IT’S STILL DARK when George Hill drives up the dirt road.
It is 5:30 a.m., and Hill parks his Dodge pickup, trudges over to a small hut perched 12 feet above the ground, climbs the ladder and settles in to watch the sunrise.
Wearing Wrangler jeans and a hoodie emblazoned with the Milwaukee Bucks logo, Hill whips out his phone to play Sudoku as he waits.
Between games, he scans the land for the silhouettes of his animals — kangaroos, wildebeests, donkeys, elk, antelope and six zebras, among others.
“I am mainly on African safari stuff,” he says.
Hill, 34 and envisioning life after basketball, is pouring his time away from the court into learning more about animal care, overseeing projects — expanding a lake and building a “barndominium” are currently underway — and watching over his vast, 850-acre ranch and its exotic residents.
In August 2017, he purchased the massive plot of land here in Texas Hill Country, a 35-minute drive north of his family’s offseason home in San Antonio. Over time, the property has been bulldozed, sculpted and preened into a sprawling ranch.
Normally an offseason retreat, the ranch has become a getaway during the league’s coronavirus suspension. Soon after the announcement that games would be put on hold on March 11, Hill, his wife, Samantha, and their 4-year-old son, Zayden, and 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, flew to Texas from Milwaukee.
“I just think it’s cool for my kids to see,” Hill says. “And for them to have something different. Everyone has a dog or a cat. … I just choose other animals.”
FALLOW DEER WERE the first animals Hill introduced on his land. Then he added sables — 500-pound brown-and-white antelope that are native to Africa. Now, he has dozens of different animal species.
Hill owns scimitar oryx — tan-and-white creatures that also are in the antelope family, with curved, pointy horns and big bellies. He has Arabian oryx and red lechwe. There are New Zealand red stag, kudu and ostrich, too.
Hill bought the majority of his animals three years ago, but in early May he added another zebra to his herd. “For my birthday,” Hill says.
Hill says he purchases his animals from Texas-based licensed specialty breeders. According to Lonesome Bull Ranch — an exotic wildlife breeder in Corpus Christi — zebras run anywhere from $3,950 to $5,750. The most expensive animals on Hill’s property are the female sable antelope and kudu, which cost $20,000 to $25,000 apiece. He only keeps herbivores that can nibble on the grass, roots and shrubs.
Just a few have names. A baby zebra born last summer is named Suki after the Bucks’ strength and conditioning coach, Suki Hobson, who visited the ranch days after it was born. Zayden named one of the kangaroos “Hoppy.”
“He was a country boy even back in his Indiana days. I knew it was a matter of time before he found somewhere he could disappear to.”
CJ Miles, on George Hill
But most of the animals, Hill says, will never come into contact with humans. A few of his deer were bottle-fed from birth, so they will occasionally allow Hill, his kids and the ranch hands to pet them on the nose or feed them snacks. “[The white-tailed deer] really love peanuts,” he says.
Plus, the animals have plenty of room to roam. Hill’s 850-acre ranch is massive, dwarfing the land areas of the biggest zoos in the country: The Texas Zoo in Victoria — 130 miles southwest of Hill Country — is 106 acres, the Bronx Zoo is 265 acres and the Minnesota Zoo is 485 acres.
“Most of [the animals have] been out there relaxing and reproducing,” Hill says.
Hill tries not to insert himself into his animals’ lives, but if they appear to be ill or have a limp, he or someone on his staff will intervene. Two years ago, Hill noticed one of his elk wasn’t eating. Over the course of a week, the elk got progressively skinnier, until Hill called a neighbor, who is a vet.
“I thought he was going to die,” Hill says. “But my neighbor came over and gave him two shots of antibiotics, and he’s super healthy now. He’s back, huge as ever.”
In Texas, owning exotic animals such as zebras and kangaroos is legal. Texas residents, according to the state health and safety codes, need a permit for “dangerous wild animals,” such as lions, tigers, cougars, leopards and cheetahs, among others.
The Texas Animal Health Commission, in an email to ESPN, explained that there are only regulations for moving zebras into Texas from another state, requiring the zebras to have a certificate of veterinary inspection and a permit.
His zebras, his other animals and the ranch they inhabit are part of Hill’s master plan.
He had wanted a place like this for years. When Hill played for the Indiana Pacers in the mid-2010s, he would talk to friend and teammate C.J. Miles about his dream.
“He was a country boy even back in his Indiana days. I knew it was a matter of time before he found somewhere he could disappear to,” Miles says.
But even Miles was surprised to hear the variety of Hill’s animal collection.
“[Having] kangaroos is actually insane to me,” Miles says. “I’m afraid of them.”
BEFORE THE ZEBRAS and kangaroos, there was a horse named Ropey.
When Hill was a teenager in Indianapolis, his father purchased two pintos that were brothers. Hill named one of the horses “Ropey” after the rope that was slung around the horn of his saddle.
“We used to ride through the neighborhood,” he says.
Hill’s father, who loved horses, had bought a modest plot of land near Wes Montgomery Park.
“He never had [a horse] or really seen people from the hood that had horses,” Hill says of his father. “So he wanted to step outside the box.”
“I feel like there is so much negative s— going in the world, man. So, I always try to think positive. Like, man, this is just preparing myself for retirement.”
Hill would go to the barn, sling a pad and saddle over Ropey’s back and ride him to his neighborhood down the road. In Indianapolis, a 20-minute drive sees a quaint downtown give way to cornfields and farmland.
“A little pocket of a town [will have] a country feel to it and then get right back to the city,” says Miles, who spent three years with the Pacers. “People think it’s one or the other — it’s not.”
Still, Hill and Ropey stood out among the single-story houses that lined 34th Street.
During summers, Hill would ride Ropey to Washington Park to play basketball. He would stuff plastic, gallon-sized jugs of water into the side bags that draped over Ropey’s withers. When Hill got to the park, he would pour the water into a bucket, tie Ropey’s lead to a tree and play pickup on the outdoor court.
Hill never worried about someone snatching his horse while he ran up and down the court. Most people, Hill recalls, knew his family. His peers never seemed daunted, either.
“It was just like, ‘Damn. This motherf—er has a horse,'” Hill says.
HILL WANTS TO be clear: He is an experienced hunter, but the animals on his ranch are not for hunting.
“The only thing I hunt on my land is wild hogs and coyotes, because they cause so many problems,” Hill says. The hogs, he says, can burrow under the fences and eat the corn and grass meant for his animals, while coyotes can climb in and kill his baby deer.
Hill started hunting after being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2008, when he got to know season-ticket holders Will and Gloria Drash. They became so close that Hill affectionately refers to them as his “adopted grandparents.”
Will Drash taught Hill to shoot during a trip to the couple’s 150-acre west Texas ranch during the All-Star break of Hill’s rookie season.
“I instructed my husband: ‘You do not give George the most powerful rifle out there because I don’t want him throwing his shoulder out,” Gloria Drash says. “And then we aren’t able to go to the games because [Gregg] Popovich is going to get on our case.
“Of course, they didn’t listen to my instructions.”
Since then, Hill has chased bigger, more expensive game. During offseasons, he has traveled to Alaska to hunt grizzly bears and Canada to hunt elk. He has shot pheasants with Bucks vice president Alex Lasry. Three years ago, Hill posted a video on Instagram of him shooting wild hogs during a guided helicopter hunt.
And while Hill explains the efforts he takes to be a responsible hunter — hiring experts and guides to identify which animals are aging and approved to kill, purchasing appropriate hunting permits and harvesting the animal’s meat so that his kills are functional — his social media followers have varied reactions to his hunting-related posts.
Mixed into the congratulatory comments — “nice kill brother” and “glad to see some hunting content back on your page” — are people calling him “cruel,” “disgusting” and telling him to “shoot baskets not animals.”
“I don’t really pay that no attention,” Hill says. “Most people that always have something against hunting are the same ones that go out to a restaurant to eat a steak or order a burger. So I always say, if you really see all those animals [get] to your plate, you’d probably think differently about hunters.
“If you’re hunting just to kill s—, you have a problem.”
BY 7 A.M., the ranch is bustling.
Social distancing has always been the norm for Hill and his 16 ranch hands.
“You’re already 100 acres from another person. Everything you do, you have to take an ATV or truck,” says Hill, who has continued to employ his staff throughout the pandemic, as the Department of Homeland Security deemed farmworkers as essential.
Four people are clearing weeds and mending fences. Four are working on expanding a lake for Hill, an avid fisherman. Four are building a three-bedroom home called the “barndominium,” one of the projects Hill is most excited about. On this day, the porch on the upper level is nearing completion, with installation complete on dozens of lights dotting the ceiling.
Eventually, this is where Hill wants to retire. “You are starting to see how it will all come together,” he says.
Four other employees are in charge of the animals, making sure the feeders and water troughs are full and the animals are healthy.
Hill is taking in all the knowledge he can.
“I am just going from job to job, talking to them, asking them if I can help do things so I can learn,” Hill says.
Hill aims to be back with his family by 2 p.m. to play with his kids — and return to real life.
Virus concerns — Samantha’s 85-year-old grandmother had COVID-19 and has recovered — have forced Hill to tell teammates who wanted to stop by the ranch in the offseason that plans might be off; and there is the realization that he was supposed to be in the middle of a playoff run with the Bucks.
“I feel like there is so much negative s— going in the world, man,” Hill says. “So, I always try to think positive. Like, man, this is just preparing myself for retirement.”
For now, the ranch and the exotic species he helps care for remain Hill’s refuge. One day, he hopes to pass it down to his children.
“If this is what retirement looks like,” Hill says, “this is better than I thought.”