DETROIT — It’s hard to talk about the NBA in the 1990s and not mention Grant Hill. That just doesn’t feel right.
Not many people can say that they had legendary rapper Tupac Shakur rocking their FILA sneakers inside the cover booklet of his iconic All Eyez on Me album.
But Shakur wasn’t the only one. Method Man also pulled out the Grant Hill 1s for the video of his famous “You’re All I Need” track with Mary J. Blige.
Hill was a superstar for the Detroit Pistons who was one of the earliest examples of a point forward in the NBA — averaging 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his first six seasons in Motown — before injuries robbed him of his full potential.
These days, his presence is still being felt in the D, with images of his accomplishments still celebrated in Little Caesars Arena.
In September, he also partnered with FILA to refurbish some basketball courts at Chandler Park in Detroit, while maintaining a solid bond with Pistons No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham.
“It’s cool to see somebody that was one of those guys be around and to pick his brain. And really just to talk to him. He’s a cool dude. He’s not forcing the issue. He’s a real humble guy,” Cunningham said of Hill during Pistons media day. “He’s just about his business and being around him, picking his brain and just having him check in was real cool for me, and he was around a bunch. He was in Orlando when I was at Montverde [Academy], so I would see him a lot in high school, so it’s crazy that I’m in Detroit now and life comes full circle, but, yeah, definitely. I was superexcited to talk to him then and now I’m more excited that I’ll be able to speak with him a lot more in the future.”
Hill spoke to The Undefeated about his Pistons tenure, disdain for teal and excitement in Detroit about Cunningham.
So, first off, I have to ask you about these new basketball courts in the D. You partnered with FILA to refurbish some hoop courts on the east side, in the inner city, at Chandler Park. Why reach back to Detroit? Why do this in the city and not the suburbs?
I was fortunate to reconnect with FILA, and one of the things that I thought was important to me was to be able to do things like this. One of the first things I did once I was drafted back in 1994, along with FILA, we refurbished some basketball courts. I think I even did it before I signed my rookie deal. So, first, I remember getting drafted, them coming down for the press conference the next day, then shortly thereafter we did something at Belle Isle Park. So, many years later, just sort of reconnecting and there still being an excitement for those shoes and certainly retro is in with not just my generation or your generation, but even some of the young kids who weren’t around then.
I think that goes for all brands. That’s kind of what’s out there, so, yeah, it was one of the keys to reconnecting was this idea of going back and doing some things particularly in the communities that supported me when I was playing and wearing [FILA] shoes, initially.
For me, playing ball and going to the playground and having that kind of activity was an outlet. I just felt like, ‘OK, let’s stay in that lane and do what we did in ’94.’ We started off in Chandler Park, but we’re gonna do more. There’s other neighborhoods, other communities, other parks that could benefit from that. So, working with the Detroit Parks and Recreation, who I actually worked with back in the ’90s and did a lot of fun activations with back when I was a Piston, and to be able to reconnect and provide this is something I think both FILA and I are really excited about.
So, why did you decide to revamp the courts in the retro Pistons teal colorway? Are you a big fan of the teal Pistons jerseys? Should they ever bring those back?
First of all, just because I played in teal doesn’t necessarily mean I was a big fan of it. I had no choice. At the time, I didn’t quite get it. I know that teal was sort of a color of choice in the ’90s and you think about Charlotte and Vancouver as new franchises, expansion teams, and they had teal, so whatever focus group at the time, I guess, determined that teal was the color of the future, but I never quite embraced it. I never felt like it quite fit Detroit. I wore red, white and blue my first few years and nothing is more perfect than that. It’s synonymous with the Pistons and tradition. At the time, I thought about the Lakers or Celtics, ‘They’re not gonna change their colors.’ So, that was something that I didn’t quite get or understand, but, whatever, you go out and play.
I remember I was disappointed at the time because FILA’s colors were red, white and blue and so were the Pistons, so it was sort of a natural marriage there and all of a sudden, a teal shoe, that just seems so out of the ordinary. So, now you fast-forward, it seems like with some folks that it’s some nostalgia for teal, maybe it’s the younger generation. I don’t have an opinion either way. I’m too old to know what looks good and what doesn’t look good, but at the time, it was not something that I think we as players quite understood or fully embraced. With the court now, it’s a different ballgame and I understand that people identify the time that I was there with those jerseys, so you might as well not fight it. You might as well embrace it so, why not?
So after unveiling the parks, I heard that you actually visited the Pistons’ new practice facility before the season started. And that seems huge, because it seems like from the outside looking in that it was a relationship you had to rebuild with the franchise after leaving. How was it to be around the new Pistons? And what is your relationship like these days with the franchise?
It’s interesting. That might be the perception, that the relationship needed to be rebuilt or repaired or restored. I get it with fans, but the relationship was always there. Even when I left, and early on after I left and struggled with injuries and ultimately, later on, came back from them. I know the first, maybe three or four years, I was hurt and I didn’t get a chance to come back, but I would go over and see Joe [Dumars] and John Hammond and Arnie [Kander] and Mike Abdenour. I’d go to the old practice facility when we’d come to town and then keep in contact by cellphone, texting. There’s like an NBA traveling party and so, through the years, those are the people who I know and surprisingly are still, for the most part, around.
… But, naw, it’s good. I went by the facility and they have a beautiful facility for the basketball and business operations and it was good to be back in the building and see some familiar faces and also see a lot of new faces. There’s just a real sense of excitement that the future is bright with the franchise. The facility is just amazing. I love that it’s in the city and the art. I mean, I collect Black art and they have some incredible Black art all throughout and a couple of artists who I collect. I actually took pictures and sent them to them. I’m like, ‘Hey, man, did you do this? I’m just blown away by it.’
I’m glad you addressed that, because, personally, it still seems like a narrative is out there among fans that because of the way you left Detroit for Orlando, that might’ve hurt having your number retired.
I did everything I could. Played probably towards the end when I shouldn’t have played and tried my best, so I’m proud of what I did on the court, proud of off the court, but inevitably, I go places and I travel and it’s somebody from Detroit. They let you know. There’s also just a lot of love, and even when I went back to play after, like, four years of being hurt, they showed love then. They played ‘Welcome Back’ and the team had won and I went through a lot of stuff with my injury, so I never experienced what Allan Houston experienced when he first came back, but it’s been a positive relationship.
Would you like to see your jersey retired in Detroit, though? You’re already a Hall of Famer, but how big would that be for you if they ever did that?
Of course, it would be huge. I had my high school retired, maybe like five years ago and they wanted to do it, but I was like, ‘It’s 25 years later. I appreciate the gesture,’ but I didn’t feel like it was necessary. But you know what, I went to the ceremony and it actually touched me. It was actually something that was really cool, and that was high school. But, regardless, I am beyond thrilled to have had the opportunity to play there and to be a part of the history of the franchise and proud of what I did. We didn’t win a championship and that was disappointing and that was the goal. That was what I said during my press conference when I first came, that my goal was to win a championship, so I failed in that respect, but I went out, competed and played hard and tried to lead and be good in the locker room.
Look, something you don’t know: I almost came back in 2007. And Joe [Dumars] and I had talked. I talked to Flip [Saunders] and Chauncey [Billups] and Lindsey [Hunter] and they were gonna bring me back and it came between Phoenix and Detroit, and Detroit wanted to pay me and everything. I took less money to go to Phoenix and I think I really entertained it and really thought about it, but ultimately, I didn’t want to come back to a shell of myself. I wanted to stand on those Detroit years and I didn’t want to come back and not be the same player, and it was almost like I needed that for me. I needed to be able to hold onto those Detroit years, particularly after going through some real dark moments. Now the reality of it is, with the team they had, I didn’t have to be my old self (Laughs.). I look at it now, I loved my time in Phoenix, and sometimes you just need a whole new change of scenery, but in reality, with that team and the way they played and experience. I didn’t have to be the ’90s version of myself. I know I would’ve fit in with that crew and liked that crew a lot.
That was when I was a free agent in ’07 and the Magic played the Pistons in the first round that year … I remember bringing my wife up to the playoff game and I was like, ‘Maybe we should come back,’ just the energy. They were still drunk off that championship success and that team was still knocking on the door, so it was fun to experience. So, anyway, it almost happened. I was that close to coming back for sure.
So, now transitioning to the present. The Pistons drafted Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick. You were picked third overall in 1994, so I’m sure you can understand what he’s going through. He’s even been compared to you, but what are your thoughts on him? Can you take me through what he’s going through entering this season?
I’ve known Cade for a little while because he went to school down here in Florida. So, I used to go watch him at Montverde. I watched him his junior year and even then, I heard from some folks some of the comparisons and I think some of the similarities come because he has a great feel for the game and I think he thinks the game similarly. He’s not sort of a traditional point guard, but he can play the point. He can score. He’s got a maturity about him that probably is further along than I was at his age — with just emotional maturity, tremendous leadership qualities and versatility to his game. He kind of checks the boxes everywhere and does everything. I think the mindset is really what separates him and differentiates him from others. That’s so important as a young team with some real good pieces there and trying to take that next step to have somebody who’s in that position, who has that maturity to their game on and off the court. It just allows us to accelerate that process. He doesn’t have to come in and dominate and score a lot of points to be successful, but he can come in and be himself with Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey and an assortment of others and just collectively take that step as a group.
He’s got that ‘It’ factor. He might shoot better, I might’ve been more athletic. Who knows? You can kind of nitpick the game and all that. Not might be, he’s a better shooter than I was at that age. He sees the complete game. Some people have a house and it’s only one window in that house. He’s got a house with plenty of windows. It’s been fun to watch him. I got to know him a little bit when he was in high school and nowadays you blink your eyes and [he’s] in the league.
So, do you like that comparison?
I never liked when people compared me. So, when I came in, they compared me to this, that or whatever. So, I think he’s his own unique, special player and special talent. He will find his lane and be appreciated for who he is. So, I’m flattered by it, but I think he’s Cade Cunningham. He’ll have a chance to really showcase who he is and what he’s all about. It’ll be a fun journey to watch.
What would be your advice to Cade for his rookie season of dealing with the pressure of being a high pick and playing in Detroit?
I don’t know if he needs my advice, but compete and play hard. It’s a city that I think appreciates effort and I think that’s who he is. That’s in his DNA. Come out, lunch pail, work hard and compete every time you’re on the floor. I mean, embracing the city. He’s done that already. He understands Detroit. He understands what Detroit is. … For his own personal edification, if he can take the time to really get to know Detroit. I think Detroiters will appreciate that, but he’ll appreciate that as well.