Twenty five years later, Grant Hill has never watched what many consider the greatest college basketball game of all time. And he was in it.
Hill played an integral role by delivering the precise pass that set up The Shot by Christian Laettner in Duke’s 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament.
After a quarter-century, Hill is still annoyed that Duke blew a double-digit lead that day and needed the miracle shot to advance on the way to the Blue Devils’ back-to-back national championships. He’s watched clips. But the entire game? Nope.
“I won’t watch that game because I feel like we got careless,” Hill told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t want to take away from the greatness of the Kentucky team and what they did, but we were up 10 or 12 points in the second half. We were a good enough team where we could close out games like that. We could manage the game, extend the lead from 10 to 16 and knock them out. And we got overconfident, I think.
“And it almost cost us a chance to win back-to-back championships. There is a part of me that’s upset about it. Like, ‘Man, we almost blew that game.’ On the flip side, if we would have won the game by 10 points, nobody would remember it. I guess it all works out in the end.”
There is a distinct connection between the Atlanta Hawks and that memorable moment. Hill is a co-owner of the Hawks and serves as the vice chair of the board. Laettner played two-plus seasons with the Hawks and was an All-Star in 1996-97.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the game played March 28, 1992, the East Regional final at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. With Duke trailing by one with 2.1 seconds remaining, Hill had the ball under the far basket and was left unguarded. He delivered a 79-foot overhand pass to Laettner at the free-throw line. He took a dribble, spun and hit the game-winner over Deron Feldhaus as time expired. The play has been on nearly every highlight reel in each NCAA Tournament since.
No player in this year’s tournament had even been born yet. The arena was demolished in 2009. Yet, the play lives on.
Hill says he is still approached by fans who let him know they remember where they were at the time … and some who say they still hate Duke.
“That play captures and embodies the spirit of the tournament,” Hill said. “Buzzer-beater. Tight game. Extreme celebration on one hand. Total misery and dejection on the other. The generation following that play, it’s become the iconic moment. I’m so overwhelmed that it connects and resonates with fans.”
There had been a full dress rehearsal for The Pass that year. It failed.
Duke had never actually practiced the celebrated play. Hill said the team would run warmup drills before practice where two teammates would throw a ball off the backboard and then proceed down the court, first with short passes and eventually with a long football pass where no dribble was required for a layup. They also ran different end-of-game situations following practices.
On the way to the national championship, Duke went 34-2. The last loss came at Wake Forest on Feb. 23, a 72-68 defeat. Hill recalled Duke trailed late in the game and ran a play where he threw a long pass to Laettner, who was to run from one one side of the court to the other. Wake Forest, unlike Kentucky, defended the inbound pass. Hill’s pass curved and although Laettner caught it, he stepped out of bounds. No miracle.
Hill said he learned a lesson from that game and thought about it just before delivering the ball to Laettner. If Kentucky put a defender on the ball, Hill could step backward to give himself three or four more feet. He didn’t necessarily have to stand right on the baseline. It didn’t matter.
“My ego would like to think I could have delivered it with somebody on the ball but thankfully I didn’t have to worry about that,” Hill said.
There was also another reason Hill was chosen to inbound the ball. He is the son of Calvin Hill, who played 12 NFL seasons and made four Pro Bowls. He was named by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach. Though he’d never played the game, he bragged he had football in his genes. And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw all those throws in practice warmups.
Once the pass was delivered, Hill had perfect view from behind Laettner’s shot. He remembers being concerned that Laettner took a dribble, fearing there was not enough time. Hill could see the shot was on line and knew it was true when the Duke section behind and to the left of the basket were “shot out of a cannon” once the ball swished through the hoop.
“I could see it all,” Hill said. “Then I remember wanting to go and hug Christian and he was running toward me. Then he had the gall to avoid me so he could have his moment by himself before the rest of the team piled on. I remember thinking ‘This dude is running away from me.’”
There was an encore of The Pass. It worked again.
Hill was part of an alumni game in 2002 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 10 years after the iconic play. All the players who were on the court a decade before were in attendance so Krzyzewski ran the play one more time. Hill made the pass and Laettner made the shot. The fans went crazy.
“Actually, my pass in Cameron was not as good as my pass in the Spectrum,” said Hill, who still hasn’t watched the game but remembers everything anyway.