An ex-NBA star on what separates the greats from everyone else: 'Are you going to come in and put in the work?'

This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It delves into the habits, routines and mindsets that top athletes use to achieve peak performance and success.

You could easily assume that Grant Hill — a Basketball Hall of Famer after 19 years in the NBA, whose father played in the NFL — was groomed to become a professional athlete from a young age.

But it was actually quite the contrary, Hill tells CNBC Make It. His parents, both Ivy League graduates, always emphasized education over sports. And while Hill developed a deep passion for basketball early on, his goal was never to make it to the NBA.

Rather, he says, he only wanted to get a little bit better at the game each day.

"I don't know if I realistically thought that [the NBA] could be possible," Hill, 49, says.

After school, Hill dribbled a basketball every where he went. As an only child, he says, basketball was more than a game to him: It was his companion. By age 10, while his friends played for fun, he was recording and analyzing basketball footage.

Even as a freshman playing basketball at Duke University, he still didn't think of himself as a future NBA player. But after graduating in 1994 as a first-team All-American and two-time NCAA champion, he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons with the third pick in that year's NBA Draft.

Eventually, Hill became a seven-time All-Star and a three-time winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award before retiring in 2013 — and he has a theory about what separates the greats from everyone else.

Here, he discusses that theory, along with how his upbringing inspired his work ethic and why his goal was never to become the "best ever."

How being an only child helped Hill build his work ethic

I am the only child to only children. I'm used to spending a considerable amount of time by myself.

My parents bought a Betamax in 1982 and I taped everything. I watched countless hours of tape. I studied players' moves, footwork and the various fundamentals.

The game was my best friend. It kept me company. No one ever had to tell me to work or read up [on basketball], or go outside and get lost in your imagination while working on dribbling and shooting. I don't know if I fully understood it or appreciated it at the time, but I was a student of the game.

I was practicing. I was putting my hours in. For me, it was fun. I was starving for information. I was dribbling in the house and going to the store dribbling the basketball on the sidewalk. I'd sit in a chair in the kitchen and dribble while sitting in a chair.

I wasn't thinking about the NBA. I was just doing something that I loved to do.

Why he never tried to become the 'best ever' (and what he aimed for instead)

I'm not sure [I aimed to become] the best ever. It was about being the best version of myself. That's what I think motivated me in my formative years, before I made it to the NBA. It was always, "How can I get better?"

Sports are really, truly a microcosm of life. There are so many values that you take from sports. You learn about trust, hard work, collective responsibility and managing failure.

I learned if you pull everything that you have into the game and perfect your craft, you can ultimately at the end of the day live with the results. I certainly tried to do that.

To me, it never felt like work. When you are in your purpose, you will do whatever is necessary to be the best version of yourself.

Why 'necessary sacrifice' separates the greats from everybody else

[Mindset] certainly plays a huge role, but I think it's your willingness to make the necessary sacrifices.

Are you going to come in and put in the work? Are you going to put in your 10,000 hours? A lot of my friends who I think loved the game, and had the same goals in mind, at times maybe didn't put in the necessary amount of work.

When you love something and you're passionate about something, that opens the gates. There are some people who just want to be on the team, play and have fun. Then, there are those who want to be the best ever.

There's something there that drives you, pulls you along and doesn't allow you to accept anything less than winning and being successful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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