MIAMI – When LeBron James was growing up and Grant Hill played at Duke, James wasn’t a fan.
“No one liked Duke,” James said.
But after Hill entered the NBA in 1994 and joined the Detroit Pistons, it became much cooler in his Akron, Ohio, neighborhood to dig him. And James went all out.
“I had his shoes when I was younger,” James said. “I had trading cards. I had his jersey, a Piston jersey. I had his poster on the wall.”
Now, for what conceivably could be the final time, James will run into the guy he once idolized when the Miami Heat face the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Hill, 39, has given no indication he plans to retire after this season and has said he wants to play into his 40s. But he is on a one-year deal, and it will remain to be seen if he can continue to defy all conventional basketball wisdom as a perimeter player averaging 10.4 points at his age.
“He’s done an unbelievable job of what we call finding that fountain of youth,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
And, yes, Wade also was a big fan of the forward when growing up.
“I had a Grant Hill poster on the wall when I was young,” Wade said. “He made Fila cool back in the day.”
Hill wore Fila shoes in the 1990s, which were quite hip due to their futuristic lines. Reminiscing about that and other tales surrounding Hill was on the minds of several Heat players after practice Monday.
James and Wade are hardly the only Miami players who grew up admiring Hill, who helped Duke to national titles in 1991 and 1992 and was a perennial All-Star his first six NBA seasons before ankle problems nearly ended his career.
“He’s the greatest,” said forward Shane Battier. “He’s my hero. When I grow up, I want to be Grant Hill. And that’s been the case for the 20 years I’ve known him.”
Battier got to know Hill in the mid-1990s when he growing up in suburban Detroit and was a Pistons ball boy. Following in Hill’s footsteps, Battier went to Duke and won a national title of his own in 2001.
“He would be one of the greatest players of this recent generation, no question,” Battier said of if Hill hadn’t gotten hurt. “People forget what he did. When he was doing it, he was triple-double every night. He was doing things LeBron did basically before LeBron did it.”
Hill’s statistics with the Pistons from 1994-2000 look very LeBron-like. He had seasons in which he averaged as many as 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists.
“Once he got to the NBA, he was that point forward like Scottie Pippen,” James said. “That point forward who could go out there and not only score, but rebound and pass… A lot of people don’t know how athletic he was, what type of scorer he was, especially when he was with Detroit.”
After signing as a free agent with Orlando in 2000, injuries derailed Hill. He played in just 47 games in his first four seasons with the Magic.
Hill eventually got healthy, and signed with Phoenix as a free agent in 2007. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Hill, whose Suns play Wednesday at Orlando, has missed just six games.
Injuries and age have taken away much of Hill’s explosiveness, and now he gets by a lot on his smarts. James and Wade, who both entered the NBA in 2003, never did get a chance to face the vintage Hill.
“I remember playing Grant once he got back from injury,” Wade said of early in his NBA career. “He wasn’t the same Grant but he was getting back to form. And he made a move and I wound up blocking it. When he came down the court, he told me, ‘A couple of years ago, I would have dunked it on you.’ And I was thinking to myself he was right, he would have.”
There is one Heat player, though, who had a chance to go against Hill in his prime. When forward Juwan Howard was at Michigan, his Wolverines played Duke four times, including losing in the 1992 NCAA title game.
Two decades later, there’s a television documentary out on the Blue Devils’ back-to-back national titles, of which Hill serves as one of the executive producers. And Hill and Howard, 39, are remarkably still playing, with Hill the NBA’s second-oldest player and Howard, who plays sparingly, the third.
“If someone would have told me, ‘You guys would be playing 18 years in the NBA,’ I’d have thought they were crazy,”‘ Howard said about the two old rivals and 1994 draftees still going at it.
In Duke’s resounding 71-51 win over Michigan, Hill had a LeBron-like 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. James, at 7, wasn’t then a Hill fan. But that eventually would change.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson