It’s possible nobody had a sweeter midrange game in the past 20 years, and nobody worked harder to get those midrange shots, than Rip Hamilton. The long-time Detroit Pistons guard who also spent time with Washington and Chicago officially retired on Feb. 26 after 14 seasons, ending a career that saw three All-Star Game appearances, an NBA title in 2004 and the 1999 NCAA Championship with UConn.
Hamilton took a break from spending some time in Las Vegas to host an NCAA Tournament viewing party for Gillette Clear Gel to speak with UPROXX Sports on Friday. He talked UConn, that immortal 1999 tournament run, playing with Michael Jordan, and of course the mask.
I’ll start off by asking a question I’ve been wondering for years. With your college search way back when, what was it about UConn that made that the place for you to go?
Everything. I think one, a great coach in Jim Calhoun. Two, I just love the campus, and just being a college student and being able to go into campus and feel safe. It wasn’t in the city, it was kind of like in its own city. Three, was the fans. The fans were incredible, and I always told myself when I first went up there on an official visit that if I never got an opportunity to play in the NBA, playing for Connecticut basketball was like playing in the NBA because of being the only sport in town, men’s and women’s. It was a great thing. Watching Ray Allen before me and seeing myself put in the same position where he was at. Him leaving, and me coming in. I felt it was a great opportunity for myself.
What’s your favorite NCAA Tournament memory in general? I know 1999, the whole ride probably, is right up there, but I didn’t know if there was something else that stuck in your mind over the years.
Other than the ’99 Championship, the shot against Washington. My sophomore year, making it to the Elite Eight. Seeing my roommate Kevin Freeman win the Big East Tournament MVP [in 1999]. That was huge for me.
Duke was favored by around 10 points in the 1999 Championship game, and Coach K even recently mentioned that was one of the teams he thinks about that just missed or he’d want to have back. What was that Final Four experience like, and did you prefer the underdog role against Duke?
I always say when you look at statistics and you see who were the two No. 1 teams for pretty much the whole year, it was us and Duke. The reason we lost the No. 1 that season was because I hurt my groin and missed a game and we lost, they bumped us down. We felt though, all year, we were the best team in the country. A lot of people get caught up in Duke, how many championships they’ve won, Coach K, and things like that, but at the time we hadn’t won one ourselves. So we felt this was our time. We had a great coach, we had a great point guard in college – Khalid El-Amin was probably the most confident guard in the country – so we just knew it. I’m telling you, we just knew it.
Who was the hardest player you had to defend in college?
The hardest person to guard? I’d say Pat Garrity, hands down. Pat Garrity was nice. I’m telling people. He was the truth at Notre Dame.
When it came time to make the decision to go to the NBA, who’d you consult with when you made that choice, and do you think you’d have left if you guys hadn’t won the title?
I know I wouldn’t have left if we wouldn’t have won. I think I was about to leave my sophomore year, and I had a conversation with Calhoun, and pretty much he convinced me to come back. That’s when I knew that winning the title was what I wanted to do. After I won it, I consulted with Kobe Bryant. We were friends and we had many conversations on the phone. He was telling me what to expect coming to the NBA, how do I approach the game, how do I approach practice, and other things like that. He has always been a good friend of mine to consult different things off of.
The mask has become so synonymous with you and your career. It’s kind of amazing that’s maybe the first thing people think of now, not the tournament run, maybe not even those Pistons teams. Do you feel good about that in general? Is that something you just kind of embraced?
I feel awesome about it. [Laughs.] The reason why is because that’s who I am. When I first put the mask on, and I just like to always think outside the box, I always just said there’s a lot of great players in the NBA. It’s hard to separate one from the other from a talent perspective. Guys come and guys go, so I always said when I wore the mask, every game regardless of if you knew basketball or you didn’t, everybody who came into the arena was always saying: ‘Who is the guy wearing the mask? Why is he wearing the mask?’ I always felt that was my blueprint. Even years when I’m old and grey, people will not just remember me from a basketball standpoint, but they’ll always know me for the mask.
It’s making a comeback, though. Westbrook’s worn it. Kyrie’s worn it. LeBron worn it. Are you okay with that?
I’m cool with it. You know why? Because every time one of them wears it, who do they have to talk about? You know what’s good though? A lot of the guys will call and ask me questions about it. It’s always great to give guys advice on what to expect and see when they’re wearing the mask.
Do you think your career goes differently if you’re never traded to Detroit in the first place?
Not really. I think that I always wanted to be great, and I always put some added pressure on myself to be great. I just believe that everything happens for a reason. I thought that when I left Washington, I left a great opportunity there. I was playing with Michael Jordan. You know? I just think everything happens for a reason.
You mentioned Michael. What did you learn from him specifically? It seems like everybody who’s every played or been around him has an anecdote or something that’s just supremely MJ. Do you have one of those?
Michael was like the teacher, and I was like the student. Me, Courtney Alexander and Laron Profit at the point guard position. I just remember playing against Michael. He’d come down, take two dribbles on the right and pull up. He used to say to me, “Rip, get that into your game. Add that. That’s the hardest play to guard. Anytime you can make a 15-20 footer, two hard dribbles to the left or right, that’s the hardest move in the game to guard.” People used to come up to me and say, “Rip you have the best medium range game in the league. Where’d you get it from?” Anytime you have the opportunity to play with a great player, it can’t be taught, you can only experience it when you’re actually experiencing it and talking to it and things like that.
If you had to sum up the run that Pistons team had in one word, what word would it be, and why?
Hard work. Teamwork. One word probably is just basketball. And the reason why I say basketball is that’s how the game is supposed to be played. That’s how you’re taught as a kid to play the game of basketball. You’re not taught to be the man and try to score a bunch of points if nobody else on your team does anything. You’re taught to learn the fundamentals, share the ball, you’re only as good as your teammates.