Versatile Piston moves to the head of NBA's rookie class KING of the HILL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even as a child, Grant Hill wanted nothing to do with the comparisons. He just figured that being compared to his dad, former NFL great Calvin Hill, would make the expectations higher, the spotlight brighter, the battles tougher.

So he'd try to keep his famous lineage undercover. Even to the point of making his father escort him to functions in the old Volkswagen, instead of one of the Hills' luxury cars.

"Where I was, I was known as Calvin Hill's son, and the pressure was pretty tough on me," Grant said recently. "Looking back, I don't know why I did the things that I did. But I just wanted to be known for myself."

Hill is having no problem with that these days as a rookie forward with the Detroit Pistons. In fact, now Calvin is probably more known as Grant's dad.

Whatever questions people may have had about Hill's adapting to the pro game after his successful four-year career at Duke have been answered. Going into tonight's game against the Washington Bullets, Hill is averaging 19.5 points (tops among rookies), 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Hurling his 6-foot-8, 225-pound body through the air in acrobatic high-flying acts has earned him a regular spot in the nightly sports highlights.

He has become an instant star.

"I tend to be skeptical; show me, you know?" Pistons guard Joe Dumars said early in camp. "But I'm going with this guy. I believe he is the real thing.

"When I saw him play in college, I thought he'd be a great player in this league in two years. I've revised that from two years to two months."

Praise such as that brings the inevitable comparisons to Michael Jordan: both No. 3 first-round picks, both former Atlantic Coast Conference stars playing in a controlled college system, both finding themselves unleashed in the open NBA style.

But Hill shies away from the Jordan comparisons.

"I look at it as a burden, and I don't like it at all," Hill said. "He's accomplished a great deal in basketball, and to put anybody up with him is unfair. I'd just rather not see that comparison, at least not with me."

Asked his favorite story about Hill, South Lakes High coach Wendell Byrd immediately recalls the first day of basketball practice, when he had the ninth-grader practicing with the varsity at the Reston, Va., school.

"He did what I said," recalled Byrd, who had watched Hill star with the local AAU team and had told Calvin of his plan. "But he was upset."

When Grant got home that night, he was furious. He told his parents, Calvin and Janet, that he wanted to play with his friends on the junior varsity.

"He burst out crying," Calvin said. "He said I was making him do it. He accused me of child abuse.

"Now, it seems humorous, but it was an emotional thing for him. He thought that because of my athletic background, I had gone to the coach and convinced him to put Grant on the varsity."

No pressure from home

In fact, Grant now says that Calvin never tried to influence him in athletics.

"He never pressured me to play sports," Grant said. "As a kid, I just experimented with a lot of sports, but as I got better, I gravitated toward basketball."

"After the third game," Byrd said, "Grant came to me and said, 'I'm glad you brought me up. I know I can do this now.' "

North Carolina had an interest in Hill, but he opted to go to Duke. There Hill had a great career, with national championships his freshman and sophomore seasons and a title game appearance as a senior.

"Mentally and physically, I improved so much on the court that I was definitely a different player when I left there," Hill said. "I developed an arrogance on the court, and it's something that wasn't always there."

Still, there were some doubters when Hill was ready to join the pros. He wasn't a consistent outside shooter. He was good enough at a lot of things, but could he be great at one thing?

Charlotte Hornets coach Allan Bristow didn't see any flaws.

"I feel like Grant Hill's in a class by himself," Bristow said. "He's really something special."

So far, Hill has been able to do everything well on the professional level while, like Jordan, finding the freedom of the NBA more to his liking.

"In college, because of the rules, it's kind of hard to be creative at times, because other teams can limit what you can and cannot do," Hill said. "The NBA is more open, more one-on-one. I'm finding I can do more things just because of the style of play."

But to step in and perform the way he has right away?

"You have to be confident on this level," Hill said. "If you don't, you'll definitely get embarrassed."

Calvin said if he were to find a flaw in his son, it would be his insistence on blending in -- a trait he picked up while fighting to establish his own identity as a child.

"He didn't want to be special. He always wanted to be one of the guys, and that will be one of his problems he'll have to deal with as an athlete," Calvin said. "[Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski told him, 'I want you to be special. I don't want you to be normal.'

"He has a certain humility, which I think is nice," Calvin said. "But he needs to park it when he plays sports."

A role model

That humility helps make Grant Hill a marketer's dream. He's already the top spokesman for Fila, does ads for GMC trucks and represents the Schick Rookie game to be played during All-Star Weekend. Other corporations are lining up.

Glenn Robinson was the top pick of the draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. And Jason Kidd was the second choice by the Dallas Mavericks. But there's no rookie bigger this season than Hill.

"I think what's happened confirmed what we felt would happen, given his background, his academic record and the fact he stayed at Duke for four years," said Lon Babby, a lawyer who represents Hill. "He's got personality. His game's exciting. He's done a wonderful job making the transition from amateur to the pros.

"What's most impressive is he doesn't shrink from this notion of being a role model. He lives his life in a way that anyone would be proud to have him as a role model. He's an amazing kid."

Grant has grown up just like Calvin. And he couldn't be prouder.

"He was always there for me," Grant said of Calvin, who, along with Janet, was a common sight at Duke games. "He's been through this all. He's seen the good and bad. And just having that father figure around was helpful. He was always there for

me, and I really appreciated that."

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