There was a day this summer when Grant Hill felt like a big shot. He was in Los Angeles, taping a TV sitcom. Everyone was making a fuss. There were limousines, trays of food on the set, actors treating him like a god, which is fitting, because celebrity is the religion of LA.

Then someone said, “Hey, Grant, Michael Jordan’s out here, too.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“He’s making a movie. And he’s working out, playing ball. You should drop by.”

Hill figured, yeah, drop by. Shoot a little hoop, work out with The Man, just M. J. and Grant, the old king, the young prince. Yeah. So Hill went to the set, expecting a little one- on-one. And this is what he saw: an entire indoor practice facility, complete with full-length basketball court, Nautilus equipment and showers. The movie studio built it for Michael, who was, at the moment, being gawked at by 50 or 60 people, including some major stars.

So much for the king and the prince.

“In one second, I was like the kid again,” Hill says. “I was studying Michael, watching how he iced his leg, saying, ‘Wow, that’s how he does it.’

“Here I was, thinking I was such hot stuff, taping a TV show, and here he was, making a movie, with this giant facility they built for him. It was like, he was everything, I was just this little nothing, just a lackey.”

Hill laughs at himself. Which is good. The NBA is about to begin its new season tonight, and all around are warning signs: Alonzo Mourning threatens to break up the Charlotte Hornets, because he wants $13 million a year. Shaquille O’Neal insists the league is out to get him, and he’s not gonna take it anymore. Dennis Rodman doesn’t need to talk to his new teammates, just
“do my job and go home.”

Given all this, the league is lucky that Grant Hill, who is more their future than any of these guys, still has his perspective.

After his rookie year, I half expected Hill to return with an ego the size of Wyoming. Clueless in rookie year

That he didn’t is a credit to his parents, who molded him, and his internal furnace, which keeps their lessons warm. Remember, this is a kid who started the All-Star Game as a rookie, who was named to Dream Team III for the upcoming Olympics, and who was hailed by Newsweek as one of the most influential figures of his generation. Influential? He’s only 23! Was last year that impressive?

Last year, Hill says, tugging on his jacket hood strings, “was crazy. I was so naive. I thought I knew what I was doing.”

He exhales.

“I didn’t have a clue.”

He thought he could physically handle the season; instead, by January, he was fatigued. He thought he was made of iron; instead, he missed 12 games because of injury. He thought he could say yes to everyone; instead he was dragging to commitments he wished he’d refused.

“I was so afraid of saying no to people, I didn’t even come out to take early warm-ups before a game. I didn’t want to say no to kids in the tunnel who wanted autographs,” he says.

Still, he shared the Rookie of the Year Award, averaged nearly 20 points a game, and was a favorite role model-to-be. After a summer spent doing such adult things as paying taxes and buying a house, Hill has settled into a more sane — and less busy — lifestyle and with an attitude that sounds more veteran than rookie.

“I find myself telling Theo some of the same things Joe Dumars told me last year,” Hill says, referring to first-round pick Theo Ratliff. “I say, ‘Watch what you eat and how much you sleep.’ I tell him there’s gonna be nights in January when you’re gonna be exhausted and you’ll have to wind it up for two hours and play.”

Hill smirks. He realizes how this sounds. Look at him. Twenty-three, already he’s the old man. New plan for new season

Well, not quite. He still talks about playing video games with his pals. He still laughs at his father trying to pick a bride for him.

But Hill vows to be smarter this season. He says he can use his new coach, Doug Collins, as an excuse to avoid things like a commercial request on a game day. (“Sorry, Coach says I can’t do it.”) He says he plans to weigh more at the start of the season, so that, as he inevitably sheds pounds, he won’t shed strength. “Last year, when I went to the hole, I got fouled and that was it. This year, I want to hear the whistle, then still make the basket and a three-point play.”

He plans to sleep more. Go out less. His goal is to “improve in every statistical category, and not miss any games to injury.” It won’t be easy. League officials will want him center stage, high profile. After all, he’s the best PR they’ve got. Every time Mourning makes the front page, the NBA hopes Hill is photographed at a charity event.

So be it. He is at that wonderful cusp, where maturity is slowly catching up to free-running talent. I ask Hill about the Jordan encounter during the summer, how there is always someone with a bigger pile of chips than you. Was he overwhelmed? Was he envious? Did he want what Jordan had?

I am not expecting an honest answer.

Instead, I get one. “I guess I do want all that,” Hill says. “I want what he has because it will mean I’ve done what he’s done, I’ve won championships, I’ve played at that level.”

It is a better response than you’d expect from a kid. But then, we probably can’t call him that anymore, can we?

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