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Ja Morant, Janet Hill and reaching back for perspective

A 1997 conversation with the mother of Grant Hill on balancing parenting with celebrity still has weight in 2023

“I probably know 100 current athletes and I cannot name 10 players whose mothers still treat them like they were their sons instead of their meal tickets.” — Janet Hill from our interview in October 1997

That haunting quote came from an interview I conducted with Janet in October 1997. I’ve thought about the statement over the last few weeks while trying to make sense of how Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies young star, has risked his career, embarrassed himself and more importantly tarnished his family’s name.

Sadly and tragically, Janet passed away last August at age 74. She was one of the most brilliant human beings I’ve had the privilege to meet. She was also amazing in the area of balancing parenting with celebrity. I always told her that she needed to write a handbook on the subject: how parents should handle their celebrity children.

The job she and her husband Calvin did with their son, Grant, is textbook on how to walk a thin line — basking in a child’s accomplishments, but never relinquishing the reins of parenthood, even as they gain wealth and achieve notoriety.

I’m not saying this has happened in the Morant family, but clearly there’s a disconnect that no one can be happy about.

Earlier this week, I listened to my conversation with Janet and was amazed at how prescient she had been as she discussed the challenges facing parents — in this case NBA mothers — suddenly thrust into celebrity and a new economic strata.

Our conversation had nothing to do with Morant — the interview took place two years before Morant was even born. But the actions that have propelled the young star into public scrutiny are relevant especially as the NBA welcomes a new class of raw recruits. They will sign lucrative contracts and enter the celebrity lifestyle.

Janet knew what she spoke. Her husband, Calvin, was a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Grant was born in 1972 and became a college star.

Unlike Ja Morant, who was lightly recruited coming out of high school and blossomed at Murray State, Grant was a high school star and led Duke to the national championship as a freshman and won another title as a sophomore.

During our conversation, Janet recalled that some mothers initially pushed back on her critiques because they felt she had advantages that some mothers may not have enjoyed: a comfortable middle-class upbringing in segregated New Orleans, a Wellesley undergraduate experience and a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago.

“Part of me wants to say yes to that, but a lot of it is simply common sense,” she told me at the time. “But it has nothing to do with money or agents. It does have to do with self-respect, how to conduct yourself — the sort of things that mothers really do teach their sons since they were little boys.”

Tee Morant (left) high fives his son, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (right) after the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 20 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The problem as she saw it began after their sons entered the NBA and became well-compensated celebrities. “The mothers have bought into celebrity and deified their own children and have lost control,” she said. “In fact, not only lost control, but they’ve also willingly given it up in exchange for money, jewelry, cars.”

The money has only gotten larger since then and the cult of celebrity more intense.

At the time, Grant was beginning his third season with the Detroit Pistons. We spoke about our children — her son, my daughter and how parenting should remain paramount no matter how much our children accomplish.

“I don’t care how much fame and glory she has, or how much money and things she can give you that you couldn’t have given yourself. You would hate to see her assaulting people or using her newfound wealth and fame non-constructively,” she said. “Even if you didn’t know how to advise her — you couldn’t tell her what to do with $50 million — you could tell her what not to do, but you don’t do that for fear that she’ll cut off your meal ticket.”

She recalled how one year Grant had bought her an SUV for her birthday. Such gifts are commonplace as a way to show gratitude, but they cannot be a bribe. “I don’t want the truck if the condition is ‘stop telling me how to conduct myself when I’m with my girlfriend’ or ‘how I can conduct myself in a public place,’ ” Janet said.

“It has nothing to do with what the kids give their mother and fathers and family member. It has to do with how they allow those things to change the relationship.”

Perhaps the advantage that Janet had was she observed the cult of celebrity, first as the wife of Calvin Hill, the Yale star who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1969 and became the NFL Rookie of the Year. They were married a year later. Hill retired in 1981.

She experienced celebrity as a mother when Grant became a star at Duke and then through an NBA career that began in 1994 when Grant when he was picked third over in the NBA draft.

Janet often joked that she spent 27 years standing outside of locker rooms as a wife and a mother. This gave her perspective.

“Everything that happened to Grant has happened to Calvin, but it happened [to Calvin] on a smaller platform: less money, less media, fewer expectations,” she said. “The problems in sports today existed back then. Players today are no worse than they were then; this generation today is not worse than our generation.

“Grant would have been foolish if he didn’t benefit and listen to the things that happened back then and try to avoid the pitfalls and take advantage of the opportunities.

Detroit Pistons guard Grant Hill rests during a game played against the New York Knicks on March 26, 1997, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“I give Janet credit. She was demanding of Grant. If she thought Grant was being a jerk, she’d let him know. She demanded the best from him and I give her credit for the things he’s been able to accomplish.” – Calvin Hill

The constant, regardless of generations, is the importance of parents remaining parents and not letting go of the reins, not being sidetracked by money.

“Money does not make anybody smarter; it doesn’t make people happier, either,” Janet said. “All it does is provided them with somethings that they otherwise could not have had. It can also bring them down. It can make a happy person, or a happy family, sad and miserable.”

Janet warned even then that as younger players entered the league, the challenges for parents would escalate. “Grant didn’t know when he was 21 and in the league, not withstanding his father’s experiences. He still had to experience it himself. So, he was not in any way uniquely qualified at the age of 21 to handle the NBA. He had to learn. That’s exacerbated if your 18 or 19.”

When we spoke in 1997, Grant had just turned 25 and was only in his third NBA season. She conceded that her son was not prepared for life after basketball.

“He is ill prepared, if his career ended tomorrow, as to what he would do with the rest of his life,” she said. “It doesn’t have to do with how much money he’s got. He hasn’t positioned himself yet for another career. I’d like to think when he’s 35, he will have done that.

At age 35, Grant was still playing and would do so until he was 40.

Janet lived long enough to see Grant surpass even her expectations. He established a career as a respected broadcaster. He is a co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks, managing director for USA Basketball, and is an enthusiastic art collector. He is a husband, and father to two children.

I spoke with Calvin Hill earlier this week and told him about my conversation with Janet more than 25 years ago. We talked about how her wisdom stood the test of time.

“I give Janet credit,” Hill said. “She was demanding of Grant. If she thought Grant was being a jerk, she’d let him know. She demanded the best from him and I give her credit for the things he’s been able to accomplish.”

At the end of our 1997 conversation, Janet said something that made me think not only of Ja Morant, but about each of the young players entering pro leagues and the cult of celebrity — and, for some, unprecedented wealth — that awaits.

There will be mistakes and missteps. We often waste our youth being reckless and self-indulgent until we realize, hopefully, that the real purpose in life is giving back and helping others.

“In this life, you only get one chance and the window is short,” Janet said. “If you can’t have a positive influence on somebody other than yourself, in Janet’s book, you’re worthless.”

It’s hard to believe that Janet Hill is gone, but her timeless wisdom echoes across generations.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.