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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Grant Hill Talks March Madness Memories and Coach K’s ‘Genius’

  • Hill has never watched the famous 1992 Duke-Kentucky game.
  • He has a "unique perspective" on the Final Four as both player and commentator.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports/Design: John Regula

Grant Hill has seen the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from almost every angle — he has been to the Final Four as a spectator, player, and broadcaster.

In four years at Duke under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Hill was a two-time All-American, two-time National Champion, and the 1994 ACC Player of the Year. His No. 33 hangs from the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The seven-time NBA All-Star is currently a co-owner and Vice Chair of the Board for the Atlanta Hawks, as well as a broadcaster on Turner Sports and CBS’ lead announcing team alongside Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Tracy Wolfson.

For this year’s tourney, Hill is partnering Philips Norelco to promote the company’s OneBlade First Shave for young men, as well as men’s health — including the #NorelcoGroomingChallenge, where guys of all ages can post selfies of their March Mustaches, Bracket Beards, and everything else to win a grooming prize pack.

FOS sat down with Hill to discuss his legendary Duke career, Coach K, and the current state of March Madness.

You had scholarship offers at some really great programs, and at that point Duke had yet to win a national championship. What made you decide on Duke?

I think it was a number of things. Coach K, the program, the school was incredible. But really Coach K. He was someone who had really built this program and had been to the Final Four a number of years but just could not win the big one. His vision for the program, his vision for me, his ability to connect with you — I just wanted to be a part of it. I’m glad that he offered, and I’m glad that I accepted.

What are the expectations for players on a Coach K team?

Coach K told me during the recruiting process, “Look, I’ll always give you my best, and I expect in return that you’ll always give me yours.” He did, and I’d like to think that I returned the favor. There was so much I took from that experience playing for him and learning from him — life lessons, values that you take with you and apply in all areas of your life.

But there was a championship expectation. Every year, everything we did was to get ready for the pursuit of a championship. The vision and then the ability to execute that vision — he was absolutely incredible at that. Every team had a unique personality, but he was able to convince everyone to bond together, play for one another, and buy into this theme that we were a team. It was a beautiful experience.

Everyone knows the Coach K presented in the media, but what’s something that people might not know about him?

Wow. I mean after 42 years, I think a lot of people know him. He’s a relationship coach. He’s a guy that takes the time to learn about his players, understand who they are, connect with them on a deeper level. I’m a different player than Christian Laettner, than Bobby Hurley, and he coached us all differently.

Part of his genius is his people skills. He did it on the stage at USA Basketball with some of the great NBA players. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Jason Kidd — I think they had a tremendous amount of respect and enjoyed playing for him.

As a player, what does the intensity and pressure of an NCAA tournament feel like?

Well, if you go back to my playing days, it was very different. The magnitude, the coverage — all of that has increased over the last almost 30 years. When we played, we were more in a bubble.

Coach K was really good at getting us focused on the weekend. We broke it down by the team we had to face in the first game, and then two days later, the winner of the next game. We looked at it as a four-team tournament, and that way it wasn’t so overwhelming.

Nowadays, it’s so much more overwhelming, and it’s gotta be challenging for these young men and women to really lock in. We didn’t have that kind of distraction, even though there was incredible pressure.

What’s the atmosphere like at the Final Four?

It’s incredible. First of all, there’s a lot of distractions. A lot of media accessibility, which can be unusual, even for a pretty high-profile program like Duke. But the media, the fanfare, it’s just bigger — and also what’s at stake, what you’re playing for, knowing that the hottest teams in the country are there.

For us, it was trying to keep a level of normalcy, trying to have the same routine we’ve had throughout the whole tournament and the whole season and not get caught up in all the hype, which is easier said than done.

How different is experiencing the biggest moments as a member of the media?

My relationship with the tournament goes back even further than my playing days. The first Final Four I watched was in ‘82, and that really was when I fell in love with basketball. Then my dad took me to five Final Fours from 1984 to 1988. It was fun to be a spectator experiencing a Final Four weekend during my adolescent years. Then to have played in the Final Four and now having called the Final Four — I’ve had a unique perspective in a lot of ways.

I’m so grateful that I’m still around it. It brings back memories on the court with some great teammates playing for a legendary coach. It reminds me of guys trips with my dad to the Final Four. Just fond memories across the board and getting a chance to make more memories with the broadcast. Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson — we have a blast together. It’s an awesome role, an awesome responsibility, and it’s something we don’t take lightly.

“The Shot” is one of the most legendary plays in college basketball history. What’s something about that moment that has maybe been lost in history?

It’s interesting because so much about that game has been talked about. There’ve been documentaries and specials. I’ve never gone back and watched it. I’ve seen clips and highlights, obviously. I still get nervous when I see that shot.

One of the things — and it’s probably why I didn’t watch it — was that I feel like we got complacent. And not taking anything away from Kentucky, because they were incredible — Jamal Mashburn was great.

But we were up double-figures with 10 minutes left in the game, we got a little complacent and left the door open. That’s a spot where typically we took care of business all season. This time we didn’t and almost hurt our chances of making history.

Coach K was spectacular in that huddle. Laettner was just brilliant all game and at the end there with that incredible shot. It’s certainly one of the iconic moments in [NCAA] history. Grateful to have been a part of that.

What was your initial impetus for teaming up with Philips Norelco?

Really excited about this campaign because it’s appealing to young college basketball fans. I remember being a first-time shaver wasn’t a pleasant experience for me, so to be able to provide this easier blade for young shavers is fantastic.

Also, I’m middle-aged now, I’m not a first-time shaver, and Philips Norelco is emphasizing the importance of men taking care of themselves. Mental, physical, emotional health. Really exciting to align with them on all of that.

Any crazy facial hair planned for the tournament?

[Laughs and shows off beard] This is about as crazy as it gets. I’ll post something for sure, and I’ll participate. But I don’t think Jim Nantz would like me to be too crazy while I’m calling games with him. So I’ll leave it at this.

What was it like to attend Coach K’s final home game?

The leadup to the game was overwhelming. For the entire season, but particularly in the days leading up to that moment, there was so much coverage, almost like a Final Four. To be in the building — the energy was palpable. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in Cameron, and I experienced some amazing moments.

When the game started, you could just feel it in the building. I told my wife that I’m not sure if I were 19, 20 years old, I’d be able to play at a high level in this kind of environment. And she said, “Well, didn’t you play in three Final Fours?” And I said, “Yeah, but this is different.”

I’m not surprised that we didn’t play well. North Carolina was fantastic and did exactly what they needed to do to secure a win. It was incredible but also hard to focus on getting the job done and winning. Even though the team lost, it didn’t take away from one of the great moments in Duke basketball history — and one of the saddest, too.

How do you feel about Duke’s prospects of winning it all this year?

Oh yeah, I love it. I pick Duke to win every year, I don’t hide from that. I’m a Dukie, you know that, I know that, everyone knows that. So I always pull for them, and every five or six years or so, I look really good.

But I do think this year’s team — despite the performance against Carolina, despite what happened in the ACC tournament — has the ability and the talent. These guys have had, as Coach said, an acceptable season. There’s no better coach in terms of getting a team prepped and ready for a long tournament run and ultimately a championship.

So it’s not easy, but if they made it to the Final Four, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. I’d be very happy, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

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