To put it mildly, the last day of March is a big day for Grant Hill.
The two-time NCAA champion will be calling his fourth consecutive Final Four for Turner Sports with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Tracy Wolfson, his second biggest accomplishment of the evening. By the time the first game tips-off at 6 PM on TBS (friendly reminder to those stuck on tourneys long past, that’s TBS not CBS), Hill will (officially) be a proud member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. The actual announcement won’t come until Saturday afternoon, but Adrian Wojnarowski’s sources already have Hill in Springfield, Mass. alongside no-brainers Steve Nash and Jason Kidd and Sixers champion point guard Maurice Cheeks.
Given his notorious injury history, Hill’s NBA career is often viewed through a What If? lens, but it’s been a Hall-worthy career that far exceeds his medical records. He’s a seven-time All-Star, made an All-NBA team five times, and of course, there are his incredible years in Durham and 1996 Olympic gold. And not for nothing, but he’s regarded as one of the nicest guys around hoops, which is why he won the NBA Sportsmanship Award three times.
Hill took time out of preparing to call the Final Four—starting with No. 3 Michigan Short Shorts vs. No. 11 Loyola Chicago Fighting Sister Jeans and followed by the No. 1 heavyweight showdown between Villanova and Kansas—to speak to VICE Sports. He talks about the highs and lows of his long basketball life, Duke hatred, hammering on ShaqIlvaine, and trying to keep up with Bill Raftery, in broadcasting and barflying.
First things first, let’s go back to the flat-top days, when Grant Hill yanked a ball out of the sky and his long winding road to the Hall of Fame began…
This interview took place before Hill learned he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It has been edited for clarity.
VICE Sports: Before we get to the NCAA Tourney, I want to ask how you’re feeling about the Hall-of-Fame announcement, a mere 48-hours away…
Grant Hill: My fingers are definitely crossed. There are some amazing finalists—Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Ray Allen to start—so it’s a tough class. Prepping for the Final Four this weekend while knowing the announcement is coming is exciting and nerve-wracking all at once.
I think you’re going to get in Saturday because Springfield looks at a player’s entire career, not just the professional years, but that being said, I looked at your NBA stats and had forgotten how many great seasons you had. Do you think your stellar NBA resume gets overshadowed by seasons lost to injury?
It’s interesting, people I talk to across the country tend to put my basketball career into one of three buckets: The Detroit Piston era, a general respect for overcoming all the injuries, or the main one, Duke. Naturally during March Madness, it’s all Duke all the time, but no matter what time of year, it’s what I’m connected to first. The Kansas dunk and the pass to Laettner will live forever. The NBA injuries are a part of my story, but I wouldn’t say it overshadowed the rest of my pro career. It’s more about certain memories stick with fans and mine are generally from college. Even knowing all we accomplished on those amazing Blue Devil teams, I never thought people would still ask me about it a quarter-century later.
One last Hall-of-Fame question, you started out in the iso-ball era, and then spent five-years at the end running with the Phoenix Suns. Nobody in the NBA is playing Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant clear-out hoops anymore, but everybody owes a debt to the Suns. Are Mike D’Antoni and impending inductee Steve Nash getting enough credit for changing the game?
You can’t overlook the Kings of the early 2000s, the free-flowing way they played, or even what Don Nelson was doing on the Mavericks with Steve Nash, but I think D’Antoni has perfected it. The league has transitioned because D’Antoni’s system coincided with rule changes offering more freedom of movement and less physicality. It’s funny because playing against those Suns teams in 2004-05, I looked around and it’s like ‘what the hell is going on out here?’ It was total chaos with their different sets and styles, but then playing with them, it all made sense. Now it’s the entire league and I don’t think D’Antoni and Nash are recognized enough for revolutionizing the NBA. The curious thing is, will it ever swing back?
Let’s switch to college. You may or may not be aware of this, but there are more than a few people out there who don’t care for Duke, placing them on the Yankees-Patriots spectrum of teams fans love to loathe. Are most people good-natured about it, or do you get tired or defensive about the Duke hate?
No, not at all. It’s great. Love or hate ‘em, it speaks to the passion of college basketball. There are themes as to why Duke is reviled, the whole I Hate Christian Laettner idea, but it’s really rooted in the success of the program. You can’t deny the historical domination of the Patriots or the Yankees, and hate Duke all you want, but the same is true for what Mike Krzyzewski has accomplished. It’s about excellence and playing the right way. It’s an honor to have played a small role in his legacy. Duke evokes emotion. Good, bad, or indifferent.
As for fans talking trash? It’s almost always joking and in good fun. But don’t forget, I played in the NBA for nineteen seasons, I can talk trash. I can take it and I give it out too.
Last Sunday’s Duke-Kansas game was an absolute classic—and I know it’s your job as a broadcaster—but inside, is it hard to keep your emotions or loyalties in check when Grayson Allen’s floater somehow misses twice?
I’ve done a number of Duke games, all of them when they won in 2015 [ Ed note: Hill laughed adding ‘‘or when we won it if that’s how you want to put it’], but the responsibility as a broadcaster is to be an analyst and provide insight. When it’s a classic, you get lost in the game, and anything outside of what’s happening on the court vanishes. It’s the exact same thing as when I was playing in close NCAA tournament games. During Duke-Kansas, I was completely captivated and reacting to the action unfolding. Coach K used to prepare us for each NCAA weekend by saying we were playing in a “four-team tournament.” Looking at the 64-team bracket can be overwhelming, so lock in and focus on the four-team tournament, and replicate it three times. I take the same approach to television. As a player or broadcaster, getting lost in the game is the reason for doing it.
After a game like Duke-Kansas, I might wish it went the other way, but as a broadcaster, I get to know coaches and kids from both sides. I love Bill Self. I had a great time hanging out on Saturday with Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman, and know the heartbreak of losing in the regional finals two years in a row. It’s such a privilege to get to know these kids—Carolina! We called back-to-back Tar Heel Finals with Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, who dapped me up before the tip-off! It’s suppose to be sacreligious as a Dookie, but getting to know kids, and experience their stories like UMBD or Loyola, is the best part of the job.
This is your fourth Final Four, is it akin to your senior year where you know what you need to do down cold?
I actually feel like it’s the fourth game of my freshmen season. Here I am at center court in a huge arena, with the best seats in the house, next to two legendary broadcasters in Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery, so I still get pre-game jitters. Once the game starts, I feel more comfortable for sure, but I’ll never catch up to Nantz or Raft in terms of experience. I’m just trying to get better.
Every year, the bigger part of the NCAA tournament experience, however, is how much fun we have. I look forward to the whirlwind month when Nantz, Raftery, Tracy Wolfson, and myself are joined at the hip. It’s an odd little family, but we generally like each other. The off-screen camaraderie is even more important than the on-screen chemistry.
Question pertaining to my interests: Your freshman year slam against Kansas in the Finals is the most famous, but as a Marquette alumni, I want to ask about another dunk that came two years later in the Sweet Sixteen—
Three years later. You’re talking about the Jim McIlvaine dunk, my senior season.
Ah, so clearly you remember it.
I knew about Jim McIlvaine because he won the 93-94 Defensive Player of the Year, which I won the previous season. Mac was a great shot blocker, no doubt, but I had it in my mind before the game to get him. In the first half I was facilitating, setting guys up, waiting until the right time to step in, and not doing a lot of scoring. But I remember the guy Marquette had on me was just yapping, wouldn’t stopped talking trash. I think he was a small forward—
Eford, right. First half I was like Okay, Alright… I’d been playing off the ball, so at halftime, I told Jeff Capel let me take the point and go to work. I think I caught an alley-oop, and then later, I just blew by Eford and dunked on Mac. I got him. It was a nice little moment.
What should fans look for at the Final Four? Who’s dancing at the end?
Professional obligations mean I don’t make predictions, but I honestly believe all the Final Four teams have a shot regardless of seeding. They all have guys who excel at shooting from the perimeter, so it’s which team is going to bury 15-18 threes. Playing in a dome can have an adverse effect, it is different. So Villanova has the experience factor, but each team has good spacing and multiple shooters who can get hot.
Do you really think America’s sweethearts, the Loyola Ramblers, can win twice?
To be honest, I thought they would lose their first game, and certainly not get out of opening weekend, but no fluke team makes the Final Four. It’s earned over four games, and Loyola has been fairly dominant with the three-pointer opening up the floor. I’m not a betting man, not Jimmy the Greek, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Loyola cuts down the nets.
Last question. I, like most of America, want to have beers with Bill Raftery. What’s a night out drinking with him like?
For starters, know that Raft doesn’t do beer. Also know his stamina is amazing. Unbelievable. We’ll be at dinner with wine, maybe a nightcap, then the next morning you’re struggling and he’s going like he just bagged twelve hours of sleep. I never know quite how to prepare for a night out with Raft. Do you build up endurance? Or limit participation?
We joke about it on air, but the main thing is, it’s a great time for fellowship. We have a blast.