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Basketball in the lavish arenas of the NBA is a tough, hard-fought game played by men. But for George Hill of the San Antonio Spurs — IUPUI's first NBA player — it's not hard to remember when basketball was a boy, a ball, a basket and dreams. Big, big dreams.

For the 24-year-old Indianapolis native, who left the Jaguars after his junior season and became a first-round NBA draft pick, he sees those dreams up close. Some come from the players on two youth teams he sponsors (this year, they'll be third- and fifth-grade teams); others race pell-mell around the court in Hill's summer camp in his home town; and still others watch, thrilled, in NBA arenas across the land.

Hill knows those kids. Heck, “I was that kid,” he laughs. The former Jaguar has made it a mission in life to “help kids develop as young men and women. I tell them that life is bigger than basketball. Even if you're talented, it doesn't last forever. You have to make good choices and be respectful of others if you want them to respect you.”

Make lives better

Hill rarely passes on a Spurs' request for personal appearances. “I want to have an impact and make people's lives better,” he says. It's why he has bowled, roller-skated, gift-shopped and done more tasks that could “make a difference” for youngsters. “I try to do things I enjoyed as a kid, because it might be the first time they've ever had a chance to do them.”

According to IUPUI sports information director Ed Holdaway, who coordinated volunteer activities for the Jaguars during Hill's career, “that's exactly who he was at IUPUI. From day one, he made a point to seek me out and ask for additional opportunities to be involved with hospital visits and to speak to elementary school kids,” Holdaway says. “It's just part of his makeup.”

So is his quick smile and his outgoing nature. Hill makes friends easily; in fact, Jags coach Ron Hunter once called his young star the “prince of the city.” That carried the 6-foot-3 guard through the usual rookie rough spots and made him a favorite in his adopted home town. “San Antonio was very different for me at first,” Hill says. “The food was so different, and the people were different — even the land around the city was hilly and rolling, while here it's flat.”

But he adjusted quickly. “By the second year, I was settled in, and found out I even liked a lot of the food,” he says with a grin. “It's a great place — a family town — and I could see myself settling down there.”

The “settling in” phase applied to life on and off the court, too. Off the court, “you really have to learn to manage your time,” Hill says. “You have to get used to all the travel, to make sure you get your rest and workouts, to eat right — there isn't anybody to do that for you but you.”

On the court, Hill faced all the ups and downs of an NBA rookie. He was stunned at “how quick the game is played,” and told friends “I was going to have to trade my 'slow horse' for a 'quicker horse',” he laughs. “But last summer, I finally started seeing a play before it unfolded. My goal this year is to maybe get two plays ahead!”

The plan worked well; Hill tied for second in the voting for the NBA's “Most Improved Player” after more than doubling his scoring average (to 12.4 points per game) and improving virtually all other stats while playing a bigger role than expected in the absence of injured All-Star guard Tony Parker.

He takes full advantage of being surrounded by the core of an NBA championship team, including all-time great Tim Duncan and All-Stars like Parker and Manu Ginobli. Watching such players “showed me how much work ethic and time in the weight room would mean to me in my career.”

Building a career

Hill's goal “to get better every year” isn't easy when faced with NBA realities that fans don't always grasp. Fans “only see the games,” he says. “They don't see summer league games, the preseason, regular season, postseason — it's nine months a year or more, 9-to-5 most every day. And that doesn't even include the time you work out on your own, trying to improve on your own.” Last summer, it occurred to him that in his rookie year, he'd played more games than in his entire IUPUI career.

But as demanding as the physical aspects are, “this game is 90 percent mental. That's why the playoffs are so tough. After months of grinding it out, sometimes all you can do is think your way through things,” Hill says.

His NBA career is flourishing in part because of a strong relationship with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a Hoosier native (Merrillville) and member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. “He's always telling me about these players from 'The Region' and other parts of the state, and I have to set him straight — Indy is the best!” Hill laughs.

But Popovich “in some ways is like a father figure to me,” Hill says. “He's always teaching me things. Mostly basketball, but things off the court, too.”

To fill that same role for young kids is important to the slender ex-Jaguar. “We talk a lot about life,” Hill says. “I always tell them, take nothing for granted. Learn how to behave responsibly, to deal with the consequences when you make mistakes and learn from them.”

Hunter isn't surprised at the impact Hill has on youngsters. “I don't think George would know what to do with himself if he weren't working with kids,” says the IUPUI coach. “He's just a big kid himself. And he knows how important it is to give back.”

Mostly, though, Hill wants the pizza parties, car washes and park clean-up efforts to build a bond between himself and the kids he knows look up to a pro athlete. “To me, what matters are the smiles on their faces — if they're having fun, then I'm having fun!”

Photo Gallery: Summer Camp

George Hill Summer Camp

Photo Gallery: NBA Action

George Hill NBA Action