Laker Jordan Hill Lost His Mom at 3. Now He Plays in Her Memory
Jeff CowanJordan Hill
Pink is everywhere: pink pom-poms, pink ponchos, even pink beards. There are bulldogs strutting in pink sweaters. Pastels overpower the blue color scheme of the Dodger Stadium parking lot.
Standing atop a wooden riser, a woman clutches a pink megaphone beneath a banner reading: 2014 Los Angeles County Race for the Cure. She bellows to the thousands gathered: "Where are my 10-year survivors?"
A hundred women raise their arms and the crowd ignites.
"Where are my 15-year survivors?" she amplifies the volume. "My 20-year survivors... 25-year survivors... 30-year survivors... 40-year survivors?"
It continues until a single woman raises her gaunt bicep in the air to receive an oceanic roar. When the applause dims, the leader lowers her eyes and requests a moment of silence for "all of our loved ones who have gone on."
These few seconds of stillness are when I first locate a somber 6'10", 235-pound man with a bowed head and unruly dreadlocks. He's wearing gray sweats, pink Jordan hightops, and a "Jordan Hill Dunks for the Cure in Memory of Carol Hill" T-shirt.
A 26-year-old power forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, Jordan Hill is currently enjoying the best season of his half-decade NBA career. Over his last 10 games, the bruising and heavily tattooed University of Arizona alumnus has averaged 15.6 points, and 9.7 rebounds despite inconsistent playing time. He's awake on this drizzling, drowsy Saturday morning in March to raise money for cancer research, and to mourn his mother, Carol, who succumbed to a tumor that spread from her breast when he was only 3.
"It can be emotional. Seeing all the survivors makes me think about my mother and a scare that my sister had," says Hill, who now has two young girls and a boy of his own. "It makes me think about how I wish they had the medicine and treatments back then that they do now."
"Back then" was early 1991 in Laurens, S.C., a rural town of 9,083, where the median income droops near the poverty line and a "redneck store" prominently flies a Confederate flag in the town square. Hill's father was a 6'6" cross-country truck driver who once played community college hoops. His mother worked in the local Louis Rich turkey factory until the sickness metastasized. Too young for concrete memories, Hill's maternal recollections mostly come in the form of flashbacks.
"One of them is my mom being rushed to the hospital with me riding in the back of the ambulance, but none of my family remembers that incident, so I don't know it's true or not," Hill says, his baritone becoming an almost inaudible tremor.
The early tragedy was a harbinger of future hardship. Strife at home after his mother's death meant frequent back-and-forth shuttling between his father's place in Hilton Head and his grandmother's in Laurens. Success in Laurens wasn't determined by making it to the league but rather making it out alive. While Hill was being named All-Pac 10 at Arizona, his brother was shot and nearly killed back home. An older cousin was even unluckier - he was sprayed with 30 bullets in a mob-style assassination in 2011.
Despite the bleak surroundings, escape routes existed. Summers were mostly spent in nearby Whitmire at the family home of his cousin, Trevor Booker, a future star at Clemson and currently a forward with the Washington Wizards. The cousins spent oppressively humid Carolina summers warring in street hoops, baseball and football. Sprained ankles, broken bones and blood were commonplace.
"If I had to describe him in one word, it would be 'relentless,'" Booker says by phone, describing his cousin one night after a Wizards victory. "He had a rough childhood, especially after losing his mom, but he doesn't let anything stop him. He keeps fighting through anything and hates to lose."
Despite his rare combination of height and athleticism, Hill was an unlikely candidate to play professional sports. He never played organized basketball until the ninth grade, The year before - his last in Laurens - he'd grown too wild for his grandmother, causing her to send him off to his father, who'd relocated with his new wife to Atlanta.
Atlanta offered opportunities that Laurens couldn't provide, namely greater exposure and heated prep hoops competition. But trouble at home and academic woes quickly led to another new address. This time, Dr. Keith Ivy, the father of a friend from Hill's Spanish class, became Hill's legal guardian and steered him to an AAU basketball team, which catalyzed his basketball career.
Acting on a tip from Hill's AAU coach, recruiters from the University of Arizona came to Houston's Kingwood Classic tournament to watch the unknown country transplant battle against touted future L.A. Clippers center, DeAndre Jordan. A scholarship offer followed when Hill held his own against the No. 1-rated prospect in Texas.
Transferring before his senior year to hone his skills (and grades) at the vaunted Patterson School in North Carolina, Hill wound up in Tucson under the tutelage of legendary coach Lute Olson. Even though he'd earned a scholarship to one of the most prestigious programs in the country, Hill remained the underdog. His skills were still raw; playing time was scarce.
"I picked him up from the airport with my wife and stepdaughter. We all went out to eat and you could just tell that he was homesick - maybe the most of any student athlete I'd seen," says Josh Pastner, current head coach of the University of Memphis and the former Arizona assistant who discovered Hill and helped mold him into a future lottery pick.
The pair made an odd couple - a 6-foot-tall Jewish coaching prodigy in his late 20s with a preternaturally athletic but fundamentally lacking big man with a troubled past.
"He frustrated me so much because he always calling my phone and texting me, 24-7," Hill says laughing. "Looking back, he was just trying to get me in the right direction."
"He improved every single day," Pastner says. "It just took time to catch up. The hardest thing for a human being to do is change, and he had some unproductive habits and hardships; he had to grow up on his own. That's not easy to do, but he succeeded."
As Hill's play grew more consistent and NBA scouts ticketed him for future success, chaos continued to reign. Olson, who had recruited Hill, unexpectedly stepped down after his freshman year. The coaching carousel spun with two coaches in Hill's next two years.
"I didn't let it bother me," Hill says, surrounded by cancer survivors, fans and a retinue of Laker Girls representing the team at the Race for the Cure event. "I was there to play basketball and kept doing what I was supposed to do."
He found a father figure in another Arizona assistant, Mike Dunlap, currently head basketball coach at Loyola Marymount. During his junior year, Hill realized the potential that few had initially perceived. The turning point came during a nationally televised game against the University of Houston, when Arizona's star guard, Chase Budinger, had his chest stomped on during a particularly dirty altercation.
"They had us on the ropes, and [Hill] took it personally. During a timeout he told the team, 'I've got us,' that was literally all he said," recalls Dunlap. "I don't know if we'd have gone on to do anything as a team had he not. There was no rebound he couldn't get. He knows the dark side and has lived it, and that's part of what makes him such a relentless competitor."
The Wildcats won the game and eventually made it to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. After the season, Hill declared for the NBA draft and was selected eighth by the New York Knicks. But fans vocally desired Stephen Curry, venting frustrations on the rookie by booing him on draft day.
Things got worse when the coach of Knicks, Mike D'Antoni, refused to give Hill significant playing time.
Jeff CowanMike D'Antoni
The combination of being 22, making $2 million-plus a year and living in a condo inside the Ritz-Carlton in the country's biggest media market compounded the pressure. Immediate results were expected, but he couldn't crack the rotation.
"The fan base was pretty crazy. They're with you when they're winning, but if they ain't winning, they get in your ass," Hill says, still smiling. "When you're the No. 8 pick in the draft, you think they'll become a future star who they'll build a team around. But that didn't happen. It was hard, but I had to keep my head up. "
The contrast is magnified at the Race for the Cure. The Lakers are amidst the worst season in franchise history, but well-wishers constantly interrupt Hill. A bespectacled grandmother in a pink shirt asks for a photo and autograph, and tells him that he's awesome. Another fan strolls up and offers unsolicited feedback: "They need to play you more."
The lack of steady playing time seems to be the one thing consistently gnawing at Hill. In the NBA, time is literally money. With the importance of statistics increasingly paramount, your future is dependent on the whims of the coach's preferred style of play.
With D' Antoni's system valorizing a "Stretch 4" forward to hit 3-point shots and spread the floor, a thuggish enforcer like Hill seemed superfluous in New York. Midway through his rookie season, the Knicks swapped him to Houston, where he spent the next two seasons alternately hurt and fighting for scraps of playing time.
Opportunity arrived during the 2012 trade deadline when Hill was shipped to the Lakers in exchange for Derek Fisher and a draft pick. The new Marina del Rey resident quickly endeared himself to Lakers fans with his savage tenacity and hustle. His style of play is somewhere between Waka Flocka and A.C. Green: sharp elbows, flying dreads, a deceptively soft shooting touch. He rarely smiles on the court, snatching rebounds with palpable hunger, as though each loose ball is a life raft.
"He gives our team toughness and plays really hard all the time," says Lakers guard Jordan Farmar, who is here at the race as a member of Hill's charity team. "He's a lot more skilled than people think. He's a good shooter, has a good basketball IQ, and does all the little things to make a team better."
His Lakers stint has predictably had its share of adversity. Only 29 games into a two-year, $8 million contract, Hill tore a muscle in his hip, which caused him to miss more than half of last season. His reunion with D'Antoni has been equally awkward. Pigeonholing him as "a sprinter, not a marathon guy," D'Antoni has been reticent to play Hill more than 20 minutes a game. At the trade deadline, Hill was frequently seen as the Lakers most sought-after asset.
But since late-season injures have sidelined most of the Lakers' big men, Hill's numbers have exploded. He matched a career high by dropping 28 points on the Bucks late last month. Against Sacramento, he became only the seventh Laker in the last 20 years to have 18 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in a game. He's easily leading the team in overall field goal percentage (54.9%) and rebounding percentage. His 9.7 overall PPG and 7.3 RPG are both career highs, and his 19.0 offensive efficiency rating is near all-star level.
It's a contract year, and speculation abounds that Hill will leave L.A. as a free agent should D'Antoni return. Hill says he wants to return to the Lakers, but his desire for more playing time is obvious.
"I've been in the league for a few years and I've grown up and matured. I know that I can help a team out," Hill says, understatedly, rubbing his hands with his eyes, still tired from last night's game. "I have to be optimistic. I've been dealing with struggles since I was young and have gotten used to it. I can't do nothing but keep going on."
When asked, he describes himself as a simple "what you see is what you get" type of person. This is the sort of cliche that athletes frequently employ to deflect attention or throw reporters off the trail.
But with Hill, it 's literal. He has more than 50 tattoos, largely devoted to basketball, his family, kids, God or the Carolinas. The most salient is the one on his left arm, the first ink that he received at 16, years before his first scholarship offer or pro contract. It's a basketball inscribed with Carol Hill's name on it. The message reads: "In Loving Memory. Doing It for You."
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