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Grant Hill’s autobiography is a testament to Black resilience

‘Game’ reveals untold stories from Hill’s unique journey

One of the ways I always knew Grant Hill was a real brother was his hair.

An unfortunate byproduct of racism in America is Black folks policing each other’s Blackness. Hill was subjected to this crab-in-a-barrel mentality after he won the 1991 national basketball championship as a freshman at Duke University, then won again as a sophomore and lost in the title game as a senior. Duke was an elite white school with an overrepresentation of white players, Hill was from a privileged background, so his Black identity was questioned – most famously when his rival Jalen Rose implied Hill was an “Uncle Tom.”

I disliked Duke along with legions of others, having grown up in New York rooting for the ultra-Black Georgetown Hoyas. And as a guy from the projects who went to Yale, I also had a sixth sense that identified Black folks who didn’t embrace or participate in our culture. But as I watched Hill at Duke, he didn’t seem like a guy who lip-synced “Livin’ on a Prayer” or thought Public Enemy was a James Cagney movie. Hill didn’t shoot jump shots, he dunked on dudes. To top it all off, he kept a fresh high-top fade (except for the 1991 chip; more on that later). Carlton Banks he was not.

After a 19-year career that included co-Rookie of the Year, seven All-Star games, five All-NBA honors and an Olympic gold medal, Hill transitioned to the broadcast booth, leadership of USA Basketball and part ownership of the Atlanta Hawks. All the while, his fade and line-up remained impeccable. Which is why I was startled when I saw the cover of Hill’s new autobiography, Game. Hairline fuzzy, mustache grown out — did he lose his barber’s number?

In an interview, Hill said the photo represents allowing himself to be vulnerable in his book, giving readers a glimpse behind the image that has been foisted upon him during three-plus decades of celebrity. Skillfully co-written by the journalist Jonathan Abrams, Game is a compelling account of what it’s like to grow up with the privileges of wealth, connections, height, looks and athleticism, but also fight through social anxiety and devastating medical problems that were outrageously mistreated. Along the way, Hill describes a Black experience that is no less authentic because of his privilege and shatters the stereotype that poor Black kids hoop with the most hunger.

(You might be asking why some writer thinks he can pass judgment on who is or is not a “real brother.” Hill doesn’t need my validation. There’s no one way to be Black – but there are a lot of ways not to. When those violations pile up like raisins plucked out of potato salad, it holds all of us back. And if you doubt my certification in incognegro identification, get at me. Aiight? Aiight then.)

When I spoke to Hill by phone last week, he said he decided to write a memoir after being elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. He had spent his life refusing to rest on his accomplishments, to the point that he never displayed any trophies or NBA memorabilia in his house. “Part of that was I wanted to not get soft. I wanted to stay hungry. I wanted to continue to go after it,” he told me. “And so I didn’t allow myself to look back much.

“I think people have known me from the time I was in college, but they don’t know everything. The pressures, the expectations, just navigating celebrity early in your career, and then the injuries. I don’t think people fully understood the scope of what happened.”

For a long time, Hill didn’t, either. “I never really unpacked emotionally and just mentally what transpired. So the book allowed me to live in that time, in that space, and really unpack some of that. It was liberating, but also at times it could be a little bit challenging.”

When Hill looked back at his childhood in a Virginia suburb of Washington, he recalled a burning passion for basketball. He could spend sweaty hours on the court without a ball, hitting shots in his imagination. Hill’s mother, Janet, was a corporate executive who roomed with former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at Wellesley. His father, Calvin, was a Yale graduate and Super Bowl-winning running back for the Dallas Cowboys. Young Grant’s parents had money, although Hill downplays the affluence in his book, even while writing that his first car was his mom’s hand-me-down Benz and his second, as a college freshman, was a Land Cruiser. Yet Grant suffered from a severe lack of confidence, fear of public speaking and painful awkwardness – quite a contrast to the dominant athlete and polished broadcaster he became.

Dope rides aside, what young Grant shared with melanated millions was devotion to the Hoyas, led by the Black coaching icon John Thompson Jr. Hill’s parents bought season tickets, and as he developed into a top prospect, he spent time around the Hoya program and players. He and his father were in the building when Georgetown won the title in 1984 and lost it, shockingly, in 1985.

Thompson and his all-Black teams were beloved by Black fans – and hated by a sizable portion of white ones – because of their fierce, uncompromising excellence. Hill spends the first part of his book referring to the Hoyas as “we.” Georgetown’s identity also was intertwined with the emergence of hip-hop, and Hill relates his devotion to the great rappers of that era. Later, during the Duke years, he describes other Black touchstones: supporting the North Carolina Senate campaign of Black businessman Harvey Gantt, who was unable to defeat the racist incumbent Jesse Helms; partying at the nearby historically Black North Carolina Central (with teammate Christian Laettner as the only, and completely comfortable, white face in the crowd); and getting roughed up by police who stopped him for driving while Black.

I asked Hill if he was making a point with these stories that his “Black experience” was legit.

“I was very conscious of that,” he said. “But I didn’t put a lot of thought into how it was going to be perceived. I always knew my parents were special and were achievers and were very, very unique. I also knew because of them, that being Black was not monolithic. And so, I don’t feel at any point of my life that I tried to be something that I wasn’t … I was always comfortable with who I was in terms of being Black. Ironically, I wasn’t comfortable with confidence. But the Black part, I never had issues.

“I think everybody else was uncomfortable, because maybe you didn’t see a lot of families like mine then.”

Nobody would have been uncomfortable if he had gone to Georgetown. Thompson recruited him, but Hill wrote that he didn’t consider going because he wanted to get out of his parents’ shadow – particularly that of his mother, “the real star of the family.”

He landed on a Duke team that was about to shift the balance of power, and race, in college basketball. After playing in three championship games in four years, Thompson’s Hoyas were no longer great. In 1990, the year before Hill arrived, UNLV destroyed Duke in the championship game. UNLV’s best player was Larry Johnson, a dark-skinned Dallas dude who fronted a gold tooth. Duke’s best player was Laettner, an arrogant white guy from upstate New York who even Hill said in his book could act like a jerk. Guess who I rooted for?

With Hill, Duke beat UNLV in the 1991 semifinals, then defeated Kansas for Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s first title. In the 1992 championship game, Duke smashed Michigan’s Fab Five, which followed in Georgetown’s Black steps like Ice Cube in KRS-One’s. In the book, Hill relates juicy details about beating Michigan’s Rose and Chris Webber all the way back in eighth grade AAU, becoming good friends with Webber and hosting him on his Duke recruiting trip. Hill also reveals new information about the documentary in which Rose took his “Uncle Tom” cheap shot.

Duke’s Grant Hill (center) in action vs. Michigan’s Jalen Rose (right) and Chris Webber (left) in Minneapolis on April 6, 1992.

John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

I wondered if Hill is tired of talking about Blackness all these years later, after college basketball has followed his lead to the point that most scholarships go to middle-class kids with college-educated parents.

He isn’t. “Look, being Black is a full-time job, and it’s tough. I don’t care who you are, if you’re president of the United States, it is not easy. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, which we all know. No, I kind of find it amusing, and I’m OK with talking about it and hopefully bringing some clarity. Maybe helping people see things differently — or as they are.”

Hill was so celebrated in college, it’s easy to forget what a force he was in his first six seasons in the NBA. He was the first rookie to lead the All-Star Game voting, and his signature Fila sneakers sold 1.5 million pairs. Tupac Shakur wore Hill’s shoes in an All Eyez on Me album photo, and Method Man wore them in the music video for the classic hit “All I Need” with Mary J. Blige. Carlton Banks, they are not.

Hill dunked on so many people in the NBA, he was a candidate for “the next Michael Jordan.” The ankle injuries that stole at least four seasons of his prime and almost killed him via an infection have been well documented over the years, but the book provides truly shocking details about how bad his medical treatment was. As doctors misdiagnosed and ghosted him, Hill was in the same position as countless Black patients who report disproportionately negative experiences with the health care system. There’s a narrative that Hill was fragile, but 20 years later, it seems he was a victim of both malpractice and his own determination to push through the pain and live up to a huge free-agent contract with the Orlando Magic.

Yet Hill never comes off as bitter, just factual. And his passion for the game shines through — not only when he describes coming back to play all 82 games of the 2008-09 season, but when he decides that today, nine years into retirement, the burning fire he feels in his disfigured ankle is worth everything that caused the pain.

“What I wasn’t able to do on the court is part of the reason I’ve been so driven and so motivated in this next chapter of my life to succeed and to achieve,” Hill said. “Going through this process of this book makes you question, is that a good thing? Is that healthy? I think part of the process of doing this book is getting to a level of peace as it surrounds my career.”

There’s one thing that Hill will never get over, though: the horrific haircut he wore during that first Final Four.

That cut showed no artistry, no fade, just blunt force trauma to the dome. Hill describes how it happened in the book. The story is hilarious, tragic and instantly relatable for any Black man whose hair has been butchered on his way to someplace important. Our destination didn’t have to be the Final Four, with millions watching. It could have been the office, the corner, the cookout. It doesn’t matter – Grant Hill knows our pain. He knows it’s real, brother.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.