Talk about your fast learners. Grant Hill, less than two years after retiring from the NBA, already has one of the most coveted sports TV jobs: calling the NCAA basketball tournament, including the national championship next month.
Not bad for a guy who became a game analyst this season. Yes, this season. Hill began his TV career a year earlier, hired by Turner Sports as a studio analyst for NBA TV and as part of the Turner-CBS March Madness TV partnership.
Then came a strong debut as an analyst on a handful of NBA games. Hill impressed his bosses. Then an unexpected opportunity came along. Soon after the suspension of CBS lead college basketball analyst Greg Anthony, arrested in January for soliciting a prostitute, CBS and Turner named Hill and Bill Raftery as co-analysts to call the Final Four with play-by-play voice Jim Nantz.
The trio, with Tracy Wolfson reporting from the sidelines, is the top crew for the 2015 tournament. Their NCAA opening assignment comes Friday and Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena: six games and eight teams over the course of 72 hours.
For Hill, 42, the smooth transition marks the latest step in a lifetime of basketball achievements. He starred at Duke in college, playing on two national championship teams (1991 and 1992) and winning ACC Player of the Year honors in 1994. Too often injury-plagued as a pro, he still wound up playing 19 seasons with four teams and made the all-star roster seven times.
To get ready for the tournament, Hill has watched a lot more college basketball on TV, reviewed video to better assess top teams’ strengths and weaknesses and spoken to former coaches and teammates involved in the game. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski coached Hill in college and the head coach at Notre Dame, Mike Brey, was a Duke assistant when Hill played for Coach K.
“Information is power,” Hill told me during a telephone interview while driving to the airport to catch a flight to Charlotte. “The more information you have, the better.” I think he was still talking about the NCAAs, but he may have been rehearsing a public service ad.
Scratch that, he was talking basketball, as his next statement made clear.
“But, with that said, you’re also anticipating and explaining what happened during the game. You want to have a good background and a good understanding of the teams, but you also want to be able to react to what’s happening throughout the course of the game.”
Asked about covering Duke and Krzyzewski, who play in Charlotte on Friday night, Hill offered a glimpse of his approach to broadcasting. While he knows Duke better than any other program for obvious reasons, Hill insists on studying and analyzing the Blue Devils in the same way he would any other school.
That, he said, ensures he doesn’t take short cuts. This season, his first college game as an analyst was Duke-Notre Dame.
During his pro career, Hill spent little time watching and following the NCAA tournament. March is when the NBA season is grinding toward its April finish, a time for pro teams to make a last push to land a playoff spot — or improve their seeding. In 2013-14, Hill’s first season out of the NBA, he rediscovered the frantic excitement of the tournament. (Let us avoid the words Cinderella and Big Dance and do our best to limit references to brackets and March Madness. Please.)
Not only did Hill play in three Final Fours — as a senior, his Duke team lost the NCAA title game to Arkansas at Charlotte Coliseum— he also happened to be part of one of the most famous plays in tournament history. In the 1992 NCAA regional finals in Philadelphia, with a Final Four appearance at stake, Kentucky led Duke by one point with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. Hill, the inbounds passer for Duke, hurled a 75-foot pass to teammate Christian Laettner, who grabbed the ball, dribbled and spun before hitting a buzzer-beating jump shot to win the game, 104-103. The play remains an indelible moment, replayed endlessly each year during the tournament.
“The further removed from it (I get), you understand the impact and how iconic a moment that was. What was on the line, the ramifications, the game itself represents the greatness of both teams. I get to relive it now, every year. When I was in the NBA, the NBA consumes you. So now that I’m retired, I feel like I’ve talked more about that game and that play than I had the previous 22 years. It’s pretty cool to have been part of a play that’s been talked about.”
A reference to a new ESPN documentary, I Hate Christian Laettner, prompts Hill to explain how his former teammate was nothing like his perception as an arrogant pretty boy who never struggled in basketball or anywhere else.
“I was happy that people got a chance to see what we saw — it still didn’t capture it totally,” he said of Laettner. “We were kind of a weird team. We were kids and we did things that were juvenile. We fought all the time. Wrestled, played. We spent a great deal of time on and off the court together. … I’m glad it humanizes him a bit and people can see he’s not the head of the Death Star in Star Wars. He’s actually a real person.”
The spirit of college basketball remains difficult to duplicate, in Hill’s opinion. And he remains proud to have been part of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, a hate-hate relationship that occasionally turns civil and even affectionate, as when former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith died in February. Asked about Smith, Hill, like other admirers, talks most about the coach’s sense of social justice, a brave stance for anyone in the South during the years of the Civil Rights movement.
Hill, of course, is known for his erudite intellect. As an NBA rookie, he demonstrated his piano-playing for David Letterman. His personal art collection, including works by Charlotte-born artist Romare Bearden, is notable enough to have been exhibited nationally.
As for the monthlong tournament, Hill said he wants to keep things simple while helping Nantz, Raftery and Wolfson tell the story.
“One of the things I’ve worked hard at is getting lost in the game and getting lost in what’s happening and not thinking about anything else. Just like when you play, you get lost in the game. I think the same thing applies when you’re calling a game.”
Even if some guy named Krzyzewski happens to be coaching.