By: Brian Schmitz
Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill was on the road Wednesday morning, gladly battling rush-hour traffic. Yes, gladly.
While other motorists might have been impatient and cursing the gridlock, Hill was pleasantly excited to be able to get to work so early, even bumper to bumper.
He was heading to the Magic's practice court at RDV Sportsplex in Maitland, his injury-riddled career apparently revived once again.
Hill's destination was an indication that his offseason recovery from yet another physical ailment -- this time, a sports hernia that limited him to 21 games last season -- was on schedule.
He contends that rest and rehabilitation since March did the trick, allowing him to stiff-arm thoughts of retirement if more surgery had been his only option. He was pain-free by June and started to test-drive his once-sore abdominal area at full speed late last month in pick-up games.
So far, so healthy.
"I feel really good," Hill told the Sentinel, in his first extensive interview since the Magic's season ended in April.
"I've been playing some pick-up ball. I don't have any pain. I don't even think about it. I played against [New Jersey Nets forward] Vince Carter the other day, and although neither of us are in midseason form, I held my own.
"I've done things that if I tried to do them last year, I couldn't have done them. I'm ready to ramp it back up."
Hill was driving on I-4, but he also is at a metaphorical crossroads.
When he joins the Magic for the opening of training camp Oct. 3 in Jacksonville, he will begin the final year of his seven-year, $92.88 million contract.
The Magic anticipated that the additions of Hill and Tracy McGrady in the summer of 2000 would restore the franchise's glory lost in the post-Shaquille O'Neal era. But McGrady eventually was traded, and Hill was never healthy enough -- largely because of five surgeries on his left ankle -- to play a full season.
Hill was saluted for his 67-game comeback in 2004-05 and was voted by fans as a starter in the all-star game. Still, a sore shin ended that season prematurely. In all, he has played in just 135 of a possible 492 regular-season games for the Magic.
Hill, who turns 34 two days after camp opens, says he wants to keep playing as long as he can -- and the Magic say they want him back.
"That would be nice. I have roots here. I don't want to go anywhere else," Hill said. "I'd love to be part of things here, but this is the NBA. I've learned through the years that anything can happen."
For Hill, robbed of some prime years, the past six seasons have crawled by at an agonizing pace.
The stop-and-start injuries have been a mental strain, often leaving the athlete universally known for his cheery public demeanor depressed and broken behind closed doors.
"By no means has it been easy," he said. "That's life. You get knocked down, you get back up. A lot of other people out there got it worse than me.
"I haven't looked at it as my last year. I'm still trying to play. People say, 'Are you going to hang it up?' No. Shoot, I've come this far."
After five lost seasons, essentially, and a salary that has hamstrung the Magic, Hill realizes some fans might be welcoming his exit. "I understand people's frustrations," he said. "I've been frustrated, too."
Magic General Manager Otis Smith said Wednesday that the club's door will be open for Hill to re-sign.
Hill indicated last season that he would even play for the veteran's minimum -- a little over $1 million per season -- after his mammoth deal ends. But Smith said, given Hill's medical history, it was way too early to speculate about Hill's future.
"We've got to get Grant through the year," Smith said. "We'll figure it out as we go. I can't sit here in September and say what's going to happen. With Grant, it's one game at a time."
Hill's expiring contract might be attractive to teams looking for salary-cap room. Smith is adamant about not trading Hill in exchange for, say, a disgruntled star.
"I can't see that happening. He's an Orlando Magic as long as he wants to be an Orlando Magic," Smith said. "I'm a Grant Hill fan whether he plays 82 games or two games. I'd like him around our team for his leadership and the depth he provides.
"I'd rather have that than some disgruntled superstar. Grant's too valuable for me. To me, it would be like trading Dwight [Howard]."
To perhaps increase Hill's chances of playing a full season, Smith said Hill's workload will be monitored closely in camp. He added that rookie J.J. Redick, recovering from a herniated disk in his back, also will be restricted.
"It's not because Grant can't do it; physically, he's as good as I've ever seen him," Smith said. "We're not going to treat him like he's a place-kicker on a football team. We have to see where he's at [in preseason games], what we can rely on. But we have to be smart as it relates to Grant."
Said Hill, "If there's pain, there's a problem."
Hill, in something of a gamble, opted to try to repair his sports hernia this summer through nonsurgical means. He had surgery in an attempt to correct the problem before the start of last season, but continued to experience pain after he returned six weeks later. He shut it down in early March.
Vowing he would rather retire than subject his body to a seventh operation, Hill called upon noted Vancouver-based physiotherapist Alex McKechnie, a specialist in abdominal injuries.
Hill said he began working with McKechnie in late May in his intensive "Hard Core Strength Program." Hill said he spent so much time in Vancouver this summer "that I may have to pay taxes there."
McKechnie's techniques often require athletes to pull on rubber bands and mount balance boards, among other things, to promote flexibility and agility. He also thought Hill's hernia was brought on by his left ankle and addressed its range of motion.
"Some of the stuff Alex does sounds weird, the exercises . . . like having me balancing on one foot. But it's pretty amazing," Hill said. "It's nothing like I've ever done before. I thought to myself, 'Is this going to work?' It did."
If he stays healthy, Grant Hill plans to play on -- and happily battle more early-morning rush-hour traffic in Orlando next summer.