Two weeks ago, I added a new podcast to my playlist, Tobacco Road. The hosts are two former NBA players, Gerald Henderson Jr. and Tyler Hansbrough. The special guest on that particular episode was Elton Brand. He shared a story about the decision to forgo his eligibility, leave Duke early, and the ensuing conversation with Coach K, which ultimately lead to his becoming a first overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft.
The anecdotes inspired me to say the least. Then I had this bright idea to reach out to Grant Hill and see if I could get an interview for this column. I don’t know him, and yes it was a shot in the dark, nonetheless, I scrolled through my contacts, and I sent Brand an email to see about getting in touch with Hill.
He has yet to get back to me, however this week began with a Philadelphia Eagles victory over the Patriots on Sunday, and I headed over to the the 76ers practice facility on Monday to get the football analysis and reactions from Joel Embiid and Justin Anderson, whom attended the game.
I walked in with 76ers’ beat reporter Keith Pompey, and as he holds the door for me to walk through, I notice none other than Hill casually sitting in the lobby, reading something on his phone. I signed in, and proceed to introduce myself. I explained that I was trying to get in contact with him, and then I asked him if he would be available at a later date for an interview.
He said that he was waiting to speak with Embiid for NBA Inside Stuff, and that we could talk now if I wanted to.
For the next 10-15-minutes we discussed everything from his signature shoes, to how the Duke vs. UNC rivalry extends far beyond college, and the ACC. Serendipity.
Can you talk about your NBA life…you’ve been pretty nostalgic lately on social media, posting pictures with the Pistons gear.
[laughs] Right…my life as a player? I first became part of this League in [the] 1994 draft and I kind of went through different experiences in my career. [It started off] really good, really successful, and then there was a period in between [where] it was kind of dark and there were injuries, and uncertainty as to whether I’d play again, and then being able to finish healthy and in a different role. I feel like I experienced a lot of different ups and downs along that journey, but it was good. It was a great journey and the journey continues. I’m still a part of the League: I do some television work; I call games [on TNT]; I have a show Inside Stuff, that we kind of brought back when I retired; I’m [part] owner/vice chairman of the Atlanta Hawks. As I like to say, I don’t just have one experience with the League—I’ve been a superstar, to being a sort of injured outcast, to being a role player, to being in television, and being an owner. So it’s…you know, the relationship continues, and it’s great to still be in and a part of this League in different capacities.
You have worn so many hats—you got healthy, extended your playing days—when did you know that you could do other things like television and ownership? What is the secret to your success?
The television thing, that was something that wasn’t necessarily on my radar. I think having been someone who did commercials, interacted with the media—I guess looking back you could have assumed that, that might have been something that would have been of interest but it wasn’t something that was on my radar, not really until I retired and the opportunity kind of presented itself. The ownership piece though, that was something [of mine] even before I entered the NBA. My dad tried unsuccessfully a couple times to put together groups and buy teams—one was an NFL team, and one was an NBA team—so having lived through that experience when I was in high school and college, it just sort of planted that seed that the end-all is not necessarily playing. It’s being in position where you can really affect the game, the franchise and League from an ownership standpoint. So as I started my career, establishing relationships with some of the owners and looking through that lens of, “okay that’d be nice one day to be in that position.” I didn’t necessarily think it would happen so quickly after I retired. It was two years after I retired, but that was always the goal and the vision from my time at Duke. I was thinking about it then, and I wasn’t quite sure how I’d play or how my career would pan out, but to be in the position sign those checks was always something that was fascinating to me.
When did it hit you, because you come from a different era of high school than players do now, when did it hit you that you could be a pro in the League?
Yeah it was a lot different. I think probably my sophomore or junior year in college. I think that’s when, you know. Back then when you were in high school, you were playing on the circuit, going to camps, and this, that, and the other, you didn’t really talk about the NBA. It was more like, man, I just want to go to college, and college was looked at as getting an opportunity—get an education, no matter what your background was—that is what the conversation was. So when I got to college, my first year we had a good year, we won the championship. My second year, that’s when I think I got to—I won’t say elite status, but that’s when I became an All-American—and at that point, I was like okay, that could happen, but I didn’t really think about it. It didn’t really hit me until the end of my junior year and I’m thinking, this time next year, I’ll be getting ready for the draft. That’s when the whole thought of the NBA became real. And it’s very different I think than kids now. I think kids now are thinking about it at 13, 14 years of age and that’s the goal. That’s what they see and that’s what they want: Five years from now, I’m going to be in the draft. That wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t really sense that from high school age, I didn’t really feel that. The NBA was big, but it wasn’t in your face like it is now. You didn’t have access, you didn’t have, you didn’t have all these shows and platforms. So you know…it was just different and there’s a part of me, from a grassroots standpoint, that kind of misses that innocence and misses, you know… getting coached as a kid.
You had to learn the game.
You learned the game. You were held accountable. It wasn’t like I’m going to be nice to this kid because he may make it, and if he makes it, then I want him to look out for me. It was none of that. If you were a good player, you were coached even harder. I think some of that is missing now at the grassroots level.
You know back then, like you said it was a lot different, especially with the sneaker culture. Getting a sneaker deal—it probably wasn’t on your radar, but then you got one. Was it something you thought about?
You know I don’t think I thought about the marketing. Obviously Michael Jordan was sort of this larger than life figure when I was in school, in college, but you know, you didn’t really…it wasn’t like man, a year from now, two years…I want to be in that situation. You just wanted to try to make it. It wasn’t like I’m coming in…for me, early on, I never even dreamed that it was a possibility. I might have dreamt it, but I never actually thought it could happen. When the FILA opportunity came about…I think initially it was probably the money that was certainly attractive, then as we put that first shoe out, I was playing really well. The shoe was cool and looked good and it was a lot of momentum, so yeah… I don’t think I appreciated when it was happening but that first shoe. I know as of 7-8 years ago—you might want to verify this, but it was the highest selling debut shoe for a ballplayer. So out of all the debut signature shoes that have come out before, it did better than [Michael] Jordan’s [although] they [Nike] did limit it his first year. So yeah, that’s a part of the shoe culture I guess if you want to call it that. And yeah, you look back and there’s a sense of pride that it happened. But I think at the time…you’re young, you’re ambitious, and at that point you’re just trying to do it all. But no, I don’t think at the time you really sort of stop and appreciate what was happening at that moment.
You played at Duke and the Duke vs. North Carolina thing is a big deal in college, but how did that continue to evolve in the NBA?
Well you know unfortunately, during my NBA days I did have to play with a few Tar Heels [laughs], but nah it was great. To be part of that rivalry as a player is pretty magical, but then it continues onto the professional ranks. So I’ve played with [former Tar Heels] like Jerry Stackhouse, Shammond Williams, Eric Montross, Vince Carter—we were teammates and we can coexist and have good friendships and have chemistry on the court but the rivalry continued. The chatter, the trash-talking, and all of that, that goes with that rivalry and still continues to this day. Even with guys I didn’t play with, you see them and back and forth. I think it’s the best rivalry in all of college sports and it continues. It never ends. Even now, we’re all retired, we still talk trash, we go back and forth with one another and that’s what makes it special.
Last question: Who are your top five, greatest in-game dunkers of all-time?
Top five greatest in-game dunkers… Well, I didn’t see certain guys in person at their peak but you know… I won’t put it in any order, but I think Dominque [Wilkins], Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, um…I think um I’m going to go with Gerald Green. He’s pretty special and he’s explosive, and he’s kind of bounced around, but he’s an underrated in-game dunker. And the last one…that’s a tough one man, last one…in-game dunker…I gotta go with Shaq [O’Neal]. You know, he’s just so big and every time he dunks you think he’s going to break the backboard. And he’s my guy, so I gotta show him some love.