In a frenzied world, it is Jordan Hill’s private moment. It happens before every game. He stands still and talks to his mother, to Carol. In this he is alone. It feels like his mother died yesterday. But she was stolen from him when he was three. There is nothing virtuous about breast cancer, only trying to survive its cruelty. The irony is stunning. His mother was vanquished by the disease and Jordan still has the wounds. After Carol died, after she left the world and the world continued on, Jordan learned the art of coping. There are things he remembers and there are things that are repressed. He cannot quite trust either, to be honest. Jordan sees certain images of Carol floating in odd patterns throughout his brain. Not a dream. But not real life either. Sometimes it feels like he is being punished.
On opening night, against the Los Angeles Clippers, Jordan Hill scored 12 points and had eight rebounds to help the Lakers in an upset win. In that game he played eighteen minutes. Two weeks later, as a starter, he had 21 points and 11 rebounds in a game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Against the Denver Nuggets, on the second night of a back to back, he had 18 points and 15 rebounds and played thirty minutes. Last Sunday, against Detroit he had 24 points and 17 rebounds.
The statistics have been glamorous and gaudy and a little Dennis Rodman-esque but that is only part of what makes Jordan’s play so dramatic. The man who knows death, plays as if this will be the last game he will ever see. He hustles for balls, he uses his body to shield defenders, he tracks down missed shots, he finishes on pick and rolls. Of course he is not perfect. There were games in which he missed free throws. He had no answer for Zach Randolph in the fourth quarter last Friday night when Randolph abused him with his patented twelve footer. But Jordan Hill has been the Lakers most consistent player. He has kept them afloat. He has made sure they have an interior presence and more important than that he has infected the team with his energy and his heart.
The question about athletes is where do they get their strength from? The outside? From fans who trade upon loyalties as they live from game to game? Or is it inside of them, something unseen, which is why Jordan Hill is the way he is, because of the tragedies that have cropped up in his life like weeds. He was a motherless child. He changed households so many times his brain was dizzy. He struggled through his childhood and adolescence. He picked himself up after he had fallen down, after he enrolled in college and was far, far away from South Carolina. Even after his brother was shot he had to figure out a way to keep going, keep moving ahead. Even though he wondered if disaster was following him.
Some people never have anything dramatic happen to them. And some people have everything happen to them. Jordan was drafted by the Knicks and eight months later traded to the Rockets. One particular night a late call from his sister turned his world upside down. She was weeping and at the same time telling him his cousin, Yohance ‘Yogi’ Hill, had been murdered. Jordan was shaken and struggled to get through it, to play basketball as if basketball even mattered. One more crack in his already battered heart. Another sleepless night where he was bombarded by dreams. Whoever said being a professional athlete had its difficulties was telling a lie. Being an athlete was not particularly hard; being a person was hard, living life was hard.
When Jordan was drafted in 2009, the crowd in Madison Square Garden booed him. Always a little bit irrational, the Knick fans were in love with Steph Curry. But the way things worked out, Golden State took Curry with the #7 pick and the Knicks selected Jordan Hill with the 8th pick. The New York fans did not forget their broken dream. They were particularly bitter as the season started. Brandon Jennings, who had been selected after Jordan Hill by the Milwaukee Bucks at #10, was a starter, while Jordan, their first round pick, could not get off the bench. Even Marcus Landry, an undrafted free agent for the Knicks, played ahead of Jordan Hill.
As a rookie for the Knicks, Jordan’s best game of the season was against Golden State. Jordan had 10 points in 14 minutes and did not miss a shot, going 5-5. Although it was never seen as a competition of Hill vs. Curry, Jordan ended up outscoring Steph by ten. Steph did not get into the game until late into the second quarter and he did not score nor have an assist. Still, D’Antoni and general manager Donnie Walsh gave up on Jordan by midseason. D’Antoni referred to Jordan as a “bad rookie.” He was traded in February in a deal that sent an aging Tracy McGrady to New York and Jordan to the Houston Rockets. Two years after that, Jordan Hill would be traded again, this time to the Lakers.
Los Angeles is where men come to heal their careers. In 2007 it was Trevor Ariza. In 2012 it was Earl Clark. Now it is Jordan Hill. It is easy to understand why. If you play here and play well you are the recipient of praise, some earned, some unearned. It is the sort of praise made of paper. It can crumble in the rain. Praise is not what Jordan necessarily seeks anyway, not at the expense of things that endure. He has always been part of a broken world. He never experienced a life free of adversity. Or had the privilege of acceptance. Or respect. In other words what he is asking of the Lakers: do not change me. Do not misinterpret me. Understand me.
Kobe advised Jordan to work on his game in the offseason. It was another way of saying to him: believe in your promise. This is the best time in Jordan’s basketball life, this triumph. It is the dream of every man to rise above those you vanquish. And yet for Jordan there are ashes in the reflection. There are the haunting hours in which he thinks of those who have suddenly died leaving him scarred. He still remembers the suffering that brought him to this point of beauty. He is more polished now so it doesn’t show anymore how hard and troubled his life has been.
When your mother dies her death is hers. But-and this is the odd thing- your life is suddenly yours. You do not know this at the time. You can’t. Truth has always been on Jordan Hill’s side much more than tradition. His path here has been anything but straight. It is its own training manual on how to survive and hang on, or, how to survive and persevere. Neither a saint nor a rogue, his strategy is pretty simplistic. Just don’t quit, do not give up.
We shall never surrender, so advised Winston Churchill. It sounds like something out of Jordan Hill’s life. He’s been through a lot of wars that would have crumbled the weak. He suffered through a classic tragedy that produced sorrow. He missed parts of his life. Sometimes you get weary, there is too much torture. But fights are often decided in the middle rounds by the man who can take the exhaustion. Perhaps in some odd way Jordan knew this about himself. And he knows his mother is watching. So his effort exceeds his energy. He gives everything even if that means digging the shovel into a crevice. Or talking to an angel. Breathe in the best. Breathe out the worst. It is secretly true: sometimes horrible things happen when you are three. And sometimes that is the gift of what is to come next, the resurrection of your own life.