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Hill regains his footing with Magic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - At times, he looks like the player whose style, a mix of grace and power, drew realistic comparisons to Michael Jordan. At times, he looks like a cheap replica, trying to chip away the layers of rust that accumulated over the past four years.

Grant Hill is 32, no longer the young deer he was at Duke or the dazzling star he became during his six seasons with the Detroit Pistons, a two-time first-team and four-time second-team All-NBA player. He is also, at least on first glance, not the oft-injured athlete whose career appeared to be over.

"He is," said Orlando Magic coach Johnny Davis, "a medical miracle."

After four surgeries to repair his damaged left ankle, after four seasons when he played a total of 48 games, after missing last season entirely, Hill is back on the court with the Magic. The ugly scars remain, but the pain is gone from his ankle and the doubts are gone from his mind.

This comeback, which officially began with a 20-point performance in the team's season-opening win last week against the Milwaukee Bucks, is different from the three that preceded it.

"The good thing is that I'm thinking about my game, thinking about how clumsy I was to step on someone's foot, as opposed to thinking about my health," said Hill, who is averaging 15.6 points and 32 minutes in the Magic's first four outings.

"That's a good feeling, being able to concentrate on how I'll be able to help us win as opposed to how I can hide, how I feel and faking myself out thinking that I could play. I look forward to getting through the whole season."

Hill's return to Washington tonight for the Magic's game against the Wizards at MCI Center will not only be a chance for him to see family and friends from his Northern Virginia childhood. It will also bring back memories of when his career seemed in serious jeopardy of ending prematurely.

"I used to think, 'Will my ankle feel OK today? Will it feel good when I come out of the game or when I come back in or how would it feel playing back-to-back [games]?' " Hill said after a practice before the start of the regular season. "All these things go through your mind.

"I would think, 'I can't go this way or I can't go that way.' I'd spend more time worrying about that than thinking about what I needed to do to help the team win. For me, it's been a long time coming, just playing and figuring out how to beat my man and how to beat the other team."

Four years of injuries

It has been more than four years since Hill arrived here, traded for Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins and teamed with then-newly acquired rising star Tracy McGrady to seemingly give the Magic the kind of superstar tandem it had when the former expansion team reached the 1995 NBA Finals with Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway.

Those plans were quickly scrapped when Hill, who had some foot and ankle injuries while with the Pistons, made it through only four games in the 2000-01 season before undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his left ankle. It was only the beginning of what many thought to be the end of Hill's career.

Hill never thought that way.

"Anytime you have an injury or surgery, it's good to have goals," Hill said. "I had a goal at that time to come back and play. It probably looked crazy and a little dim at times, but each day the goal looked brighter and brighter. I believed I could come back."

After scoring in double figures 14 times in 16 games the next season, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward underwent his second operation on Dec. 19, 2001, and didn't play again the rest of the season. After playing 29 games in 2002-03, Hill had a third operation.

But it was the fourth operation - performed in March 2003 - that has proven to be the most successful. Instead of just stabilizing the ankle with screws, as had been done before, doctors reconstructed Hill's left ankle so there would be less pressure on it when his heel hit the ground.

"Previously, they were attempting to fix the pain rather than the problem," said Vinnie Hudson, Hill's longtime physical therapist who now works for the Magic.

The last operation also ended up being life-threatening.

Within days of returning home, Hill's temperature spiked to more than 104 degrees as a result of a staph infection caused by an opening in the ankle incision. Hill spent 10 days in intensive care here and then went back to Duke University Hospital to have skin grafted from an arm to cover the open wound.

"It's one thing to have surgery and just feel, 'Oh, I'll get it fixed and I'll be out the rest of the year but I will be able to come back,'" Hill said. "To have a staph infection and for the body to go into shock, being rushed to the hospital, your leg turning black and red, just helped put everything in perspective."

It also pushed back Hill's own timetable for a return.

"It was probably a good thing, because if it hadn't happened, I probably would have played last year," said Hill, who had averaged 21.5 points and 6.2 assists with the Pistons, becoming the only player aside from legends Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to lead his team in both categories three times.

"By sitting out last year, there was so much healing that occurred. I think it allowed it to heal up strong, which I had never allowed to happen before. Now, I'm excited to be back out there. Every day I'm out there, I'm feeling good."

And looking, if not like the high-flying star he once was, more than a reasonable facsimile each time he takes the floor. After showing flashes of his old self during the exhibition season, but not nearly the explosive first step that was his trademark, Hill is slowly getting his game back.

He is more patient with himself than he was before.

"I didn't put as much pressure on myself to live up to the old standard," Hill said. "My problem throughout my career is that I had a habit of being very critical of myself. I have to learn to be nice to myself and understand it's a process.

"I have to be a little different now. I have to let go and enjoy the process."

Playing a new game

In some ways, Hill is like a sore-shouldered pitcher who has to rely more on changeups and curves rather than fastballs. Then again, Hill always used his knowledge of the game as much as he did his natural talents and was as renowned for his passing and playmaking as he was for his scoring and dunks.

"I don't think he's quite back there yet. He was a great basketball player when he was in Detroit, but I think he's on his way," said Magic teammate Andrew DeClercq. "I think it's amazing that a guy who hasn't played in four years is able to do what he does do."

Hill is expected to be one of the team's leaders, but not necessarily its star. When the Magic traded McGrady to the Houston Rockets last summer as part of a seven-player deal that brought former Maryland star Steve Francis here, it likely was done as much for marketing purposes as for the team's wins and losses.

Francis is the go-to-guy, scoring winning baskets in the team's first two games, but having a second option such as Hill could make the Magic a legitimate playoff contender in the East. As Francis said: "We have the former best player in the NBA. With him 60 percent healthy, we can still compete."

Davis marvels at what Hill has accomplished just by merely getting back on the court.

"Most people when they look at Grant's situation, they look at it strictly from the standpoint of his talent and his ability to play basketball," Davis said. "I think to come back to reclaim his career is a testament to the man who Grant Hill is more so than the athlete. Most people would have packed it in and gone on."

Hudson, who helped rehabilitate pitcher Curt Schilling after shoulder surgery while the Boston Red Sox star was with the Philadelphia Phillies, said Hill has overcome more than any other athlete he has ever seen. "No, not even close," said Hudson.

Hill also used the time away to see what his life after basketball would be like. He helped his wife, Tamia, with her budding career as a singer. He became a father to daughter Myla Grace, now almost 2. He sponsored a seven-city tour for his African-American art collection, including a recent stop in Baltimore, the hometown of his father, former NFL star Calvin Hill.

"The interesting thing is that I was always looking and preparing for life after basketball, watching my dad and other athletes," Hill said. "When I got hurt, all I was thinking about was getting back. But it allowed me to dive in head first and learn as much as I could and really set the foundation for what I'd like to do when I'm done playing."

And what is that?

"I always said that two of my favorite things were basketball and Monopoly, and now as an adult I get a chance to do both," said Hill, who has become involved in commercial real estate projects around the country. "I also realize that as much as I enjoy that, I enjoy basketball and this window ends at some point and I want to try to maximize it."

While team officials discreetly cross their fingers hoping Hill can stay healthy enough to help lead this rebuilt team back to the playoffs after a nightmarish 21-61 season and while teammates look on in amazement at the player Hill remains, Hill merely appreciates being given another chance.

"I think we all, as much as we don't want to admit it, take certain things for granted," Hill said. "For me at the time I got hurt, I was 26, 27, you're starting to figure everything out in this league and entering my prime when it was taken away. Now to have the opportunity to come and play, and appreciate it, whether it's the NBA or pickup at the YMCA, I'm enjoying the moment."

One that Hill hopes lasts much longer.

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