It was the summer of 1991 and I was driving around Detroit with Pistons Hall of Famer Bob Lanier. We found ourselves talking about Isiah Thomas who had recently turned 30 and had been NBA Finals MVP the year before. Bob explained that what’s interesting about superstars is how they adjust to the later stages of their careers. In other words, are they willing to become a support player or will they quit once they can no longer play at All-Star level? He suspected that Isiah would arrive at that point in his career in a few years and he wasn’t sure if he would be emotionally willing to become a support player. Bob said he was certain that Michael Jordan wouldn’t (he was right!) and he also doubted Isiah’s willingness to eventually check his ego at the door.
Turns out Isiah was beset by injuries a few years later and retired. It wasn’t until recently that he revealed that he regretted leaving so soon, but it all makes sense in light of Lanier’s insight into the mindset of great athletes.
Compare it, for example, with Antonio McDyess. Antonio was an all star, but not a superstar, and he is thrilled to be able to contribute off the bench. He’s so accepting of his role that he refused a starting assignment recently when Rasheed Wallace forgot to set his clock ahead and showed up late to the Phoenix game.
It all raises an interesting proposition we’ve heard lately.
Grant Hill is 33, and has managed to play only 135 games in five years in Orlando. This year, a succession of hernia problems will cause him to miss some 60 games. But if his rumored trade here comes off, it could close the book on a Piston parting that pleased no one. He’d be a perfect compliment off the bench and possibly get his championship ring. He could also ensure his Hall of Fame credentials
Hill may be one of the more selfless stars of this generation. His interests in art and charity give him character and depth well beyond the court. I think he’d be able to be a sixth man if it meant winning a championship and helping him soothe the pain and anguish six years of injuries has caused him. I find myself rooting strongly for this story to happen.
On another subject, I’ve been gratified by the reaction to the Ben Wallace story we did on the pre-game show last week. Detroiters get intensely attached to certain athletes who, through their excellence and uniqueness, manage to spark an emotional reaction. Ben is among an elite few who have struck such a chord.
I interviewed Joe Dumars about it and he pointed out the many levels Ben has been able to connect with fans. There’s the trademark “Fro”; his humble beginnings as an undrafted player who was cut and traded several times, as well as his quiet leadership.
Joe says that Ben’s already one of the top ten most popular Detroit athletes of the past 50 years and if he wins some more championships, he’ll be top five. At barely 6-foot-8, his magic legs and nose for the ball have made him an all-star center. And he could someday become a Hall-of-Famer with the lowest scoring average of anyone in the Hall – a miniscule 6.5 points per game for his career! All the more reason why he has been so embraced by Detroit sports fans.
By the way, in the pre-game piece, these were my top-ten Detroit Sports heroes of the last 50 years listed according to when they arrived:
- Gordie Howe
- Bobby Layne
- Al Kaline
- Kirk Gibson
- Alan Trammell
- Isiah Thomas
- Steve Yzerman
- Joe Dumars
- Barry Sanders
- Ben Wallace
If he comes back and does what he’s capable of doing, Grant Hill could not only make the list, but he’d also join Ben for whom he was once traded! How cool would that be?
But it also raises the question: If Grant makes the list, who would we have to bump?