It’s August 1990 in the DMV. It’s probably humid as can be, but that’s likely not bothering George Mason coach Ernie Nestor as he gets ready for the upcoming season.
He’s coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, and suddenly his Patriots — despite just over a decade in Division I — are looking like a consistent factor in the CAA. As practices roll out, Nestor can watch confidently as three of his four leading scorers from the previous year take the floor.
This includes some great program players, like senior forward Robert Dykes, who averaged over 17 points per game as a junior, and senior guard Mike Hargett, who posted a more-than-respectable stat line in 1989-90 (15.3 PPG, 3.3 APG). Yet in that moment, Nestor was a phone call away from landing the best player in GMU history.
Oh, the prize that nearly fell into his lap. Two weeks ago on the Woj Pod, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Grant Hill dropped this little nugget (~14:00 minute mark):
“I remember a week before my freshman orientation I was concerned I wasn’t good enough to play at Duke, and I called Tommy Amaker up — he was the assistant coach at Duke then, now the head coach at Harvard — and I said, ‘Tommy, I don’t think I’m good enough I don’t know if I can compete in the classroom at a school like Duke, so, you know, I think I may want to transfer to George Mason.’ No offense to George Mason, it’s a great school, regional school there in Northern Virginia close to where I grew up, but I didn’t come in with this sort of, ‘I’m going to be the best player in college, and I’m going to be in the league in a couple years,’ I was unsure entering my freshman year that I could actually play at this level.”
They don’t go into what Amaker said that convinced Hill his self-doubt was, in a word, ridiculous (come on, Woj), but whatever it was it kept an all-time college great within Duke’s grasp. Hill would go on to have a prolific four-year career, winning two national titles, landing on two All-American teams and winning the ACC POY award as a senior.
But what if No. 33 had made that move to Fairfax?
Despite having a quality frontline with Dykes and Byron Tucker, Hill almost certainly would’ve gotten more than the 24.6 minutes per game he played as a freshman at Duke. And his stat line (11.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG) likely would’ve ballooned in tandem with that. That jet fuel infusion of talent also probably would’ve helped the Patriots avoid a letdown season, as they dropped to 14-16 and finished in the middle of the CAA at 8-6.
Nestor had also already seen his best days at GMU. The team would post back-to-back 7-21 seasons in 1991-92 and 1992-93 before he was replaced by Paul Westhead. Hill also mentioned on the podcast that leaving early for the NBA never entered his mind, so assuming a four-year career at GMU, Westhead probably isn’t coaching the Patriots in 1993.
There’s so much about this that still needs to be peeled back. Did Nestor know Hill was eyeing his program? Does Coach K know the disaster Amaker helped him avoid? What would Hill have looked like in green and gold? Would the butterfly effect have removed the 2006 Final Four run?
Hill better address all of this during his induction speech.