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Mike McAllister to Grant Hill: Please Retire

Man, that Grant Hill has had one hell of a lot of bad luck. Now SI.com's Mike McAllister is making the big proposal:

I humbly suggest that you move on to the next phase of your life, where you can use your brain, your personality, your all-around "good guy" skills to carve out a legacy that might far exceed anything you ever did on the basketball court.

March Madness is here, and that's the Grant Hill I like to remember, the one who helped lead Duke to two national titles in the early 1990s.

The other madness -- the one that keeps dragging that delicate body of yours back for more NBA abuse -- is the one that needs to stop right now

I feel for the man, I really do. I wrote a HOOP article about him in February 2005, and interviewed his incredible mother and incredible wife--who was recently diagnosed with MS. (Looks like she's doing pretty well at the moment, as far as you can tell from Tamia's official website.) A draft of the whole darned article is below.

Daddy’s Playing Basketball

Grant Hill’s comeback from four devastating years of ankle injuries might be the biggest story in the NBA this year. But it’s hardly the biggest story in his own house.

by Henry Abbott

It’s one of the simplest plays in basketball. Steve Francis, the Orlando Magic point guard, drives hard with the ball towards the basket. Once he gets in the paint, the whole defense gets nervous. Practically every defender cheats a step or two towards Francis and the ball. When Francis is just shy of colliding with the collapsing defenders, he raises the ball as if to launch the shot that everyone expects—then suddenly fires the ball sideways, passing it halfway across the court into the waiting hands of his teammate, the 6-8 All-Star forward Grant Hill.

Thanks to Francis’ daring, Hill is wide open on the baseline. He has plenty of room to catch the ball and make an easy jumpshot, all before his defender has time to recover.

Welcome to the world of Grant Hill, where one of the big challenges is that to the casual observer, there are no challenges at all. On this play, for instance, he has the poise, the smile, and the points—without the hassle of even running, jumping, or being touched by a defender.

Hundreds of miles away, Grant Hill’s mother Janet knows different. Janet is the vice president of the highly regarded Washington D.C. consulting firm Alexander & Associates and has just made a speech to a group of women entrepreneurs in Jacksonville, Florida. In her hotel room that evening, she is watching the game on television as she catches up with phone calls. As the ball leaves her son’s fingertips, she stops talking for just an instant. When it splashes through the net a second or two later, she steers the conversation to basketball.

Just for a moment, she needs to talk basketball, to make clear that she did not think that shot looked easy.

“That shot—he never used to have that reliable 15-foot shot as part of his game!” she exclaims. “People don’t know that came from literally hundreds of hours in the gym alone, at six o’clock in the morning sometimes. He has added that shot to his game and it has been hard work.”

The only personal challenge most fans know her son has ever faced is a gimpy left ankle. His return a few months ago from spending the better part of three seasons on the injured list has been celebrated in every kind of media imaginable. It’s the story of the year, that he had four surgeries on the same ankle, the first three of which essentially failed. For years, he gutted through rehabilitation. (His three-year-old daughter has been exposed to so much sports medicine that she routinely asks for electrostimulation instead of band-aids if ever she gets hurt.)

His reward for all the hard work? Before his triumphant return at the beginning of this season, he faced near death on an emergency room gurney two years ago at Orlando’s Winter Park Memorial Hospital, after one of his ankle surgeries led to a staph infection and a 104.5° fever. It took a fleet of hospital orderlies to hold him down through the shakes.

“But that’s not the hardest thing he has faced,” cautions Janet. “Not by a long shot.”

The Hill family story is about two parents, one child, and history repeating itself.

Dad is the All-American superstar whose gifts perfectly fit all the categories: height and muscles for sports, brains for anything, eyes for art, looks for magazines, money for smart investments—even a fun sense of humor. Mom is a genius who’s comfortable and convincing before any type of audience. She beat the odds stacked against black women the old-fashioned way: with elbow grease, skill, smarts and toughness.

They are the true definition of a power couple, in that they are even more amazing together than they ever were apart. (Somehow, they both married up.) They are a pair of humble supernovas: radiant, gifted, lucky, approachable, smiley, charitable and not at all greedy. They succeed because they deserve to, and no one begrudges them that. It’s impossible to imagine either one of them ever getting voted off the island.

And the child, of course, is perfect.

Now get ready to go back and read those last three paragraphs again, because it’s a trick, a pump fake, a do-over: Absolutely, that’s the story of the Orlando Magic’s All-Star forward Grant Hill, his wife the top-selling R&B singer Tamia, and their three-year-old daughter Myla Grace. But it’s simultaneously the story of Grant’s parents, former Yale and Dallas Cowboys’ football legend Calvin, and high-level consultant Janet—whose voice resonates at the highest levels of business and government.

Put the Hills together, and there is not a dud in the group. “There are no cousins, no aunts, no uncles,” reports Tamia, who married into the Hill family in 1999. “So they are close knit. At first I was a little nervous coming in as an outsider into that group. But they were great. I mean, I love my husband, but now I am completely fanatical about his parents too. We really are a family.”

For Grant in particular there has been sunshine, and plenty of it. At Duke, his length-of-the-court pass (known in basketball circles as simply “the pass”) to Christian Laettner—who hit the winning shot as time expired—capped what many consider to be the greatest NCAA championship tournament game ever.

His professional career began with one of the largest shoe contracts in history, co-rookie of the year honors as a Detroit Piston, and eventual praise as the greatest basketball player in the league (after Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls).

Off the court, he’s one of the rare professional athletes who grew up in good schools, with rich parents. He always says the right things, and never gets into trouble. He is devoted to his wife, who happens to be a top-selling R&B singer. He is among the highest-paid athletes in the history of American sports, and he lives in a big house in the gated community across the street from Shaquille O’Neal.

Fans have voted Hill an All-Star seven straight times—even in the years he didn’t play due to injury.

SWAT teams of geneticists should probably burst upon Hill family gatherings—leaving the inside of no cheek unswabbed in search of whatever marvelousness lurks in that DNA.

There would be plenty to find: The big-time corporate success gene (Janet is on the boards of Nextel, Wendy’s and Dean Foods), the never give up gene (everyone), the professional athlete gene (Calvin and Grant), the shrewd eye for collecting art gene (Grant and Calvin), the love your family gene (everyone), the add a reliable fifteen foot jump shot late in the career gene (Grant), and the sing your way out of the Canadian ghetto gene (Tamia).

If those geneticists did analyze the Hills, in Tamia’s genes they’d also find the bad news that truly weighs heavy on all the Hills: multiple sclerosis, the incurable and degenerative neural disease Tamia was diagnosed with in 2003.

Multiple sclerosis is a tough diagnosis—one without a lot of clear answers, and plenty of cause for worry. Although its progression can be halting, and even stalled for years at a time, MS wears down the nervous system, shutting out the brain, and leading to muscle spasms, weakness, sensory deficits and visual disturbances.

Grant,” explains Janet, “is far more concerned about her than his own short term goals.”

Thanks in part to connections in the medical community at Grant’s alma mater Duke, the Hills have been receiving a heavy education about MS in the last two years. They are trying to stay positive.

“What’s helpful is that we found out early, and we were able to stop it before it did permanent damage,” says Tamia. “And there’s a lot happening these days with MS therapies. Six years ago there were not nearly as many therapies. Ten years ago I don’t think there were really any therapies at all.”

Grant acknowledges the reality is tough. “MS is not something that you beat,” says Hill. “It’s something that you kind of learn to live with. And that’s what we as a couple are doing right now.”

If you were to spend a day watching us, you’d see that we’re like any young married couple with a young child. But in the back of our minds it’s something that I think is just… you are put in a situation where you tend to really lean on each other, and recognize the importance of family, and really just to cherish every day, and appreciate every day that you have together. You know the old saying: you go through adversity and it brings you closer together. We have, and we still are. Me playing is a good thing and it’s a good story, but learning to deal with MS is still something Tamia and I are in the midst of.”

It’s all about Tamia’s long term health,” says Janet. ”At the moment, she is doing well. She is responding well to the newest medications. And Grant has seen to it that she is getting the very best care that anyone can have. But the question is, can she sustain that over her whole life? It doesn’t always have symptoms. But it can be very debilitating over time.”

MS, to be sure, is a scary diagnosis. Certainly, there are different versions of the disease, and thankfully some progress very slowly. But until new and better treatments are discovered, all tend towards a long-term decline in nervous system functioning. Those with more advanced MS can be bed-ridden without notice. They can have tremors, trouble thinking clearly, and can be confined to wheelchairs as the disease ravages their nervous system.

It’s all very incongruent with the young, healthy, sex symbol Tamia, who still looks every bit like the woman on the album covers who has been nominated for four Grammy awards.

Tamia talks about her MS openly, frankly and without fear. She laughs easily. It can fool you into thinking that perhaps she has not fully embraced her diagnosis—or that she just has some sort of magical ability to not let it bother her.

The truth is that in fact it has not been easy at all. One of the gifts life does not shower on anyone—not even the Hills—is the ability to deal with this sort of thing without moments of weakness.

Now everything’s good,” explains Tamia. “The MS is under control. Grant’s playing well. But just a couple of months ago, we were climbing up the mountain, and it was tough. Look at all the stuff we’ve endured. There were times when we thought ‘this is too much for us.’”

There will always be worry. In an interview, she has a hard time remembering when it was exactly that she started feeling the numbness in her extremities that led her to go to the doctor. “Was it 2003 or 2004?” she wonders. When she then forgets the current year (“what are we in, 2005?”) there is an uncomfortable pause. It’s probably nothing. But these are the kinds of worries the Hills face: was that normal forgetfulness, or the advancing of MS?

“It’s something we have to deal with for the rest of our lives,” says Hill. “Everybody has something like that in life. For Tamia and me, this is our burden. But you have to stay as positive and optimistic as you can. The best thing for me is to be a cheerleader and to be a support system. And help her and guide her and give her what she wants.”

Thanks to Grant’s healthy left ankle, Tamia and Myla get to be cheerleaders again, too. Just as Janet was watching her son from a hotel room in Jacksonville, Tamia and Myla were watching on the big screen in their Orlando home.

“When he was home so much rehabbing, Myla started to wonder ‘what’s his job?’” remembers Tamia. “Now we watch his games on TV together, and she asks ‘Daddy plays basketball?” and I say yes, ‘daddy’s playing basketball.’”