CHAMPAIGN – It’s hard to say how it started or why it has become so commonplace, but the body of an athlete has become an open canvass for ink.
Tattoos are everywhere, regardless of age, gender or race, and athletes have found body art to be a perfect outlet for personal expression.
Football, soccer, baseball – the sport doesn’t matter. But the very nature of a basketball uniform makes it perfect to show how art can be displayed on sculpted arms, legs and a muscular chest.
Because it has become so popular, and given the peer pressure to fit in, rare is the college or professional basketball player who doesn’t have a single tattoo.
But if you inspect the arms, chest, neck and legs of Illinois’ junior guard, Malcolm Hill, you’ll find not a trace of ink. Nothing. Nowhere.
“This is the only tattoo I have,” he said recently, peeling back his basketball jersey to reveal a sharp scar that arcs across his chest, just above the heart.
Many tattoos tell a story, but few tell a more meaningful tale than the mark of a surgeon’s scalpel that Hill will wear onto the Scottrade Center floor Wednesday night when he leads the Illini into the annual Busch Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri.
Ask him what’s his most hoped-for Christmas wish this season and after a brief pause, he answers firmly. “A victory over Mizzou,” Hill said.
Basketball has more meaning to him ever since the summer of 2012 when he woke up one morning and noticed his entire left arm was swollen and slightly numb.
It was the summer between his junior and senior season at Belleville East High School and for a minute, he wondered if the weight lifting he’d been doing was yielding super-human results.
His parents, Malcolm Hill, the athletic director at University City High School in St. Louis, and Machanda Hill, an accounting worker at Washington University, were understandably concerned and took their son to a doctor looking for answers. At first, the symptoms confounded the medical personnel until an ultrasound discovered a blood clot in his arm.
An initial surgery eliminated the clot, but there was still the puzzling matter of finding what had caused the clot. That’s when Hill was referred to one of the best vascular surgeons in the country, Dr. Robert W. Thompson.
Thompson has operated on a number of athletes including current St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Jaime Garcia. Among his specialties is surgery related to thoracic outlet syndrome and it was discovered that Hill had suffered a previously undiagnosed rib injury, perhaps a fracture, that healed itself but developed a bone spur that was putting pressure on a vein.
The surgery would last nine hours and would remove a rib in order to restore normal blood flow.
“At one point they talked about having him on blood thinners for the rest of his life,” said his father, who played college basketball at Missouri-St. Louis. “I’d already started to prep him by telling him he might not be able to play again until we could figure out more about this.”
Doctors told Hill he was lucky to have made it to surgery. Had he continued to play with the clot, he could have passed out and died.
Finally, a frightened Malcolm Hill faced surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
Machanda Hill had met with Dr. Thompson and knew the surgery would be an all-day ordeal. To keep active during her agonizing wait, she walked up to Thompson’s office to look at the jerseys given to him by athletes whom he had treated.
When she arrived at the office, halfway through the surgery, she was shocked to see the surgeon sitting calmly at his desk.
“I thought you were supposed to be operating on my baby,” she said, a bit alarmed.
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Thompson explained that they’d successfully worked through the first portion of the surgery and were taking a break. Relieved, she felt hopeful the rest of the surgery would be a success.
It was, although when the anesthetic wore off enough for Malcolm Hill to regain his senses, he became emotional once he could peer through the fog to see his parents and his granny.
“A lot of feelings started spilling out,” he said. “I said, ‘Praise Jesus. Thank God I’m OK. I love you guys. I love my family.’
“I wasn’t crying, but it was very emotional.”
The recovery wasn’t easy.
“That first night was rough,” Hill’s father said. “And he was on blood thinners for three months.”
Gradually, though, his strength returned. And the blood clot did not.
In the time since, Hill has developed into Illinois’ best overall player. He scored a career-high 34 points on Saturday. Now a junior, this will be his third Braggin’ Rights game and he’s proud to have a 2-0 record thus far.
More than that, he’s grateful every time he steps on the basketball floor.
“It made me appreciate a lot of things differently,” he said. “Just the fact that I can play the game. Those three months away from basketball were awful for me.”
The experience also seems to have strengthened an already healthy respect Hill has for his parents, and that reinforces his resolve to remain tattoo-free. At least for now.
“Some of my teammates have been on me to get one, but for one thing, I can’t afford it,” he said. “I don’t have the money for those things.
“Also, my dad wouldn’t like it. He doesn’t have any tattoos. And my mom, if I ever got a girl’s name tattooed on my body, she’d just destroy me.
“When I can afford it, I might get one on my chest, something to honor Jeremiah,” he said, referring to his late Belleville East classmate and friend, Jeremiah Radford, who died of cancer in February of 2012.
“I know I’d never get one on my arms. That could hurt me in the future when I’m trying to get a job.”
Ironically, Machanda Hill is the one family member who does have a tattoo.
“It’s small and it’s on my ankle,” she said. “It says ‘Alex.’ Malcolm’s middle name is Alexander.”
The rib that Dr. Thompson removed is stored in a plastic sandwich bag and has a home in the Hill family kitchen. It’s a reminder of an ordeal that has made the entire family appreciate what they have and what they could have lost.
“It might sound funny, but if I could I would do it all over again,” Hill said. “I’m not saying I’d want that to happen again, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the appreciation I have for things now is just different.”