I only know of the old Grant Hill from the stories. He’s easily the first guy who comes up in the “THAT GUY was going to be the next MJ” draft if you did one with only people over the age of 30. Hill’s legend was immense before he even stepped foot on an NBA court, and though he came up in small-market Detroit in the aftermath of the Bad Boy champions, everyone knew Grant Hill. Donning the pretty teal uni with the big ‘ol fiery horse on the front, Hill, a true jack of all trades, looked every bit the part of the next NBA superstar.
That is, until the injuries piled up. Like so many throughout sports history, the bottom fell out underneath Hill. Amidst the best season of his career, Hill, averaging nearly 26 points per game on impressive efficiency, played on a sprained ankle into the playoffs before worsening it in the first round. That summer, Hill jumped to Orlando, but wouldn’t be the same physically for nearly a decade, until he landed in Phoenix and the rejuvenation of a lost career began.
Aaron Nelson first was hired by the Suns as a graduate student at Arizona State University over two decades ago. As he rose through the ranks of the team’s training staff, he made his name on preventative care and the holistic approach he took to sports science. “It’s (about) recovery, nutrition and tying all of those areas together,” Nelson told Pelicans.com this year. Prior to helping Hill recover from the lingering ankle problems, Nelson helped Stephon Marbury get healthy early on, then led a successful rehab process for Amar’e Stoudemire following a microfracture surgery in 2005. That was all typical training staff stuff, though. It wasn’t until Hill came around that Nelson’s name came onto the national radar for NBA fans.
As the Suns’ reputation grew around the league, the team “started getting players who were coming to Phoenix specifically because of the sports-medicine system, such as Grant Hill,” said Mike Clark, a mentor to Nelson. “(Hill) wanted the sports-medicine care there.”
After playing just 200 games across the previous seven seasons, Hill proceeded to play 70 or more games over his first four seasons in Phoenix. New practices like the use of the Cryosauna, which sinks to 300 degrees below zero, like a supercharged ice bath, converted Hill to the Way of Nellie. Soon, Hill was converting other athletes such as Alex Rodriguez to the training staff’s dogma.
Finding Nelson and the Suns at a turning point in his life allowed Hill to prolong his legendary basketball career, compete with a winning team once more, and become the perfect fan favorite for many Valley hoops lovers thanks to his workmanlike consistency and fun Uncle persona.
Hill was so widely respected around the game that my main memory of his third act in Phoenix was that it was mostly celebratory — a sigh of relief among people who hated how injuries derailed his career. Suns fans were happy to have a steady secondary play-maker and defender on the wing (especially after the departure of Shawn Marion), while other teams’ fans appreciated Hill finding a landing place that suited him.
This video does a nice job of showing the way Hill became more spry and bouncy thanks to Nelson and the Suns’ training staff:
By the time of the storybook 2010 season, Hill was on his last legs, 38 years old and rarely siced on the best opposing scorer like he was in his prime. In the first round of the playoffs, Hill defended Nicolas Batum rather than Jerryd Bayless or Andre Miller. His athleticism gone, Hill was still a sturdy scorer and help defender, a simple role, but one that even a few years prior seemed out of reach.