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[PHOTO] Stepping Up: Summer 2008

Small kindneses, big returns

Hill has been very active in the Indianapolis community. Here, he poses with kids at a "Baseball in Education" day at the Indianapolis Indians.

The direction of a life can turn on the smallest item, an act as simple as tying someone else's shoelaces.

For George Hill, one such small act of kindness — more than a decade ago, on a school playground, when he tied the laces of Jeremiah Chlumsky, a boy he barely knew — was significant. Hill's family built a friendship with Joseph and Rebecca Chlumsky, Jeremiah's parents. Hill found an additional strong adult role model to help him find his way in life. And eventually, the relationship blossomed into a dream trip for Hill, when the budding 13-year-old basketball player got a chance to attend a summer camp run by his idol, Michael Jordan, at the University of California Santa Barbara.

The Chlumskys paid his way to the camp and Joe drove him there, a three-day pilgrimage. And for young George, a die-hard Jordan fan, it was a magical moment. He'd brought his Jordan shoes, shirts and more with him, but when he got to the room he would share with two others, he found them wearing far more MJ gear than he had ever seen.

"I remember thinking, 'who are these guys?'" he chuckles.

The three quickly found themselves having fun, playing games well past lights-out. Then Hill recalls "someone knocking on the door." His roommates were closer to the door, checked out the visitor through a peephole, then fled the room. When Hill checked for himself, all he could see was the back of a very tall man, who turned out to be his roommates' father: a guy named Jordan.

"It kinda explained why Michael and Jeffrey had so much Michael Jordan stuff," Hill laughs. After that, he admits, when lights out was called, "my head was on the pillow!"

Biggest thrill

That night wasn't Hill's only brush with the world's most famous pro athlete. He was named the camp's most valuable player, an achievement he still treasures. But his biggest thrill? That came when "Michael promised a new pair of Air Jordans to the first one who could hit two straight free throws."

What Jordan didn't tell the potential contestants was that they'd have to hit the shots "with him jumping up and down, all in your face," Hill laughs. The future Broad Ripple and IUPUI standout was the only player to turn the trick, but he had to "wait five months for the shoes to show up" because Jordan's new shoe line hadn't yet been released to the marketplace.

Being a first-round NBA draft pick by the San Antonio Spurs "felt good... It was always my childhood dream."
— George Hill

"It was worth the wait, though," Hill says with a sly smile, if only because — as with many of life's most worthwhile prizes — it was earned in trial by fire, in the heat of competition. And competition is something the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Hill knows well. Such challenges are "in my blood."

And late on the night of June 26, Hill's biggest challenge yet emerged, when he was the 26th pick in the first round of the 2008 NBA

Draft, selected by the San Antonio Spurs. Hearing his name called by NBA commissioner David Stern "felt good ... that I finally made it." Hill told The Indianapolis Star on draft night. "It was always my childhood dream."

He became the first IUPUI player — indeed, the first Summit League/Mid-Continent Conference player — ever picked by the world's top professional basketball league. And being the first American-born player selected in the first round by the four-time NBA champion Spurs helped ease the frustration of a 2007-08 Jaguar season that fell one game short of an NCAA tournament berth.

The loss left Hill with an empty feeling, despite a season that earned him Player of the Year honors in the league, first-team all-league recognition, and nationwide mention for various All-America teams.

IUPUI choice a family matter

That Hill is at IUPUI at all is a matter of family. The son of a factory worker father and a mother who drives a Pike Township school bus "planned to go to Florida and play for the Gators, but my grandfather was passing away, and I thought during my senior year at Broad Ripple that if I went to IUPUI, he might get to come off life support long enough to see me play college ball."

That didn't happen, but the fact that "my family is here, and the city can get behind us" makes up — a bit — for the loss of his grandfather.

Basketball wasn't always his passion. As a kid, Hill played soccer, golf, chess and baseball, even flirted with hockey. "I had to try that," he laughs. "I wasn't much good, but at least I tried."

Soccer was his first love — "I played goalie, and I wasn't bad" — and he loved playing baseball at Broad Ripple, too. He did well on the diamond, too; in four years on the varsity, Hill started at shortstop, third base and center field. But when he started playing organized basketball leading up to sixth grade, Hill knew he'd found his path.

"I liked the game, but I didn't really get serious about it until a kid I was playing beat me 21-0," Hill recalls. "Nobody had ever beaten me like that in anything, so I knew I had to work at it."

The work paid off, and quickly. "It felt natural right away," he says, and by the time he finished high school, Hill had built an impressive resume.

As a senior, he led the basketball-mad state of Indiana in scoring, and though his Broad Ripple team struggled in the win-loss column, he provided one of the most dramatic moments in the state that season when he led the Rockets to a stunning state tournament upset of highly regarded Carmel on the Greyhounds' own court, out-dueling future North Carolina star Josh McRoberts, now with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. His body of work easily earned him a coveted spot on the Indiana All-Star team in its annual summer series with the Kentucky All-Stars.

Hill was an early success at IUPUI, earning All-Newcomer team honors in the Mid-Continent Conference as a freshman and first-team all-league status as a sophomore. But his dreams took a jolt early in his junior season.

Hill proved his versatility at many positions, a key factor in his first-round draft by the San Antonio Spurs

Rough patch

In the second game of a November tournament at Ohio State, he broke his foot. He worked hard at rehabilitation throughout November and December, and came back for the Jaguars' first three games after Christmas. But ongoing pain — and the potential for longterm injury — convinced both Hill and head coach Ron Hunter to take a medical redshirt season, giving Hill two more years of college eligibility.

"It was a long, rough season," Hill sighs.

"I have no words to describe it. I've never been through anything like that — it was so frustrating! I wanted to go out there so badly; whenever things would start to go a little wrong for the team, I'd see something that I could do to help. But I couldn't."

The layoff "humbled me a lot," he admits. "But things happen for a reason. I need to be more mature out there, to be more vocal and more of a leader, instead of doing my own thing."

He worked hard in the weight room, trying to get bigger, faster and stronger.

"And I spent a lot of time watching, trying to learn how to break down other players," he says. "I started to look for the differences between me and the other guy; how can I do my job better."

The improved mental aspect of his game helped IUPUI roll out the best season in school history, winning a record 26 games and compiling a 26-6 mark that earned the Jaguars the No. 19 spot in the Mid-Major Top 25, sponsored by The CollegeInsider.com.

George and teammate Billy Pettiford relax outside the new IUPUI Campus Center

Academic challenges

The general studies major may have easily handled the pressures of NCAA Division I athletics, but Hill admits that the academic demands of college were an eye opener.

"It was a big adjustment," he says. "I had maybe one paper to write in my whole high school career. Here, I had one due the first day of classes. It's just a different level." Still, despite the academic rigors, he liked college life.

"You're more on your own," he says. "At high school, at 4 p.m., things were over. At IUPUI , things like studying are just starting by that time."

It helps that the Broad Ripple grad is, in the words of his head coach, the "king of Facebook," one of the world's leading online social networks and a familiar site to the slender basketball player, whose easy-going smile was a familiar site to fellow IUPUI students across the campus.

When basketball is finally behind him — whenever that may happen — Hill wants to own his own sports facility, similar to the IU PUI -based National Institute for Fitness and Sport. "I'd like to come up with my own fitness program," he says. "That would be sweet!"