It has been 25 years since Grant Hill made perhaps the most famous in-bounds pass in basketball history, a court-length bullet which Christian Laettner turned into a shocking buzzer-beating jumper in the 1992 East Regional Finals, lifting Duke over Kentucky in what is widely considered to be the finest college hoops game ever played. That was only one in a handful of remarkable moments in a decorated college career that saw Hill lead the Blue Devils to three Finals appearances and two championships during his four-year stint in Durham. Over the course of an NBA career that stretched close to two decades, Hill was a seven-time All Star widely respected for his talent, toughness, and leadership. Since his retirement in 2013, Hill has become a familiar and welcome presence in the media, as well as a member of the Atlanta Hawks ownership group. We talked to him about his reflections on the evolution of the recruiting process, the conditions that can lead a team to greatness, and his work in the community.
You were part of a dynasty at Duke, and your father, Calvin, was an NFL running back for some very good teams in Dallas and Washington. I’m not sure if you follow football, but this current off-season for the Washington Redskins has been an absolute tsunami of catastrophic leadership, which has been the condition of the franchise for at least two decades. I wonder, in your experience, what you believe are the critical elements for creating a long-term winning organization and what separates Duke University or the San Antonio Spurs from the Washington Redskins or New York Knicks.
Yeah, I mean, it’s tough. There are different paths to success. You have to have fantastic leadership. You have to have a vision, and you have to have the ability to execute that vision. I think any kind of business, certainly the sports business and sports franchises, it’s a people business. You’ve got to have good people who respect each other, respect themselves, respect the culture, are committed everyday to doing the right thing and making the right decisions, setting the right examples, and having the right kind of work ethic to be successful. I’m vice chairman of the Atlanta Hawks, so I’m on the ownership side, and I see firsthand just how difficult it is. It’s not an easy thing. And look, let’s be honest, there’s luck involved. I mean, Gregg Popovich is a fantastic coach and has all of the qualities I mentioned before, but he’ll tell you they got lucky they got Tim Duncan. You know what I mean? And Tim Duncan allowed him to coach. He allowed him to be hard on him and be tough and set the table for establishing this winning culture in San Antonio. And so there’s a lot of factors, a lot of reasons, sort of a confluence of a number of things I think that lead to consistent, sustained excellence. I think in terms of a guy like Coach K — you know, college is a little bit different — I think his ability as a leader to adapt and adjust through the years, and to be able to connect and resonate and lead young men who are different today than they were in 1986. He has been able to change with the times, still keeping the basic tenets of his philosophy and his program, but understanding he’s got to be fluid in his approach, and he’s done that as well as anybody.
Talking about the changing culture and Coach K and the different kind of kids that are coming up, I want to ask you what your perspective is on where we are with recruiting, and the AAU system and how that process has changed from the time you went through it. Growing up in Northern Virginia when you were a high school star at South Lakes, my recollection was that Grant Hill was a regional story, and a huge prospect with a very exciting trajectory, but it didn’t seem like it was quite the circus that is currently going on with the Ball family. I heard Jay Williams interviewed last week, and he was talking about his discomfort with a lot of what goes on with recruiting, with the payments to AAU coaches, and the whole shebang. I’m just wondering, from the time you went through it, to where we are now, how do you think that’s evolved?
I played AAU basketball 13 and under, 14 and under, and 15 and under. When I was 13 and when I was 15, we won the national championship. Our coach was a guy called Jim Warren who was the coach at West Springfield High School and was really one of the best coaches I ever had. He taught me the game. He was a teacher, he was an educator, and he was a great basketball mind. And so at that age, I had superior leadership, superior coaching. But we had to go around and raise money to go to the nationals. We had to go do bake sales and car washes. And so it was a little bit different than the AAU culture now. I think in some respects I do like it, I think there are some decent programs, but for the most part I feel like it’s too much, and I do worry about it. The grassroots is important because it feeds into college and ultimately the NBA. My daughter plays AAU basketball — she’s in ninth grade — I don’t know if there’s a lot of teaching going on. I don’t know if there’s a lot of emphasis on winning and playing the right way. I think a lot of it is just showcasing your abilities and showcasing your stuff. I’m not a huge fan of it. Like I said, I think there are some really good programs. And I think, look, it showcases players and gives them an opportunity to get a scholarship to go to college and get an education, who maybe otherwise wouldn’t. But I think it’s become almost like a job and you see some of these kids at a really young age, and I just think it’s a little too much. I don’t want to indict the whole grassroots basketball culture, but I think we need to take a hard look at how we can improve it and make it better and really try to do good by the young men and women who we represent in the world of AAU basketball.
Where is your thinking right now with the one-and-dones and the one-year rule with the NBA? Jay Williams said he thinks that, on balance, it probably doesn’t help, and they should probably be able to just try their hand at the NBA. Do you have an opinion on that?
I enjoyed my four years in school, and I think it was an opportunity to grow. I get that some people need to be able to go and make a living for themselves and their families. I wouldn’t mind having one more year — you have to be at least two years removed from your high school graduating class. I think players would benefit. I think the NBA would benefit from that. If I were playing now, there would be an extreme amount of pressure to be a one-and-done myself. I might not have played with Christian Laettner or Bobby Hurley. I’m grateful that I did play those four years and just being a student athlete, learning from one of the best coaches — and then 25 years later, people still remember those teams that I was fortunate to be a part of. And some of these one-and-done guys, I’m not sure if fans will really remember them down the road, because they didn’t see them long enough. It’s something that’s not right, it’s not perfect yet. On the one hand, players should be able to make a living. If you’re 18 years old, you can go to war, you can join the armed services, and you should be able to play professional sports. And you see that in other sports too. You see it in tennis, you see it in golf, but I do think you have too many guys leaving early who aren’t ready, and it only hurts them. They don’t get the education, they don’t have the careers that they anticipated, and they leave very bitter about their experience overall.
In terms of evaluating talent, I was wondering if there was someone who you played against or watched who you thought: “This guy isn’t going to be a pro, he can’t do it at that level” who then turned around and surprised you? Alternatively is there someone you thought was a surefire pro who ultimately didn’t have the skill set to make it?
It’s a crap shoot. When you draft somebody, you’re drafting on potential. You’re drafting them on what they can ultimately become. You try to do as much research, as much due diligence in terms of watching them play, getting to learn more about their personalities, what kind of character they have. And there are certainly some guys who are can’t-misses, guys like Lebron James who was a can’t-miss and everyone knew that. But it’s hard. It’s hard to figure that out. You look at the draft every year, the first round, and two-thirds of the first round don’t make it. Two-thirds of those guys picked in the first round, in three years they’re not rotational players. They’re not guys who are playing significant minutes. There’s a lot of reasons for that, and so on and so forth, but there’s always that. There’s guys that you sometimes think, “He’ll be good at the next level,” and for whatever reason he just doesn’t pan out. And there are some people who aren’t necessarily on that radar and you’re not quite sure, and they end up having great careers. It happens every year.
I’m sure you saw the story about Georgetown parting ways with John Thompson III. Taken together with his father’s legendary stint as head coach, his firing represents the culmination of 35 years of the Georgetown program being interchangeable with the Thompson name. I know you grew up in the DC area at the time when Big John’s teams were so dominant and important, and so I’m wondering if you have a little bit of reflection on Big John’s legacy, what he meant to the sport of college basketball, and any personal recollections you might have?
Well, first of all, I was sad to see JTIII go. He had some tough seasons the last couple years, but if you look at his body of work, he actually had a pretty good winning percentage. Not too far off of that of his dad. But that’s the world of college basketball, that sort of, “What have you done for me lately?” In terms of Coach Thompson (Big John), his historical significance is right up there in terms of what he did with that program, with those teams, creating a legacy. There was no history of basketball there. An African-American man who was a strong leader and a presence at a time where it wasn’t necessarily fashionable, where you didn’t have as many examples of that. His teams were some of the great, great dynasties of the ’80s. Pat Ewing and Reggie Williams and Michael Jackson, those teams shocked the world of college basketball. I know as someone who grew up in DC and was a fan of Georgetown, it was a fun time to follow them and to be into college sports. There was a real sense of pride for the Hoyas there, and for those of us who lived in the DMV area.
In terms of the Thompson family and Georgetown and the idea of representing something larger then basketball, do you want to talk about your work in the community and what it is that you’re doing to be a part of that tradition?
Yeah. I’m working with Allstate and the NABC — the National Association of Basketball Coaches — and this is the fifth year that they’ve put together the Allstate/NABC Good Works team. Basically honoring the work of men’s college basketball players — Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA players — for the works they do in their communities. These kids volunteer, they give back, they understand the platform they have and how they can make a difference, and they’re doing that. And that is in addition to their responsibilities as student athletes. I’m glad to be a part of it. I was introduced to the idea of giving back when I was in college, and it had a profound effect on me.
I’m obligated to ask: Who do you think is gonna win this weekend and on the following Monday?
(Laughs) I have no idea. I honestly don’t. You know, you start investigating, researching these teams, and you just see the greatness in all of these teams. And yeah, you understand the different styles and the match-ups, but I’ve learned that no one’s perfect with their brackets, and I’ve learned that the underdog has won before and will probably win again. I may give the nod to [North] Carolina, but any one of these teams are capable.
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