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George Hill and the Bucks’ season is over, but not before they made history

Milwaukee’s point guard sparked his team to lead unprecedented protest

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – George Hill made a lunch reservation in the NBA bubble on Aug. 26 that would change the course of the season.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer and three of his African American assistant coaches were expecting nothing more than some good Spanish-American food and fellowship at the Three Bridges Bar & Grill hours before Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic. But before lunch was served, the veteran guard broke the news to them:

He wouldn’t be playing in Game 5 out of protest over the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by a white police officer in front of his three young boys.

Hill’s frustration had boiled over that morning after seeing video of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who is white, using an AR-15-style rifle to kill two people and severely wound a third at a protest in Kenosha a night earlier without being arrested.

“That just pushed me over the edge,” Hill said. “We’re down here fighting for social injustice and we are wearing these Black Lives Matter shirts and this and that, and we’re still out there day in and day out getting gunned down.

“You can’t take it just on Black on white or white on Black because the other two that got killed [by Rittenhouse] was Caucasian. It was just the point of humanity.”

Hill’s decision to not play ultimately led to the entire Bucks team sitting out Game 5 in protest, sparking a three-day shutdown in the NBA and other protests across the sports world.

“George’s strength is something that inspires us all,” Budenholzer told The Undefeated. “I’ve known him a long time. I’m impressed for somebody to stand for something and lead us into a moment. I’m just very proud and inspired by him.”

The Bucks and the NBA at large returned to action on Aug. 29 with players having a renewed focus on the social justice movement and pushing for voting and police reform. Hill also returned to action.

“I can’t give up on my team. They don’t deserve that,” Hill said. “We have a bigger picture and we’re trying to continue to make change in our city. And I told them I want to stand with them just as much as they stood with me the other day.”

The Bucks would go on to advance to the second round of the playoffs, but on Tuesday were eliminated by the Miami Heat in five games. And while it was a disappointing end to the season for the No. 1 seed in the East, Hill and his teammates can stand tall knowing they used their time in the bubble to make an impact.

“The same people that’s out there gunning people down are the same people that have kids, that’s looking for us for autographs or pictures when they see us out in public and things like that,” Hill said. “And to just have humanity and have a heart, that’s all I stood for.

“I didn’t know what was going to come out of it. I just knew that I’m going to do what I feel is right. And good or bad comes from that, then so be it. But I know I can live and sleep with myself at night knowing that I stood for what I believe in.”

George Hill (left) formed a strong bond with his former AAU coach, Mike Saunders (right).

Courtesy of Mike Saunders

Hill has come a long way to be able to use his platform in the fight for social justice. Growing up in Indianapolis’ Brightwood neighborhood, which is predominantly Black, Hill said, it was not uncommon for him to be around gunfire, see dead bodies and witness gang and other criminal activity. He said his father and other family members were involved in “street life,” while several family members and friends lost their lives to gang violence in the area.

“My life was always in danger coming from where I came from,” Hill said. “You never knew when bullets are going to start flying and things like that. That was on a daily basis. You never knew what’s going to happen. But it became the norm, something that you got used to and learned how to protect yourself or learned where you should be or where you shouldn’t be.

“It was just normal life. It’s just how you grew up. I would look at it like, I’m not the only one that probably grew up like this. There are other rough neighborhoods in this whole world. So, I’m no better than nobody else. I just was blessed by God to do the right thing and go down the right path. And he blessed me with this ability to play basketball.”

Mike Saunders believes hoops saved Hill’s life.

It was Saunders who invited Hill to play on his team of sixth graders. After Hill accepted Saunders’ invitation, he quickly became a star of the team.

Hill said that Saunders giving him an opportunity to play AAU basketball was a “big steppingstone in my life.” The two became close and still have a strong relationship to this day.

“When he first came with me, I literally did not put him in the game,” Saunders, 45, said. “I didn’t even think he was going to definitely come back. He still came back and kept his commitment. We were down like, 20, 30 points. I put George in the game, and that boy went crazy on them boys and brought us back and won. Ever since then, man, we just became really, really close.

“His mother worked a lot. Dad worked a lot, so that was about the time to grab them and keep him busy, man. Just keep them out of that environment. He grew up in a tough area. … All I wanted to do was keep George busy, just hooping. I knew he had a talent and I just didn’t want him to get sidetracked.”

Hill began to realize there was a way out of Brightwood through basketball and began dreaming about how he could one day use the game to help those who were less fortunate and living in a tough environment like he did.

“I know I can live and sleep with myself at night knowing that I stood for what I believe in.” — George Hill

Hill said he used to be attracted to street life as a kid. But along with Saunders, Hill credited his late cousin, Albert Germany Jr., an Indianapolis deejay named DJ Sauce, for motivating him to stay out of trouble, sometimes using extreme measures.

“Sauce really held a gun to my head one time and told me he didn’t want me to go the street way and used to give me money to stay off of there, and tell me to go to the court and be somebody that I can be,” Hill said. “He knew that I was blessed with a talent of basketball and that’s what he kind of kept pushing me towards.

“So just having that family, that solid support, my aunties, my mom, my dad. My mom and my dad were hard on me, didn’t want me to go that way, knowing my dad’s history, and things like that in the streets.”

Hill turned down opportunities to play basketball at private schools away from his neighborhood to star locally at Broad Ripple High, where he averaged 36.2 points per game as a senior. He went on to star at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, averaging 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists as a junior. After skipping his senior season, Hill was drafted with the 26th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs, who traded him to the Indiana Pacers for Kawhi Leonard.

Hill has gone on to average 11.1 points and 3.2 assists over 12 seasons in the NBA. And, at 34, he led the league in 3-point shooting this season with the Bucks.

Saunders marvels at what Hill has been able to accomplish on the basketball floor, while playing with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, Khris Middleton, Paul George and Manu Ginobili. But Saunders says he is more impressed by how Hill has used his platform to speak out and help aspiring basketball players and the less fortunate.

“I always asked myself, ‘If I ever made it and had a chance, how can I impact the world?’ ” Hill said. “We play basketball and it’s all good, but at the end of the day, you’re only known for basketball so long.

“I remember Coach Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] used to always tell me, ‘How can you put five fingerprints on the world? You can be a better basketball player, but you’re going to get known as being a better human than anything.’ And that’s what I always try to do.”

Hill donates roughly $200,000 per year to the George Hill Rising Stars, the AAU basketball program in Indianapolis that he founded 12 years ago. About 40 boys and girls out of the program have gone on to college and Saunders says that Hill has quietly paid for kids to go to private school and is contemplating opening youth centers in Indianapolis and San Antonio.

“He’s still calling me up like, ‘Hey, we got to do more. The educational system, another cousin killed, another best friend killed.’ He’s just rambling on about a whole bunch of stuff,” Saunders said. “I’m like, ‘G, let’s get through this season. Let’s figure this stuff out. Let’s find out who’s in the trenches now. Let’s connect with them. Let’s start the process. Let’s build a team.’ ”

Hill and the Bucks are returning home earlier than expected. Even so, Hill will go down in history as the voice who sparked the league being shut down for three days in the name of social justice.

“I never looked at it trying to make an impact,” Hill said. “I was just looking at it from a perspective of just doing what’s right, doing what’s on my heart, doing what’s in my gut.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.