Grant Hill: ‘I was fortunate, but that didn’t necessarily help in the basketball world’
In a wide-ranging interview, the Hall of Fame inductee talks about growing up in an upper-middle-class black family
Is there such a thing as black privilege? Former NBA star Grant Hill was labeled as having that.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee was born into an upper-middle-class black family with educated, successful and groundbreaking parents. Hill starred in basketball and graduated from Duke University with a double major in history and political science, was clean-cut, non-threatening and handsome. He played the piano and was well-spoken.
“I knew I was fortunate,” Hill told The Undefeated. “I knew I was lucky, but in the basketball world, that didn’t necessarily help. That didn’t give me an advantage.
“Everyone talks about basketball being the ultimate meritocracy, but people coming at you — and I loved it. I loved competition. I would seek it out. I’d go where a good run was and people would come in with their own opinions or stereotypes of whatever, and I was trying to go at them and show as a player, you’re looking to play against the best. You want people to come at you and be aggressive and challenge you. I experienced that in large part because of the perception and the reputation of my parents. People knew who my dad was, and so they would try to come at you.”
Calvin Hill is a 12-year NFL veteran who made four Pro Bowls and played in two Super Bowls. The son of a sharecropper, he was a Yale University graduate and also held front-office positions with the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Orioles.
In 1969, Janet Hill graduated with a mathematics degree from Wellesley College, where she was suite mates with Hillary Clinton. She was a teacher, a scientist and a special assistant to then-Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander from 1978-81.
The Hills both sit on several boards and also consulted for the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1990s when the team was going through image problems.
“I think both of their stories are pretty remarkable,” said Grant Hill. “One of the things as a kid, I was in awe of them. I was in awe not only who they are as your parents, but just who they were, the type of people, their spirit, their story, their struggle to achieve. All of that.
“Just knowing their story, knowing what they went through and what they had to endure, just how difficult it was, it inspired me. At times, it was intimidating. There were big shoes to fill, and I still am in awe of who they are and what they’ve been able to do.”
Hill, of course, also reached the highest levels of his profession, and when he enters the Hall of Fame on Friday, he said, he will pay tribute to his family.
“I think the thing that I appreciate is the fact that they were always there,” he said. “You have people who are high achievers and have done well in life but aren’t necessarily there to be in their kids’ lives. The fact that I can look back and know that if I was in a piano recital or if I was at the ‘Fresh Fest’ or whatever I wanted to do, they were there with me.”
The following are excerpts of a wide-ranging phone conversation with Hill, who also discussed Jalen Rose’s comments about him in a documentary, being a Hawks executive, the impact The Cosby Show had on him, and his little-known story of taking classes at a historically black college.
How do you reflect back on your NBA career?
I’m most proud that I kept fighting. I remember for two or three years, Shaquille O’Neal was a neighbor of mine in Orlando and I used to see him in the summers, and he would just look at my ankle and say, ‘Man, you should just hang it up.’ At times I thought that was probably what I would do, but to be able to come back and fight, to get back and play and resume my career and have great joy out of that, that’s the thing I’m most proud of.
For the longest, that was my whole thing, my own personal Hall of Fame. People still don’t really know what happened, and I’ve never really fully told or explained, and I will, though. It’s coming soon. I’m going to, at some point, put that to paper and just tell my story, my injury saga, my parents’ story. All of that.
How much pressure came to you because you liked to not mess up because of what you came from?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I’ve never really looked at it that way. There was pressure to do well, whatever that might be, and I think I started to find my way in high school, where I really started to thrive and excel on the court.
But even if basketball wasn’t in the equation, there would have been an expectation to do well, and I don’t know where that is or what I would have done necessarily. But I don’t know if it was pressure. It was just this is what’s expected. You understand the sacrifices, you understand the story, you understand how fortunate you are and you don’t take that for granted. They made sure I didn’t at a very young age.
How important were their lessons to you about education growing up?
The whole idea of me being an athlete, a professional athlete, that wasn’t something. Obviously, as a kid, you dream about it. But what are the odds of that happening? They were highly educated, and it was always emphasized. It was always that you can’t play unless you excel in a classroom. That was as far back as I can remember as a little kid.
You find yourself, now as a parent, doing the same thing. There are certain things that as a parent you don’t compromise. My kids, their education and the seriousness with their work and their commitment, I feel like I’ve turned into my parents a little bit. At least, I’ve tried to.
Why was your mom nicknamed “The General”?
During the Carter administration, my mom was the assistant to the secretary of the Army. And when Carter lost in ’80, she and the secretary of the Army started a consulting firm, so really it was something. My friends used to call her because one, the Army stuff, but two, she was just a hard-core disciplinarian. She was intimidating, and as a black woman in corporate America in the ’80s, it was a different time, so you had to have a mental toughness, but she didn’t play.
She would punish me and punish my boys, my friends. I think all my friends started calling her The General, and I think it was more a sign of respect. And they call her that to her face, salute to her, the whole nine. Tongue-in-cheek, but she didn’t play. She didn’t play. She was pretty hard-core.
How about what stands out about what your dad did on and off the gridiron?
The thing that I respected the most was just knowing how he grew up in the projects of Baltimore and just had an opportunity to go to a boarding school. And he won a scholarship in middle school and really didn’t want to go, and his father, who had a third-grade education, he didn’t know anything about the boarding school, but he just knew that this school is better than the school you’re at, so he made him go. Just how much of a cultural shock that was for him and how difficult that was in a time where, even though it was in the Northeast, it was still a lot different than my upbringing and my experience.
How he went there and eventually embraced it. It ultimately introduced him to Yale. He went there. That path and that journey and just the kind of person, the kind of worldly, well-read, but still will kick your ass.
You once wrote a poignant op-ed piece in The New York Times in response to Jalen Rose. What made you write that? (Note: Rose said in an ESPN film called The Fab Five about the University of Michigan’s famed team from 1991-93 that Duke recruited only black players who he viewed as “Uncle Toms.” Hill was on the Duke team that beat Michigan in the 1992 Final Four.)
I obviously understood where he was coming from. I felt it. It was a time back in the day where teams just didn’t like each other. It was a different time. It was like that in the NBA. It was like that in college. I didn’t have issues with them and I didn’t have issues with other teams. I just didn’t like [North] Carolina. That’s who we hated. That was who we despised. But what I didn’t like was him going on the various platforms over at ESPN and when asked about it, numerous times, about the things he said about me personally, he didn’t clarify. You’re in the media. You are accountable for the things you say. That’s what ticked me off.
I said, ‘It’s the spirit of competition, it’s the spirit of hip-hop. I’m gonna get you back. I’m gonna come for you, and I’m gonna do it in a very highly intellectual way.’ I think the purpose of it wasn’t necessarily to get him back; ultimately it was to get people to talk about it. If there was anything in that, it really almost put people on one side or the other. Instead of promoting conversation and dialogue, you either took a side, and I don’t think that was the purpose. For me, when you’re just going for the jugular, there’s a little bit of that. Like I said, I understood, especially as it compared to his father, and I knew all that.
Look, I’m supposed to be in the film. That was the thing that was crazy. I was supposed to be in the film, and so I felt like it was a little bit of an unnecessary jab, but, hey, he’s telling a story. If that’s his authentic story, then fine.
Thing about it is, we were good before then and we’re good now. And people don’t necessarily see that, but it’s like we can agree to disagree. We can be upset at each other or whatever, but we can also put it behind us and move forward. I think we’ve done that.
How proud were you to get your degree from Duke?
Yeah, I was very proud. It was at times a struggle, but it was certainly one of my top priorities and goals to do that and to juggle a playing career and all that goes with that, and to enjoy. I had fun in school, and I had friendships and relationships, experiences in the classroom socially and then as an athlete. Those collective experiences were great, but getting that degree was certainly at the top of the list.
Did the degree and your mentality really help you after basketball and prepare for life after basketball?
It helped me during basketball. It’s funny. Do I remember all the formulas from calculus? No. Certain things, obviously, but taking those classes and learning how to think, learning how to problem-solve, learning how to endure and get through and survive, that helps with life.
Whether I’m in business, whether I’m in broadcasting, an athlete, whatever the case. Dealing with family, relationships, I think that skill set is necessary, I think, to survive and just to have some sanity.
What do you think about your executive role with the Hawks, and was that something you dreamed of doing?
My dad tried unsuccessfully to put us in groups together to buy professional sports teams. He tried, in the late ’80s, to buy the Patriots.
Then, of course, when the Browns left Cleveland and it was a whole auction, so there was a bunch of groups trying to win the bid for the new Cleveland Browns. He had a group as well. His goal was to run a team, run the business side of the team, and that was something as a black man, and through his experience, was a way to validate things.
Seeing that and being close to that even before I was a professional athlete, it really planted the seed or the idea. Then, when I got in the NBA and once I figured out the NBA after that whirlwind of a first year, it was like at some point, I want to be in ownership. I want to be on that level, and I want to be at the table when it comes to that.
Do you want to own a team one day?
It’d be nice, but I’m happy in the role that I’m in. One thing that Tony Ressler, our managing partner, does a fantastic job of is he doesn’t treat me as an investor. He treats me as a partner, and he obviously has the loudest voice and final say, but I have a loud voice. Now we’re going through a situation where we’re preparing for the future. It’s exciting, man. It’s fun, and to be privy to all that’s involved on and off the court, it’s something that I’m very grateful for.
Kind of off-the-beaten-path question, but what did you think about The Cosby Show when it came out during your teenage years?
My friends, my boys, used to call my mom ‘Mrs. Huxtable.’ I didn’t know how to take that. I didn’t know if my mom was good-looking, but I thought it was good. I thought, until then, we’d only had in terms of images on TV, we only had shows like Good Times and Sanford and Son. They were great shows and funny and ultimately classics. Jeffersons was a show where you had somebody who was upwardly mobile, but The Cosby Show took it to another level.
I’m sure not everybody of color felt this way, but there was definitely for me a sense of pride that you saw a loving family, you saw they were educated. They emphasized education. They dealt with issues that were relevant to parenting and children. Yeah, it was something that, like a lot of people, I looked forward to Thursday night. …
I even think A Different World was [great]. I heard a lot of people went to [North Carolina] Central [University] because of it. The whole idea of hearing about and learning about an HBCU [historically black college or university] was a result of watching A Different World. That was a powerful thing back in the day.
One little-known fact about you is you actually took classes at an HBCU, North Carolina Central, when you went to Duke. Can you talk about that experience?
Central was right down the road from Duke. I took two history classes from there. Even without that, I was on campus a lot. At first, there was a 15-to-1 girl-to-boy ratio. So that was certainly one of the reasons I was there. But the experience, the culture, the spirit. I remember ‘Chicken Wednesdays’ at the cafeteria and ‘Fish Fry Fridays.’ The cafeteria was where it was fun. There was good energy. I had a lot of friends over there. I spent a lot of time on their campus going to basketball games, going to parties and getting haircuts. It was fun. A lot of good memories.