Kobe Bryant and Grant Hill: What Is, and What Could Have Been

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IMay 21, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19:  Grant Hill #33 of the Phoenix Suns drives with the ball against Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 19, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Watching Grant Hill's performance in the third quarter of the Suns' Game Two loss to the Lakers was similar to traveling back in time, revisiting a player who once had the potential to be legendary.

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant delivered a pretty good third quarter, himself, in Game One.

But Bryant's performance is expected.

Hill will never attain that type of legendary status due to a career devastated by injuries.

While attending Duke University, Hill was generally considered one of the most talented, athletic, and intelligent players in the entire nation. His long, successful NBA career was a given.

Hill won back-to-back national championships at Duke in 1991 and 1992. And, although he played alongside teammate Christian Laettner, largely viewed as college basketball's top player at the time, Hill was perceived to be the better pro prospect.

Hill didn't disappoint.

He shared NBA Rookie of the Year honors with Jason Kidd in 1995, and was the first rookie in NBA history to lead all players in All-Star fan voting.

One could argue that Hill was LeBron James first. He averaged 20 points, 9.8 rebounds, and seven assists in only his second professional season with the Detroit Pistons.

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Hill had several more spectacular years with the Pistons. He was one of those rare talents who impacted a game just as much on the defensive end of the floor as he did with the ball in his hands.

He was voted an all-NBA defender several times, and it seemed nothing could prevent Hill from reaching the pinnacle of greatness.

Unfortunately, fate had other plans.

Near the end of the 1999-2000 season, Hill injured his ankle and was forced to terminate his season two games into a playoff series against the Miami Heat. Team doctors later confirmed Hill's worst fears. His ankle was broken.

This ankle injury started a cruel pattern, which saw Hill face surgery in each of the next five seasons. With each new operation, a part of the athleticism which made Hill special was lost.

Hill's explosiveness, quickness, and leaping ability were all victims to circumstances beyond his control. But, Hill's intelligence and knowledge of the game allowed him continued relevance in the NBA.

Bryant, like Hill, also decided to attend Duke. But Bryant changed his mind and opted to enter the NBA draft instead. Kobe was selected with the 13th pick in 1996 by the Charlotte Hornets.

Bryant forced a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers that same day. And the rest of Bryant's story has been catalogued in the annals of NBA history as one of the greatest ever to play the game.

But, Bryant was forced to sit and learn the NBA game from the bench for a couple of seasons. Hill, on the other hand, came into the league and immediately assumed the superstar role.

Maybe Bryant would have benefited from the college experience that Hill received. But his decision to enter the league may have spared his body from the pounding which prematurely robbed Hill of superstardom.

There is little doubt in my mind that Hill's name would be mentioned in the same vein as Bryant, James, or Dwyane Wade had he managed to stay healthy. Game Two against the Lakers was a reminder of that.

Of course, Hill's game on that evening was mostly limited to 15-foot jump shots off the pick and roll. But there were a few instances in which he displayed his old ability to get to the rim.

Bryant's Game One third quarter was more of a true representation of what a healthy Hill may have resembled. There were undertones of Hill's past talents in Bryant's brilliant performance.

Bryant's quick first step, deft mid-range game, and ability to create havoc in the open court are all characteristics which defined Hill's game early in his career, vestiges of a greater past.

I've never really liked Hill as a player, because of his association with the hated Duke Blue Devils. But I have always admired his talents. I was a major fan of the way Hill played the game.

Hill didn't have any of Bryant's cockiness or James' ego. He simply laced up his shoes and went to work. His professional demeanor during games was the same off the court.

The NBA Sportsmanship Award is the only honor Hill is capable of winning as a player, due to the deterioration of his skills. But that says a lot about his positive attitude, even in the face of adversity.

Everyone would understand if Hill decided to sulk the rest of his life away in anger because of the potential-robbing injuries he faced. But Hill instead recognized there was more he could contribute to the game.

Every fan who has had a chance to see Hill play in the past should be grateful they are able to witness him now. His perseverance is a testament to his courage.

In Game One, Bryant may have given us a glimpse of why he will be considered a legendary player once his career finally ends.

And Hill showed us why his name was once mentioned with that very same reverence in Game Two.