Last October, Grant Hill was far from the Gothic buildings and Piedmont pine forests of Duke University as he ran along Venice Boulevard, observing the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.
Before he knew it, Hill was at Crenshaw Boulevard, and thought, “Oh, man, I’ve got to be careful.”
Hill crossed the intersection, then noticed a parked Jeep with loud music blaring from inside. A tinted window rolled down and a young man stared at Hill. A voice rang out, “Hey, turn around.”
Did the blue and white sweat suit he wore represent the colors of an opposing gang?
Thought Hill, “This is all I need before the season.”
Then another voice came from the vehicle: “Hey, aren’t you Grant Hill from Duke?”
Later that day, Hill related the incident to his girlfriend, Jada Pinkett, an actress in the sitcom “A Different World.”
She told him, “Are you crazy? You could have been shot, running up and down there in a Duke sweat suit.”
Not crazy, simply naive at times. Hill, a 6-foot-8 forward with the moves of a point guard, laughed about the incident one day last month at Duke.
Said Pinkett: “What I love about Grant is his innocence. He is grounded, not the spoiled type.”
Hill skipped through adolescence as if it were a game of hopscotch. Sometimes, even he reflects on how an ordinary guy could be so lucky.
Hill probably could have blown through Duke like a summer breeze. But after 2 1/2 years, those close to the soft-spoken kid from Reston, Va., have noticed changes.
After a radio interview involving Grant and his parents, Calvin and Janet, last year, his father marveled at his son’s development.
“I was just dumbfounded that this little kid I sent to Duke at 18 was (so) sophisticated with his answers,” said Calvin Hill, a former NFL star who is vice president of the Baltimore Orioles.
With unblinking certainty, Hill has matured. And parts of the process prompt second thoughts, if not exactly pain.
He might not accept it, but Hill understands that along Tobacco Road he is special as long as he laces his high tops and slams some home for the Blue Devils.
“I know I get treated differently because I’m an athlete, and I don’t experience a lot of things a lot of minority students here experience,” he said.
If Duke is the bastion of old Southern money, then it will take time to rearrange some of the old thinking.
The treatment of minority students and faculty has bothered Hill for some time, but as a painfully shy freshman, he was in no position to address the issues. Hill continues to grapple with ways to make a statement. Slowly now, his feelings are seeping out.
“There is definitely a problem,” he said. “Duke talks about multiculturalism, and this is the Duke experience. I don’t see it, I really don’t.”
Once, Hill had a disagreement with a teacher, which he assumed had stemmed from prejudice. He discussed the problem with his parents, who told him of similar experiences in their successful lives, but cautioned that racism is not always the cause. They told him to learn from the incident and try to do what he can to make a difference. That is one reason Hill is studying African-American and American Indian history.
“I want to understand why things are the way they are today,” he said. “We’ve got to be careful to distinguish what is racism and what isn’t.”
Hill said he is frustrated that the school has yet to develop an African-American studies department, despite promises of one for about 20 years.
Last fall, five North Carolina football players in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., threatened to transfer if the university failed to construct a black student center. University officials relented.
The incident had a profound effect on Duke’s elite athletes. Hill said he is not prepared to waive his scholarship and quit playing in protest, but he does want change.
“The day Grant Hill stands up and speaks out will send a chill through this university,” said Darryl Roberts, a political science professor who has charged Duke officials with racism because he was denied tenure.
Perhaps Hill will never be so bold. He does not consider himself the kind of figure that commands attention. On the court, Hill has resisted the temptation to lead Duke in the vocal way Christian Laettner did last season.
Hill prefers a more subtle approach, even in such divisive issues as race relations.
“I think a lot has to do with the way he was raised,” said Antonio Lang, Hill’s teammate and roommate.
Calvin Hill, a Yale graduate, flourished in the the NFL, playing on a Dallas Cowboy team that won the Super Bowl. And Janet Hill, a physics major, shared a dormitory suite with Hillary Rodham Clinton at Wellesley. She once worked for the secretary of the Army, and today is a partner in a Washington consulting firm.
Calvin and Janet had the means to show their only son the world, and instill in him the strong family values so much in the news during last fall’s Presidential campaign.
Calvin, once the model for a regular character in Doonesbury cartoons, has tried to give his son an appreciation for perspective. When Grant went to Havana for the 1991 Pan American Games, Calvin gave him some books on Cuba.
“Just so he would better understand how (President Fidel) Castro came about,” Calvin said.
When Grant was a child, Janet took him on educational trips. Calvin took him on trips for fun.
Once, when accompanying his mother and grandmother to the offices of Kingman Brewster, U.S. ambassador to England, Grant, then 6, could not restrain himself. He started doing headstands for the ambassador.
They took him to Asia, South America, across Europe. His mother took him to see the Pyramids in Egypt.
The family lived in Hawaii when Grant was 10, and Calvin was playing for a team in a fledgling football league. One day off, Hill took his son to lunch at the Moana Hotel, and then to nearby Waikiki Beach. Calvin fell asleep and when he awoke, Grant was missing.
“I ran up and down the beach and didn’t see him,” Calvin said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, my wife is going to kill me.’ ”
Squinting, Hill looked toward the surf line. About 100 yards from a coral reef, he noticed surfers bobbing in the water.
He spied Grant, dived into the turquoise ocean and started swimming frantically toward his son.
“I almost drowned,” Calvin Hill said. “I’m gulping water, not relaxing like you’re supposed to. He’s out there with all these local kids with surfboards.”
Grant was floating on a Boogie board as if he were lying in a water bed. He got an earful from his terrified father.
“He looks at me and says, ‘Dad, why are you dog-paddling? Why don’t you stand up?’ ” Calvin said.
“I stood up and the water was about five feet deep.”
The two laugh about their relationship, but it was not always easy. When asked if his father is his biggest fan, which he most certainly is, Grant replied, “Yeah, and my biggest critic.”
Because Grant wanted to be like other children, he was uncomfortable with his father’s powerful presence. When Calvin spoke at Langston Hughes Junior High in Reston, eighth-grader Grant feigned illness that day.
He was so careful not to seem better than his friends that he wanted to play junior varsity basketball as a freshman. But by then, he was quite a prospect. Reston might have been idyllic suburbia, but its basketball was playground serious. Hill learned in pickup games against Tommy Amaker, Carlos Yates, Dennis Scott and Michael Jackson, eventual college stars.
Wendell Byrd, the South Lakes High coach, invited Hill to try out for varsity. He wanted no part of it. The coach told Grant to talk to his father. Byrd already had.
Calvin told Hill to try. Hill said he felt pressured into it and accused his father of child abuse. Eventually, though, he played--and starred--as he has been doing since.
Hill is starting to accept his father’s suggestions. One led him to Pinkett, his girlfriend. Calvin worked with her aunt and the adults suggested they meet.
Living at opposite ends of the country made it difficult. But they met last summer when Pinkett accompanied the Hills to baseball’s All-Star game in San Diego.
Grant then came to Los Angeles last fall. He visited the set of “A Different World” and the actors were impressed.
Even in La La Land, it turned out, Hill has star quality.