Richard Hamilton  
 


They said the mid-range jumper was dead in the NBA. Then call Richard Hamilton a basketball archaeologist. The Detroit Piston two-guard dusted off one of the game’s most effective weapons and proved that you can still fill it from inside the arc. Hard-working, consistent, and the consummate team player, “Rip” blends old-school virtues with a hip-hop look. The result is a championship-caliber player who leaves superstars gasping for air and dynasties dead in the ground. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Richard Clay Hamilton Jr. was born on February 14, 1978 in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. His parents, Pam Long and Richard Hamilton, lived apart from each other. Richard stayed with his mom, but saw a lot of his father. The elder Hamilton made a point of being a part of his son’s life. Dad was nicknamed “Rip”—because he used to rip his diapers as a baby—and young Richard acquired the same nickname somewhere along the line.

Located about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, Coatesville is a former mining town whose 11,000 residents watched its fortunes stagnate with the steel industry. Coatesville never fully recovered.

Richard spent much his time playing sports. Thanks to great genes, he was a natural as a distance runner. Many of his relatives had excelled in track in their younger days, including an uncle who competed in the Penn Relays. Richard followed in their footsteps, developing great speed and tremendous endurance. In fact, he would go on to star at Coatesville High School as a miler, never once losing a regular-season meet.

Richard’s favorite sport was basketball. A slasher who liked to the put the ball on the floor and go to the hoop, he patterned his game after Penny Hardaway’s. Richard played all the time, either at a park near his father’s house or at other playgrounds. His primary weapon was the mid-range jumper. He practiced it off the dribble and as if a teammate were feeding him a pass. The shot became second nature to him.


 
 

In Coatesville, Richard developed into a local legend. Beginning in the seventh grade, his father videotaped every one of his games, eventually amassing a library of more than 300 tapes. His grandfather, Edward Hamilton, never missed a contest, either. Richard loved playing in front of him.

By the time Richard entered Coatesville High in the fall of 1992, he thought he was the best freshman hoopster on the planet. His father continually repeated this mantra to him to pump his son up. Richard wasn’t good enough to make the Coatesville varsity—the Red Raiders had built one of the better prep programs in the area—but he caught the eye of frosh coach Ricky Hicks. He saw something special in the 14-year-old, and took him under his wing.

Richard began meeting with Hicks most mornings at six, running sprints and working on his game. Hicks also taught him a breathing technique using the nose and mouth in concert, and Richard’s wind increased further.

It was around this time that Richard first learned of another phenom from eastern Pennsylvania, a kid named Kobe Bryant. The two bumped into each other for the first time at a 3-on-3 tournament in Philadelphia. Bryant’s father, Joe, was watching the action, and couldn’t help but notice Richard. He was the only other teen who could keep up with his son. Afterwards, Bryant approached Richard’s father, complimenting him on his son’s fine play.

In his sophomore season at Coatesville, Richard was elevated to varsity, where he continued to improve. With the 15-year-old getting more serious about basketball, his father responded by funding his way around the local hoops camp circuit.

As a junior, Richard emerged as one of the state’s top talents. He was considered to be on the same level as Bryant, who attended powerhouse Lower Merion High School. The two faced off in March of 1995 in the district semi-finals, and Kobe got the best of the action. After scoring 10 points in the first half, he added 16 after intermission, and Lower Merion surged to a 72-65 victory. Richard finished the contest with 22 points.

The duo suited up for the same team in the off-season on the Sam Rines All-Stars, an AAU club out of Philly. Richard and Kobe became good friends, often rooming together on road trips. Rines was Richard’s biggest booster. He was a better all-around player than Bryant, and didn’t mind playing second banana if it helped the team. Richard was all about winning. If his more famous teammate garnered more attention, he didn’t seem to care.

Richard finally began to receive his due the summer before his senior year at Coatesville. For the first time in his life, he attended one of the major summer camps, the Addidas ABCD in Teaneck, New Jersey. There Richard opened plenty of eyes, including his own, when he was named to the camp’s all-star squad.


Penny Hardaway, 1996 Beckett

 

 
 

Bolstered by his summer showing, Richard opened his senior season a more confident and dangerous player. In January of 1996, Coatesville faced Lower Merion in a rematch. Bryant won again, scoring 35 to pace his team to a 78-77 win in overtime. He nailed the game-winner, a long bomb from beyond the arc, with three ticks left on the clock.

Coatesville went into the playoffs with that loss as its only blemish. Richard and his teammates looked forward to a chance for revenge in the district championship game. Scheduled for the storied Palestra in Philadelphia, it was the most anticipated matchups of the season. Richard led the Red Raiders to a six-point bulge with three minutes remaining, but Bryant took control down the stretch, rallying his club to a 70-65 victory.

After the season, Richard was chosen—along with Bryant—to play in the McDonald’s All-Star Game. He also arrived at a major decision: He would head north to wear the blue and white of the Connecticut Huskies. Initially, Richard had been lukewarm on UConn, but after attending a raucous home game at Gampel Pavilion, he changed his tune.

ON THE RISE

Coach Jim Calhoun was thrilled to have Richard. The Huskies were coming off an impressive 32-3 campaign, which ended with a loss to Mississippi State in the Sweet 16. Gone from that squad were Ray Allen and Doron Sheffer, which meant Richard would be sharing the starting backcourt with Ricky Moore. In the frontcourt, Calhoun was counting Kirk King and frosh Kevin Freeman to give him big minutes.

UConn’s inexperience became evident as the 1996-97 season progressed. The campaign started well enough—the Huskies were 11-3 after their first 14 games. But when King and Moore were suspended for accepting airline tickets from an agent, the club lost its two leaders. UConn faded down the stretch, finishing 14-14.

The Huskies redeemed themselves with a great showing in the NIT. They won four of five contests, and served notice that the 1997-98 campaign could be a big one. Richard had a lot to do with the team’s inspired post-season performance. He averaged 25 points in the tourney, including a pair of 31-point outbursts.

All year long, Richard saw time at the point, as Calhoun was forced to patch together starting lineups without King and Moore. One his best games came on the road versus top-ranked Kansas. Running the show for the Huskies, Richard almost engineered a stunning upset. His final stat line—21 points and eight assists—demonstrated how quickly he was maturing. By season’s end, the freshman had amassed 509 points, the most by a first-year player since UConn had joined the Big East.

The Huskies headed into the following season riding the momentum of their NIT run. King graduated, but sophomore Jake Voskuhl offered plenty of muscle inside. Freeman, Moore and Richard were all back, providing lots of match-up problems for opponents. Also in the fold was freshman Khalid El-Amin, a stocky point guard from Minnesota.

UConn blitzed through the regular season. At 15-3, the Huskies were tops in Big East play. They stormed through the conference tournament before dropping the championship game to St. John’s. A two seed in the NCAA Tournament, the team had its sights set on a national championship. Behind Richard and El-Amin, UConn advanced through the early rounds without much problem. The young backcourt duo was doing it all. El-Amin was running the offense to near perfection, and Richard had his shot working. After struggling in the Big East tourney, hitting on just 11 of 42 attempts from the field, he poured in 53 points in UConn’s first two March Madness wins.

Eyeing a likely showdown with North Carolina in the East Regional final, the Huskies nearly overlooked their third-round opponent, the University of Washington. But Richard saved the day with a fall-away 12-foot jumper at the buzzer for a dramatic 75-74 victory. Unfortunately, UConn’s campaign ended against the Tar Heels, who tamed the Huskies, 75-64.

Richard faced a tough decision. A consenses second-team All-American and the Big East Player of the Year at 21.5 ppg, he considered leaving UConn for the NBA. But a conversation with Calhoun convinced him to stay in college and try to complete the job of winning the national title.

Richard was then given an opportunity he didn’t expect. With NBA players on hiatus because of a lockout, USA Basketball turned to college stars to stock its roster for the upcoming World Championships in Greece. During tryouts, however, he broke his right foot, and was sidelined for several months.

The time off was hard on Richard. He had never suffered a serious injury before, and thoughts of a career cut short flashed through his mind. Complicating matters further was the fact that grandpa Edward was gravely ill with lung cancer. Richard visited with him as much as possible. When Edward passed away in September of 1998, Richard felt fortunate to have been able to say goodbye.

Moved by his grandfather’s death, he rededicated himself to basketball. Richard watched hour after hour of video from his father’s library, and developed a deeper understanding of his skills and how to utilize them.


Kobe Bryant, 1996 Score Board
 
 

The Huskies had great aspirations for the 1998-99 season. Calhoun, the reigning Big East Coach of the Year (for the fourth time in nine years), had a good feel for his team. Voskuhl and Moore supplied tenacious defense, Freeman was a viable scoring option at forward, and El-Amin was a heady player whose skills belied his roly-poly frame.

Then there was Richard. His game was on the verge of elite status. He had the best mid-range jumper in college basketball, and was dynamite on the break. Calhoun’s swarming system called for everyone to dig in on D, an area where Richard was underrated.

Still feeling the effects of his summer injury, Richard limped from the starting gate. UConn’s deep lineup covered for him, however, as the Huskies were unbeaten in nine games heading into the holidays. Richard finally began to find his rhythm, and over the next six contests he averaged more than 25 a night, including a career-high 39 against Boston College.

UConn rolled through the regular campaign with only two losses. In the Big East tourney, the Huskies weathered a second-round scare from Seton Hall, then cruised to the championship with blowouts over Syracuse and St. John’s. Richard was named to the All-Tournament First Team, while Freeman grabbed MVP honors.

A Duke-UConn final was he consensus pick among the pundits handicapping the NCAA Tournament. The top seed in the West, the Huskies opened March Madness with an easy win over the University of Texas-San Antonio. Richard netted 28 in the 91-66 victory. Calhoun, felled by an intestinal virus, watched the action from his hotel room.

Next up was New Mexico, and again UConn won easily. In this one, Calhoun crossed up the Lobos by assigning 6-7 Richard to check Kevin Henry. The 6-3 guard was invisible in his team’s 22-point loss. The Huskies remained hot in their next two games, wins over Iowa and Gonzaga. The Bulldogs put up a good fight in the Elite Eight, but Richard and his teammates would not be denied.

In the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida, UConn faced Ohio State and its dangerous backcourt duo of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd. The Huskies salivated at the opportunity. In fact, the trio of Richard, El-Amin and Moore was sensational. They shut down Penn and Redd, and controlled the game on offense. With Richard going for 24, UConn cruised to a 64-58 victory.

The experts were right for a change, as college fans were treated to a UConn vs. Duke NCAA Final. The Blue Devils boasted a roster full of NBA-caliber talent, led by forwards Elton Brand and Shane Battier. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was Calhoun’s friend, rival and boasted an impressive resume as a big-game coach.


Richard Hamilton & Khalid El-Amin,
1999 Baasketball Digest
 
 

Duke got the better of the play in the first 20 minutes, seizing a 39-37 advantage. Richard came out of the locker room smoking in the second half, however, finishing with 27 points. His three-pointer midway through the second half vaulted the Huskies ahead by five. Duke battled back to tie the contest with just under five minutes left. But Richard and El-Amin were clutch down the stretch, and UConn held on for a 77-74 victory. Richard led the Huskies with 145 points, which helped earn him honors as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.

Richard’s sterling performance against the Blue Devils stamped his ticket to the pros. Some compared him to Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers, mostly because their wiry body types and perpetual-motion styles were so similar. Reggie, however, had far more range on his jumper, while Richard was more adept at handling the ball and running the break.

As draft day approached, it appeared more and more likely that Richard would be taken by the Washington Wizards in the seventh slot. The team also had its eye on Wally Szczerbiak out of Miami of Ohio, but the Minnesota Timberwolves, who picked before the Wizards, liked the small forward, too. The draft was conducted at Washington’s MCI Center, and when David Stern announced Richard as the #7 pick, the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation. Before Richard joined the Wizards, he suited up for the U.S. Olympic qualifying team. One of only three college players chosen, he joined the pros along with Szczerbiak and Brand.

That fall, Richard returned to a Washington team in disarray. The Wizards had qualified for the playoffs just once in the last 11 years, and just hired another hew head coach, Gar Heard. The club had talent—including Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard—but little direction. To no one's great surprise, Washington finished the 1999-00 campaign at 29-53.

There were two highlights in this otherwise dismal season. The first occurred in January when Michael Jordan was brought aboard as part of the team’s management group. If anyone could reverse the club’s spiraling fortunes, it seemed, Jordan was the man.

R ichard also gave fans reason to be optimistic. Playing two-guard behind Richmond most the year, he was slowly adjusting to the faster, more physical style of the NBA. Heard inserted him in the starting lineup for the first time in November, against the Seattle Supersonics at the MCI Center. He scored 15 and added four rebounds. Richard earned more minutes in the campaign’s second half, and showed the ability to elevate his game. In 12 starts, he averaged 13.2 ppg, including a 26-point performance in front of friends and family in Philly in April.

MAKING HIS MARK

Jordan’s much-anticipated impact on the franchise failed to materialize during the 200-01 season. The future Hall of Famer predicted a run at the playoffs, but the Wizards stumbled to a mark of 19-63, the worst since the franchise’s debut in 1961. Rookie coach Leonard Hamilton couldn’t get the odd “couple” of Strickland, Howard and Richmond to gel and in February, Jordan engineered an eight-player deal that brought in Hubert Davis, Courtney Alexander, Christian Laettner, Loy Vaught and Etan Thomas from Dallas.


Jim Calhoun, 1999 Eastern Basketball
 
 

Again, Richard was one of few bright spots in the campaign. Appearing in 78 games—42 as a starter—he doubled his scoring average to 18.1 ppg, and ranked 12th in the NBA in free throw percentage (.868). Washington’s most consistent player, he set or tied career-highs in every major statistical category, except blocks. Richard led the team in scoring 30 times, including a 41-point outburst at home against Golden State. In that contest, he also posted nine rebounds and eight assists.

Frustrated by what he witnessed on the court, Jordan took matters into his own hands, and resumed his storied playing career in 2001-02. Washington also hired one of Jordan’s old friends, Doug Collins, to coach the team. Richard was thrilled to have both of them both around.

Jordan preached daily about the need for Richard to work at both ends of the court. Collins schooled him in the ways to free himself from defenders. Their effect on Richard was obvious. In December he was voted NBA Player of the Week after averaging nearly 30 a night in four Washington victories. Though he was sidelined soon after with a pulled right groin, he picked up where he left off when the injury healed. Richard torched the Sacramento Kings for 33 points in February, and lit up the Portland Trailblazers for 31.

Richard, Jordan and Collins led a resurgence in Washington. The Wizards established a franchise record with nine wins in a row in December. When Richard and Jordan each hit for 20 in the same game, the team was 10-0. Coming down the stretch, Washington was in position to end its playoff drought. But a poor finish doomed the club to another year watching the post-season from home. Still, at 37-45, the promised turnaround by the Wizards seemed imminent.

Little did Richard expect that he was not in Washington’s plans. In September of 2002, the Wizards sent him to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse. After pushing his scoring to 20 points and making important strides as a defender, Richard thought he had become indispensible in Washington. The deal with the Pistons jolted him. He felt betrayed by the Wizards and unsure in his new surroundings.

The Pistons, sensing Richard’s hesitancy, put out the welcome mat. Michael Curry called, and others followed suit. Richard began to grow accustomed to his new home, and realized he had landed in an excellent situation. Detroit GM Joe Dumars had built a contending team that had finished atop the Central Division in '01-02 with 50 wins. Rick Carlisle was the reigning Coach of the Year, Ben Wallace had been named Defensive Player of the Year, and Corliss Williamson was the Sixth Man of the Year. Newcomers to the roster included free-agent signee Chauncey Billups and draft choices Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur. In the wide open East, the Pistons were tailor-made to fight for the conference crown.

In training camp, Richard discovered the secret to Detroit’s success. Whenever he knifed to the hoop, he paid the price, crashing to the floor or absorbing a deftly placed knee or elbow. There were no free baskets on the Pistons. Richard began popping 20-footers and noticed that an unusually high percentage were clanking off the rim. Another lesson learned. Richard liked Carlisle’s defense-first system, but knew he would have to get a little bigger and a lot meaner to be a major contributor.

Richard bulked up, thanks to a team of advisers that included a chef, personal trainer and physical therapist. In a system that reminded him of his college days, he found that the harder he worked on defense, the more easy buckets he scored on offense.


Richard Hamilton, 2001 Heritage
 
 

Detroit opened the 2002-03 season by winning 12 of its first 17 games, with Richard a major factor. In December, he averaged more than 20 a game. Against the Chicago Bulls, he dished out a career-high nine assists. Carlisle was most impressed with his effort on defense. In his estimation, Richard had become a complete player.

At the turn of the year, Richard gained a measure of redemption against the Wizards, scoring 22 in an 87-82 victory in Washington. By February, he was playing better than ever. For the month, he sizzled from the field and beyond the arc, shooting a combined 48 percent from the floor.

Richard and the Pistons finished the year on a high, posting their second 50-win season in a row. He topped the team in scoring at 19.7 ppg, and appeared in all 82 games for the first time in his career. His 3.9 rebounds also marked a new high.

Detroit got all it could handle from the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. After falling behind three games to one, the Pistons stormed back to win the series. Next, they defeated the 76ers in six games, which earned them a berth against New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Finals. Detroit was no match for the red-hot Nets. With Jason Kidd leading the way, New Jersey registered a convincing four-game sweep.

The news wasn’t all bad for Richard. He had developed into a team leader in Detroit, a point underscored in the playoffs as he upped his scoring average to 22.5. The Pistons thought so much of him that they inked him to a seven-year, $62 million contract extension.

Richard’s signing wasn’t the only off-season move in Detroit. In a stunner, the Pistons let Carlisle go, and replaced him with Larry Brown. The change made national headlines, many of them negative. Brown had a reputation as a miracle worker, but also tended to abandon teams when they seemed to need him most.

Dumars wasn’t done. He also traded Curry and Clifford Robinson, and opted for seven-foot Darko Milicic in the draft instead of the more obvious choice, Carmelo Anthony. Tayshaun Prince’s solid playoff outings that spring had convinced Dumars that he already had a quality swingman on the roster, and so he felt comfortable gambling on a big man on draft day.

Brown immediately installed a team-first attitude that everyone bought into. That included Richard. He was still Detroit’s most lethal scorer, but the other facets of his game were evolving. On the boards, he was shouldering more of the burden, and on defense Brown didn’t hesitate to assign him tough match-ups.

Come February, with the East picture still cloudy, Dumars pulled off one more daring deal, trading for Rasheed Wallace. Milicic was not ready to handle big minutes in the middle, so the GM outmaneuvered a handful of contenders and landed the fiery big man. Wallace fit in nicely with his new teammates. In March, the Pistons won eight straight games by at least 15 points, and held five opponents in a row under 70 points. Both established new league records.


Richard Hamilton, 2003 SI for Kids
 
 

Detroit ended the regular season at 54-28, good for the third seed in the East. Though his scoring dropped to 17.6 ppg, Richard finished the season a more accomplished player. His assists rose to four a game, and he also increased his shooting percentage and his steals total. Perhaps most important, he had become the go-to guy for Detroit.

The Pistons cruised through their opening-round series against Milwaukee, eliminating the Bucks in five games. Richard’s best performance (27 points, six assists) came in a blowout in Game Four.

Detroit next faced what would prove to be their staunchest playoff test. Matched against the Nets, the Pistons opened a 2-0 series lead. Richard was the key in Game Two, scoring 28 points with five assists and four steals. New Jersey turned the tables in the Meadowlands, winning twice to knot the series, then gutted out an amazing triple OT victory in Game Five. Richard was conspicuously quiet in the barn-burner, though he did hand out 11 assists.

Rip reappeared two nights later when the Pistons needed him most. With Game Six tight late in the fourth quarter, he nailed an off-balance jumper to seal an 81-75 win. He followed that with 21 points in the clincher in Detroit, and the Pistons moved on to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers.

Richard emerged as the difference-maker in this series. Indiana—now coached by Carlisle—simply couldn’t stop him. Over six games, he averaged 24 points. The Pacers tried everyone against him, including Ron Artest, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, but to no avail. Not even a cumbersome facemask could slow down Richard. He was forced to wear the protective device because of a broken nose suffered during the regular season.

In Game Five, the Pistons went scoreless for more than five minutes in the
second quarter. Richard scored 24 of their next 29 points to put Detroit up
by a dozen on its way to an easy 83-65 win.

The Pistons closed out the series in Game Six with a 69-65 victory. Richard netted 21 points, and received some words of admiration from Miller, whom he hounded all over the court and completely outplayed.

With the Pacers eliminated, the NBA Finals were advertised as a coronation for the Los Angeles Lakers, who featured a Hall-of-Fame lineup with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. For Richard, he liked the idea of revisiting his personal rivalry with his old friend. Kobe had beaten him twice in the playoffs in high school. Now Richard was looking for some payback on the big stage.

Detroit clamped down defensively in Game One in L.A., surprising the Lakers with an 87-75 victory. Richard shot poorly, but Billups was hot and the rest of the Pistons pitched in with clutch hoops. In Game Two, the Lakers restored order to the universe with an overtime win. The most memorable moment came when Kobe knocked down a 35-foot bomb, with Richard draped all over him. The shot tied the score with less than 10 second left, setting the stage for L.A.’s victory.

The series moved to Detroit, where the Pistons seized command. They blew out the Lakers in Game Three, behind Richard’s 31 points. Three nights later, it was gut-check time, as L.A. looked to reassert itself. But Detroit held on, inching within one win of the franchise’s first title since 1990. Game Five was a laugher. The Lakers, slowed by age and injury, tried to stay close, but the Pistons turned on the jets in the second half. Their 100-87 win didn’t indicate how much of a rout the contest really was. The Finals MVP went to Billups, who played the series of his life at the point, enabling Brown to out-general Phil Jackson and keeping the Laker defenders on their heels all series long.


Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace &
Chanucey Billups,
2004 ESPN The Magazine
 
 

For Richard and the Pistons, the 2004-05 season was about handling distractions. Now the NBA champs, they were the team everyone else was gunning for when the campaign began. They got a taste for just how tough defending a title can be in November, when a game at home against the Pacers degenerated into a wild melee between fans and Indiana players. While Richard and his teammates bore little responsibility for the ugly scene, it set an ominous tone for the rest of the year.

When the Pistons refocused on basketball, they reasserted themselves in the East. January was a particularly good month, as the team won 11 games against just four losses. Richard, meanwhile, was enjoying a great season. He had increased the range on his jumper, making him more dangerous from beyond the arc, and he was also averaging nearly five assists a night, a new personal high.

Ironically, however, Detroit again found itself looking for respect when the campaign ended. Though the Pistons finished first in Central at 54-28, Miami was the fashionable pick in the playoffs. The Heat, who had pulled off a blockbuster deal for Shaq in the off-season, were the top seed in Eastern Conference.

If that wasn't irritating enough, the Pistons had to deal with rumors throughout the playoffs that Brown was set to leave for Cleveland and become the team's president for the 2005-06 campaign. For an experienced team like Detroit, however, the story was barely a blip on the radar screen. Fielding virtually the same club from the year before (except for the addition of veterans Antonio McDyess and Elden Campbell), the Pistons could almost coach themselves.

Detroit's first-round foe, the 76ers, provided little resistance. The Pistons disposed of them in five games, with Richard leading the way. For the series, he averaged 21 points and six assists.

Next up were the Pacers, in a matchup that the media ran with, predicting a slugfest after the confrontation earlier in the year. Surprisingly, Detroit fell behind two games to one, as Indiana clamped down on defense. But the Pistons turned the tables in the next three, closing out the series with an impressive demonstration of team basketball. Richard was on fire in the clincher, pouring in 28 on 10-of-16 shooting from the field.

Detroit faced the Heat in the Conference Finals, and again dropped two of the first three. The Pistons drew even behind a big night from Richard (28 points, eight assists), but then were pushed to the brink of elimination after losing in Miami. Brown rallied his troops, as Detroit blew out the Heat in Game 6, 91-66. On the road for the decider, the Pistons showed their playoff mettle, earning an 88-82 victory. Among the key factors were Detroit's stiffing defensive effort against Dwyane Wade and Richard's clutch scoring in pressure situations.

On to the NBA Finals, the Pistons squared off against the Spurs in what basketball traditionalists were calling a classic duel. Both teams stressed defense and rebounding, while also boasting a cast of stars who could fill it up in transition. San Antonio appeared to take control with two dominant wins at home, but the Pistons responded with laughers of their own in Games 3 and 4. All was not right with Detroit, however. Neither Richard nor Billups seemed comfortable against the Spurs' relentless pressure. That was never good news for the Pistons, because when their backcourt struggled, they usually had trouble scoring.

When San Antonio gutted out Game 5 in overtime, the experts said the series was over. But the Pistons won two nights later on the road to force Game 7. That was as far as they went. The Spurs broke open a tight contest in the third quarter, and never looked back on their way to a 81-74 victory and their third NBA title in seven years.

The odd twist to Detroit's Finals loss is that the team earned kudos for its tenacity and will to win. Perhaps fans and the pundits were reminded of the Pistons' championship a year before, which was a true team effort. It has become NBA doctrine over the past couple of generations that clubs lacking superstars have no shot at a title. Rip and the Pistons continue to prove them wrong.

RICHARD THE PLAYER

 
 

If Richard is ever considered an NBA superstar one day, it will be his work ethic—not his God-given ability—that gets him there. He may be the fittest player in the league, leading enemy defenders on game-long chases that leave them gulping for air. Though he has the one-on-one skills to beat opponents to the hole from the opening bell, he takes a devilish pleasure in wearing them down and then abusing them at crunch time.

In an era when the three reigns supreme, Richard is a refreshing change of pace. He looks for the mid-range jumper, and rarely misses an open one. Richard has worked long and hard to refine his play off picks and screens, and can now create space for himself before the ball ever comes his way. That’s a guy teammates like passing to, because it means an easy assist on the score sheet.

Richard has also spent a lot of time improving on defense. The need to play on both ends has been emphasized to him over and over again, by everyone from Michael Jordan to Larry Brown. His desire to get better defensively underscores his leadership skills. Teammates look up to Richard because he puts the team first all the time. That attitude might obscure his skills to All-Star voters, but it has earned him the ultimate respect of his fellow players.


Richard Hamilton,
2003-04 SP Authentic
 
 

Richard Hamilton

 
   
 

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