Grant Hill announced his retirement on Saturday night during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, officially bringing to an end a career that spanned 19 years, four teams, and a lot more “What If?s” than were probably expected when he came out of college in 1994 amidst “Next Jordan”-type hype. You know the story — Hill languished for too long on a Pistons team that failed to build around him, left for greener pastures in Orlando but struggled to stay healthy, resurrected and reinvented his career in Phoenix, experiencing his greatest team success but falling just short of the Finals, then played out the string as a little-used reserve for the Clippers. Even with all the time and opportunity lost to injury and poor team construction, Hill’s numbers might still be Hall of Fame-worthy, and few would argue that he’s been one of the NBA’s great ambassadors over the last two decades.
But I don’t wanna talk about any of that. I wanna talk about “Grant Hill Drinks Sprite.”
The comparisons to Michael Jordan that Grant Hill received coming into the league were not just tied to his incredible college career and his seemingly limitless pro potential, but that like MJ, he was personable, well-liked, good-looking and imminently marketable off the court. However, there was one very big personality difference between the two: Grant Hill wasn’t all that cool. He went to Duke, his came from an upper-class background, and he just seemed like too nice a guy to be the kind of cold-blooded assassin-type that Jordan was. Even on the court, his game was more of an all-around kind (not even LeBron has matched the 20/9/7 that he posted in ’97) than a high-scoring, highlight-producing one. Only twice in his career did Hill finish in the top 10 in league scoring, and though he’s had his fair share of excellent dunks, he doesn’t have the iconic, instantly-recallable ones that MJ had, and he never competed in the Slam Dunk Contest.
That was all fine for Grant, though — he was a superstar, he just wasn’t that kind of superstar. And luckily for him, in Sprite, he found a company that understood that, and figured out a way to market him that was true to his character, making him look like a badass without taking him too seriously, and taking the piss out of the entire athlete-spokesperson advertising model in the process.
“Grant Hill Drinks Sprite” was borne out of Sprite’s successful “Obey Your Thirst” campaign of the mid-late ’90s, which made the surprising (for a TV ad campaign) declaration “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything.” The ubiquitous commercials, which even non-sports fans who owned a television in the mid-late ’90s will undoubtedly remember, featured Hill as a running/jumping/dunking basketball demigod, seemingly deriving his power from his long gulps from his can of Sprite. Then a young, aspiring hoopster takes a swig from their own can, and tries to perform the same basketball feats, only to fail miserably and fall on their ass. “If you want to make it to the NBA … practice,” an announcer concludes at the end of the most famous ad. “If you want a refreshing drink, obey your thirst.”
If it sounds like a simple, fairly predictable concept for a commercial in 2013, you have to understand that 15 or so years ago, this twist was considerably more mind-blowing. Post-modernity in advertising was still something of a rarity back in those days, and if the kid in the commercial had connected on his dunk after that refreshing blast of lemon-lime, it wouldn’t have seemed any more cliched or preposterous than half the other sports drink commercials out there. Hell, just four or five years earlier, the even-more-famous “Be Like Mike” campaign tied Michael Jordan’s usage of Gatorade into that kind of blatant hero worship, juxtaposing shots of MJ’s greatest Gatorade-powered on-court moments with kids drinking the stuff and trying to pull off the same. It didn’t explicitly say that drinking Gatorade could turn you into Michael Jordan, but it certainly didn’t say that it wouldn’t, either. (Go back a few years earlier still, and Nike commercials were literally claiming that it had to be the shoes that made Jordan great.)
By contrast, Sprite made the extremely bold move of cutting the cord entirely between athletes’ performance and their choice of soft drink, saying that you shouldn’t drink the soda for any reason other than because it tastes good, with Grant Hill just being a particularly high-profile proponent. It was an honesty and frankness that was completely unprecedented, at least to my 11-year-old self, as well as a sense of the absurd that was badly lacking in the field of sports drink advertising. In fact, watching the “Grant Hill Drinks Sprite “commercial as a young teenager in the late-’90s, I thought it was one of the coolest and funniest things I’d ever seen, though that might have been because I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Simpsons” for most of my early childhood and “South Park” was still some months away.
And for Grant, it helped give him the mutli-platform exposure that all NBA superstars need — to date, it’s probably the best-remembered campaign he was ever involved with — but also demonstrated the difference between him and the superstars of the previous generation, MJ in particular. By presenting him as a guy that just likes to drink Sprite because it tastes good and makes him less thirsty, even as he performs super-human NBA feats of strength and agility, it made him seem humble, human, and perhaps most importantly, self-aware. (A less-remembered Sprite ad from the period even featured Grant shilling more blatantly for the drink, with a cartoon image of Hill holding a steadily increasing number of cash sacks appearing — along with a “ka-ching!” sound — in the corner with each sentence, making a far-less subtle mockery of the entire concept of athlete advertising.)
“Grant Hill Drinks Sprite” is the most famous ad example of Grant’s humble, nice-guy persona, but it wasn’t the only one. A fun Fila commercial series from the time period (were there Fila ads in any other time period?) was similarly cartoonish, and co-starred Hill with Pistons great Bill Laimbeer, tasked with turning Grant from a nice guy to a Bad Boy, teaching him how to elbow opponents and shove TV cameramen. It also wasn’t the only one to play with audience expectations. In more recent years, Hill co-starred with Suns teammate Jared Dudley in another ad that put an unexpected spin on the typical sports commercial, starting out like a Nike-style series of athletic boasts, and turning halfway into a PSA against using “gay” as a pejorative term on the court.
Grant’s basketball legacy isn’t what many hoped it would end up as from the outset of his NBA career, but he still managed to make an impact in many ways, and his part in turning the concept of superstar sponsorship on its head was certainly one of them. Without him, I don’t know if we get Kevin Durant changing light bulbs in too-small pajamas for Sprint or Chris Paul playing his insurance-selling twin, or any other commercial where an NBA star willingly plays against the part of an NBA star, or at least acknowledges the silliness of himself doing so. Pour out (or, y’know, drink) a 20 oz. of our country’s sixth-most popular soft drink sometime this week in honor of Grant’s turbulent, but still great, NBA career.