Former Duke star Grant Hill will be an analyst for the NCAA tournament games in Charlotte. He’s two years removed from playing in the NBA, and last year he was in studio with CBS for the tournament. This year he is with Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery on CBS’ top team calling the Big Dance. Hill spoke with the Observer Tuesday about his memories of Charlotte, the Final Four, Christian Laettner and if he’s ready for this big stage with such little experience.
Q. Obviously some of the buzz this week with Duke is ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary on your former teammate. What did “I Hate Christian Laettner” get right and get wrong?
A. I was with Christian saw the early screening of it in New York last week and they had 50-100 people there and set up a premiere. I thought it was great. Long overdue. Christian, he was that team. He put us on his back a number of times. The two years I played with him, he always played well, always when the game counted in a big matchup, came through and out-played the opponent. It humanized him, I believe. I think you started to understand him a little better and some of the myths were debunked or clarified. I think it reminded people of how great he was…
The one thing I would have liked, and I understand the theme of the story was about hating Christian Laettner, but we loved Christian Laettner. It comes across that we hated him. I even said it. But I think the context of that was, he was so good at everything. He could play ping pong, he could bowl, we played one on one every day and he used to beat me. And he talked trash. So tongue in cheek it was ‘we hated him too.’ He had his own style and get close to the edge and sometimes cross that line. I thought he did that a little too much with Bobby (Hurley) and I think Bobby was smart, mature and tough enough to deal with it. But that could have really hurt us as a team. But he was great. We did everything together. We were young and kids. ... We did some juvenile things. We really did fight. Not seriously necessarily but we were constantly wrestling, fighting.
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Q. You’re making your return to the NCAA tournament in Charlotte. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time you were in this town for the NCAA tournament your Blue Devils lost to Arkansas in the 1994 NCAA title game, right?
A. Yeah, you know it’s funny. My last (college tournament) game that I was part of was in Charlotte. Now my first (tournament) game will be in Charlotte. My last win as a college basketball player we beat Florida in the semis and came very close in a great game that came down to the end against Arkansas in 1994. It wasn’t great but it was OK. You’ve got to tip your hat to the champs. It’s good to be back in Charlotte and in the tournament and it’s seems like a long time ago but it also seems like just yesterday. I’m excited and had some great runs. I hope to be part of some moving forward.
Q. As a fan, a player and now a broadcaster, how many Final Fours have you been to?
A. The 1982 North Carolina-Georgetown final, that was the first game that I watched (on TV) and I really got drawn into the madness of the tournament. Jordan hit that shot against Georgetown. We had just bought a Betamax that week and that was the first thing that my parents taped. I probably watched that game 1,000 times between 1982 and the time I left for college. That was like my favorite game and from that game I became a fan of Georgetown and North Carolina.
The next year we got season tickets to Georgetown and Michael Jackson, who was the star point guard, was a freshman and went to the high school that I eventually went to. We were big high school fans at that point and started going to Georgetown games in 1983. My dad (NFL star Calvin Hill) was retiring from football in 1984, and Georgetown looked like they were going to go. We went out to Seattle and Georgetown won and had a great time doing male bonding.
Georgetown was good the next year so we planned to go Lexington. So I went to five from ’84-88. And then I went to the three that I played in college in ’91, ’92 and ’94, but in ’93 when Carolina beat Michigan I was named the Corinthian Defensive Player of the Year so I went down to New Orleans to get my trophy. I was in the stands. When Duke played UConn in ’99, Christian Laettner and I were teammates with the Pistons. We were playing in Atlanta and took a plane to St. Petersburg. I was hurt with an ankle injury so I went to the one in ’01. … It’s interesting and now getting a chance to cover it, I’ve experienced the Final Four from a number of viewpoints: as a fan, as a player, as a player who’s there as a spectator, as an alum there rooting the team on, doing halftime work and this year actually broadcasting the game. I’ve had a real healthy relationship with the Final Four.
Q. How did going to all those Final Fours contribute to your love of the game?
A. I feel in love watching it first, and then we went in ’84. My dad had played (football) and was kind of in Cleveland working and was back and forth a lot. So he said, ‘where do you want to go? We’ll go anywhere.’ And I said I wanted to go to the Final Four. I think he secretly wanted to go too. So we went and not really having any kind of agenda we just went. I remember in ’84 and ’85 sneaking my dad into to the CBS party. My dad still had a name and we get in and I remember meeting some of these coaches. (Former Missouri coach) Norm Stewart, (former UNLV coach) Jerry Tarkanian, and took pictures with them. We had so much fun and had a blast.
We did it again in ’85 and I remember when Georgetown beat St John’s. We went over to the Georgetown hotel where all the students were and it was like Animal House. I got back and my mom got mad at my dad. ‘Why’d you take him over there?’ We were there for 5-10 minutes, but you could experience the passion of the schools for their teams. It was crazy …
In ’86 Georgetown wasn’t in it but we went to Dallas where my dad had roots. We stayed with one of my dad’s former teammates who lived in Dallas. I remember we went over and played a little ball at Roger Stabauch’s house. I didn’t really have any skin in the game but I was getting interested in Duke a little bit. I was familiar with them from the ACC and had guys from the DC area. Tommy Amaker, Johnny Dawkins, Billy King, Danny Ferry are all from that area. I’m in between games, it might have been the semis or finals, there was a kid who looked like he was my age shooting jumpers on the court, and it looked like he was with Louisville folks. He wasn’t missing. I remember watching him saying man that kid can shoot. Later I realized that was Alan Houston, whose dad was an assistant at Louisville. We later roomed together at Nike and played on the select team that played the Dream Team. And we were teammates in Detroit. I remember watching him and saying man I’m jealous.
We got to ’87 and by then I’m a sophomore in high school and being recruited by all these teams. We couldn’t go into these parties. But ’84 and ’85 we saw the city and parties and tried to get a glimpse of players and coaches. Now in ’87 and ’88 I can’t do that. It’s an NCAA violation. I remember Kansas, Duke, Arizona, all those teams are recruiting me and I’m a sophomore in high school. That was our last Final Four. Also, my mom came on the trip and it just wasn’t the same. She wanted to have an agenda and we wanted to do what we wanted and keep the hotel room messy.
Q. There’s been a lot of turnover in that Final Four chair. Jim Nantz has been the play-by-play guy for a quarter-century, but Billy Packer, Clark Kellogg, Steve Kerr and Greg Anthony have been beside Nantz since 2008. What do you, Jim and Bill Raftery need to do in these next few weeks to be at your best in the Final Four weekend?
A. My short time in broadcasting a term that has been used a lot, and first I didn’t quite understand it but I do now, but you have to get reps. Reps are important for an individual but also for a group. We got some reps this past weekend when we had a fantastic Big 10 tournament. The great thing for me is you can’t have two better people who are extremely talented and experienced with this profession. They’ve been so supportive, so helpful. I’ve learned a great deal just in the last three or four days working with them in Chicago. I think we all have roles to play like with any team. I think it’s bigger than us. It’s our producer, it’s everybody in the truck. It’s a total team effort. Team is my whole life, and I understand that in order for a team to win you have to understand and embrace what your role is. We spend a lot of time together. We’ll have dinners, meetings. The more we’re comfortable with one another, then the better the broadcast will be. I’m excited. I’m really, really up for this challenge. I take it was a huge responsibility.
Q. Are you guys going to get together before the Final Four and do some mock games for practice, or will you have enough reps by then?
A. Before the Final Four we’ll have had nine games in the tournament and three games this weekend, so we’ll have a good 12 games. I will have had 13 with Bill (Notre Dame at Duke) and a number with late-night sessions with him too (laughs). I think it’s pretty good. You get a lot of reps, and I’m a believer in sports, in college at Duke and the NBA, the good teams I was on that were successful, a lot of times they did things together off the court. And I think those experiences off the court really carried over. And I’m a big believer in creating an environment where we eat, fellowship, talk about our lives, basketball and our goals. It’s all important to the team dynamics. Tracy Wolfson is an integral part of our team, and I’d be remiss not to mention her. You’re building to get to that moment where it’s instinctive and habits. That comes with time.
Q. Two years ago you were in the NBA. Now you’re on the lead group for the tournament. That doesn’t happen. Can you believe you’re doing this? Is this kind of surreal?
A. Oh without a doubt. When they first asked me to do it, I thought they might have had me confused with Thomas Hill from Duke. It is amazing. Two years ago this was not on my radar at all. I was just trying to survive as a 40-year-old in the NBA. And in a very short period of time, I’ve been able to do a number of things with NBA TV, Turner and CBS. And to now be called upon to work the Final Four, it’s still overwhelming. I’ll be honest, I was overwhelmed the first day I worked with Jim Nantz. Wow, this is Jim Nantz. Hearing that voice. I’d heard that voice so many times in so many years and now I’m sitting next to him with the best seat in the house. It was surreal. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m up to the challenge.