothing wrong with that. But first, let Hill do the job he’s getting paid to do: play basketball for the Pistons.

The rest should flow out of that.

“I guess I need to find a way to please people and still please myself a little,” Hill said, as usual, politely and honestly. “This is all new to me. I’m still learning as I go. Hopefully I can do a little better job in the second half of the season than I did in the first.”

The same should go for his advisers — and that means his agents, the league and even his parents. They should caution him to slow down — and make sure he does. A star career must be hatched, nurtured, given a chance to breathe.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were quick heroes because, within two seasons, their teams went to the Finals. The Pistons won’t be there for a while. And expecting Hill to steer the league with the Pistons in last place will really strain him.

So let him breathe, give him a break, let him be 22. It’s the long-range view. But if the world wants him back at future All- Star Games, it would be wise to listen.

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