HOUSTON — One thousand games.
There was a time when it seemed more likely he might undergo 1,000 surgeries.
“I’m still here,” said Grant Hill, his feet soaking in a tub of ice that seemed to be melting from the smile on his face.
The fact that he’s still anywhere near an NBA court, let alone running up and down one, is an act of love and stubbornness.
Players like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant have been fortunate to be free of major injuries and blew through their first 1,000 games like they were in the EZ-Pass lane on a highway.
For Hill, it’s been the long, bumpy road that could have made him want to pull over and get off so many times.
“Not when you can do this,” Hill said on Monday night after a 117-109 win over the Rockets gave his Clippers their 30th win of the season and kept them just behind the Thunder for the best record in the league.
This was just one layup early in the second quarter. This was just 16 minutes off the bench. This was just his third game of the season after a bruised bone in his right knee forced him out for the first three months of the schedule.
But this was also chasing that passion that’s driven Hill for as long as he can remember.
Fact is, he probably wouldn’t still have been sitting there in the visitors’ locker room inside the Toyota Center three months past his 40th birthday if everything had gone according to plan as the Duke All-American, the 1995 co-Rookie of the Year, the seven-time NBA All-Star.
Here he is trying to work himself back into game shape for an 18th season because he had so many of them (in what should have been the prime of his career) taken away by ankle and knee surgeries, by a staph infection that could have taken away his life.
“At a time like this, on a night like this, I think about the relationships, the lessons learned,” Hill said. “All the little things become more significant and those are the things I take away.”
The surgeons who kept repairing his body and the trainers and the therapists and the ballboys who did all of the things that let him continue to get back out onto the court time after time. All of the coaches, who gave him space and all of the players who gave him their embrace.
From 2000 through 2006, Hill missed 356 of a possible 492 games. That’s what makes nights like this one still special.
“It goes by so fast,” said veteran teammate Lamar Odom. “One minute you’re coming into the league as a kid ready to take on the world. Then look over there at (Grant) and you can see what it feels like to have this life slipping through your hands. You don’t ever want to let it go. It’s special.”
How fitting then that this might be a very special Clippers team, the kind that could take Hill to the one place he’s never been in the NBA from Detroit to Orlando to Phoenix — reaching out for a real shot at a championship.
“When we lost to the Lakers in the conference finals (2010) and Amar’e (Stoudemire) left, I kinda went, ‘Well, maybe it wasn’t in the cards,’ ” he said. “But Phoenix trying to rebuild might have been the best thing for me personally. I got a chance to come here.
“A lot goes into the winning. There are variables. You need the organization to assemble the talent. You need the coaching. You need the talent to recognize the opportunity that’s there and to give up a little bit of themselves as individuals, and you need lots of things to go right. You’ve got to stay healthy, you know.”
Who knows that better than Hill? He looks at the empty locker stalls a few feet away where 36-year-old Chauncey Billups is still recovering from Achilles’ tendon surgery and tendinitis in his foot, where All-Star and MVP candidate Chris Paul sat out his second straight game with a sore right knee. Hill is the second-oldest player in the league and hasn’t forgotten a year or a month or a day that it took to get here.
“I feel like after all the things that I’ve been through, it’s a reward to be on this team,” he said. “So I’ve been champing at the bit the last three months to get back out there. I’m excited, but also mad at myself for not being where I want to be. I think this team has a chance to be special.”
Grant Hill wiggles his toes in the ice.
One thousand games never felt so good.