Horace Grant Gets The Best Of Both Worlds

It’s a difficult balance Horace Grant must strike while attending to his two passions.

When speaking on each, basketball instruction and guidance and a peaceful California family life, his intensity peaks, but in far different ways. The former takes the iconic, goggle-wearing Chicago Bull around the country and globe to preach the powers of the American-dominated sport of basketball. The latter puts him in an idyllic state of serenity and stillness produced by California’s mid-coast.

Talking about teaching basketball youth, Grant—who was a guest star at a Bulls Academy summer camp in August and has been around the world promoting basketball as an ambassador for the National Basketball Association—leans in, focuses, and speaks in strategic, well-conditioned bites.

“Have fun and love what you’re doing. And if you don’t have those two things, you shouldn’t be out here,” Grant said is his first lesson to growing basketball players. “That’s my approach, and then I get into character, sportsmanship, and then basketball.”

On the other hand, when he starts to think and speak about his home life, Grant relaxes and leans back, his long body falling loose like he’s floating into a dream. He sighs, smiles, and speaks with candid poetry about life in his calm California coastal town of Arroyo Grande, about three hours north (Los Angeles) and south (San Francisco) of any Golden State bustle.

Grant and his family—wife Andrea and their four children, Naomi, Maia, Eva, and Elijah—reside on five acres of land not on but near a handful of beaches, and if you believe Grant’s body language and daydreaming gaze, it’s even more peaceful than it sounds.

“It’s just beautiful—the valleys, the wineries,” he waxed. “And our home, there are four beaches within five minutes. Sometimes I go alone and have me a bottle of wine or a cooler and just sit and watch the waves.”

Grant in Game 1 of the 1993 finals. That year he blocked a shot attempt at the buzzer in the clinching game. (Photo by Andrew Bernstein)

Grant in Game 1 of the 1993 finals. That year he blocked a shot attempt at the buzzer in the clinching game. (Photo by Andrew Bernstein)

The post-career life of Horace Grant is stabilized at the nexus of those two worlds, work and home—a dynamic generally familiar to most of us, but, of course, in this case, is on a level inaccessible to most of the residents of this planet. Nevertheless, it’s a life earned by one of the most hard-working basketball players in recent Chicago Bulls’ history. During his seven-season tenure in Chicago, Grant was a regular on the NBA All-Defensive Team as he helped the Bulls to three-straight championships (1991-1993). He became a poster-child for grind-it-out success, much to the delight of Bulls fans who fell hard for the forward’s work ethic.

“I think they knew me in a sense of, ‘OK, Horace Grant is that power forward who gets down and dirty and blocks shots and dives for loose balls,” said Grant, who was aware of and embraced his reputation. “During a playoff series one year, I wore a hard hat to the games, one of those construction hats, to resonate with the fans. They got a kick out of that.”

As a senior at Clemson University in 1986-’87, Grant was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year. The Bulls rewarded the lean-muscled, unassuming star by selecting him tenth overall in the ensuing NBA Draft.

At the time, the Bulls were just starting to arrive and realize the unique honor of rostering Michael Jordan, regarded as the best to ever play the game. The 1987 draft was a landmark moment for the Bulls, who drafted future icons Grant and Scottie Pippen, a NBA Hall-of-Fame inductee. For Grant, there was not a greater honor, despite being slotted behind All-Star veteran forward Charles Oakley.

“It was the fit for me,” Grant asserted. “Coming here and playing with a guy like Michael and you had Charles Oakley, who was … one of the best mentors—and friends—I ever had, and getting drafted with Scottie. And just the city itself, tough and hard-nosed, the work ethic. It was a great fit, and plus, when someone gives you an opportunity, drafts you and tells you that they have confidence in you, it just encouraged me to go out there and work even harder.”

Oakley was soon traded to the New York Knicks for center Bill Cartwright, making way for Grant in the starting lineup. The subsequent result was the Bulls’ rise to greatness, including the first three of six NBA championships in eight seasons. “It all came down to maturity on the team collectively,” Grant said on the team’s ascension. “Each and every one of the players, from one to twelve, had roles … and once we established that, then the maturity had to come into play, and once all those things came together, ya know, championships.”

Grant called the historic run “surreal,” and while there were many shining moments, finally toppling the rival Detroit Pistons or his shot-block to clinch the third title, the first crown stands apart. The Bulls, he said, were charmed just to make the championship series—but M.J. was not. “Making it to the finals against one of the most historic franchises in the Lakers with Magic Johnson, I think more or less, we were very excited just to be there, but when you have a leader like Michael Jordan, he didn’t just want to be there,” Grant laughed. “I think that kind of hit us the right way as a team. … So when he established that with us, I think we felt more comfortable, especially after that first game.”

After the three championships, Michael Jordan infamously retired. The next season, Pippen and Grant had All-Star seasons as they took the Bulls to a game-seven loss in the conference semifinals. And then, the Bulls’ dynasty seemingly over, Grant had a loud contract dispute with the front office and found apparent-greener pastures in Orlando, where the up-and-coming Magic mirrored the Bulls—two young superstars (Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway) and a slew of talented role players (like, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, and now, Grant). The contract offer from Orlando was also, at the time, major—six years, twenty-two million dollars. That didn’t make Grant’s departure choice any simpler, though. “It was one of the toughest decisions I ever made, leaving a great city that you helped win three championships and friends and fans,” he said. “Scottie and I had a very deep conversation and he understood my choice of leaving. Saying that, going to Orlando … it looked like the right decision, the best decision at that particular time.”

Early on in Orlando, Grant and the Magic enjoyed success and became the most feared team in professional basketball and met up again with the Bulls in the 1995 postseason. For Chicago, Michael Jordan had miraculously returned mid-season after a tenuous stint in professional baseball. The Magic, though, were cohesive and balanced, too much for Chicago, which lost at home in the sixth game. After the game, Magic players picked up Grant, put him on their shoulders, and carried him off the court in celebration. The moment is etched in Bulls’ lore as an act of showmanship that Chicago fans thought was below of Grant. Looking back on the incident, Grant shakes his head.

“I told them no, do not do this,” Grant says of what he said to his teammates at the time. “I was very serious, but Shaq was so insistent on carrying me off. And then you get caught up in the moment, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have to fight it more and say don’t carry me off, because that’s not the way to do things in terms of sportsmanship and celebration. We just beat one of the best teams in the history of basketball, act like you’ve been there before.”

The Magic never reached championship status, a moniker reclaimed by the Bulls for three more seasons (1996-1998). And Grant moved on, starting the nomadic twilight of his career. He spent a season with the Seattle SuperSonics and one with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001, winning another title with the famed Kobe Bryant-and-Shaq-led squadron. He then went back to Orlando before being cut and finishing out his career in L.A.

A career’s falling action, Grant explains, forces a different attitude and a self-awareness that many professional athletes struggle to realize. It took some time for Grant, but he did realize it when he was with the Lakers. “You understand that at a certain age your role as a player diminishes a lot,” he said. “I tried to bring that toughness and experience.” And then, it just ends. “My last year with the Lakers in ’04, chasing Kevin Garnett (the league MVP that season) up and down the court,” Grant said before cracking up. “I went to chase him some more and felt something in my hip, and that was it. You know it. I had an MRI the next day and had a torn labrum in my hip. At that age, and seventeen years in, you know it’s time to hang up the sneakers so to speak.”

A few years earlier, when Grant was visiting with his future wife’s family in tranquil Santa Maria, California, he made a reactive comment about the area. Upon his retirement, she was quick to bring it back up. “I kind of stuck my foot in my mouth and said this might be a nice place to retire,” he said, “and so she reminded me of that when I hung up the sneakers. So we moved up there and never looked back. One of the best decisions we made.”

A couple years later, the NBA came calling with a job opportunity, asking Grant to be an ambassador and travel the world to enable the game’s growth. Ever since, Grant has enjoyed balancing his educational global tour and his sunny home life—even when the two collide.

“I just spent twenty-one days in China, two trips at the end of June and July,” he said. “And, when I get home from those trips, there’s no down time. Once I step home, I’m daddy and I love it. I absolutely love it. After a day or two, my wife sees me walk around the house like a zombie and she tells the kids to back off a little bit.”

But for Grant, always the hard-worker, there was still more he could be doing. So, after hearing Pippen, who is the Bulls senior advisor to Chief Operating Officer Michael Reinsdorf, speak glowingly about his position, Grant thought he’d try to get back in with his original NBA organization. A negotiating dinner later and Grant was announced as the special advisor to the COO, a role he will officially begin in October.

Grant is just the latest former Bull to have a current affiliation with the team. There’s Pippen, but also Grant’s former teammates John Paxson (executive vice president/director of basketball operations), Toni Kukoc (ambassador and special advisor to COO), and Stacey King (Comcast SportsNet Chicago color commentator and analyst). Additionally, former Bulls Randy Brown and Pete Meyers are assistant coaches, and Bob Love and Sydney Green are ambassadors.

“It’s going to be great to come back and reminisce with those guys a lot,” Grant said. “We’re all a part of something spectacular, meaning the organization.”

Also in the organization is one of Grant’s nephews, current Bulls player Jerian Grant, son of Grant’s twin brother, Harvey, who was traded to Chicago in the offseason. Another of Grant’s nephews, Jerami, plays for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Bulls fans will be sure to see Grant around the community and at the United Center for the foreseeable future. But not all the time.

As part of the parameters for the advising role, Grant was able to negotiate staying put in Arroyo Grande, California, visiting and working in Chicago a couple weeks of every month. After all, it’s all about balance.

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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