While other scorers yearn for attention, Richard Hamilton seeks to disappear. His game is based on running away from the ball. Empty-handed, he dashes and knifes and ducks and cuts full speed around and between his screen-setting teammates and the ever-moving maze of enemy defenders. Now and then he pokes his head out from the crowd just long enough to catch and shoot in one quick motion.
This is the go-to scorer of the champion Detroit Pistons? The man who out-Kobe'd Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals? While the rest of the league bulks up in the weight room, Hamilton, at a scrawny 6'7" and 193 pounds, looks like a stick figure from a 1970s pre-creatine highlight reel. And while his peers continue to insist upon dominating the ball, the 26-year-old guard has emerged as a throwback to the days when playing without the ball was a valued skill. He often looks as if he's playing a wholly different game from everybody else on the floor.
"He's in his own world out there," says Pistons president Joe Dumars, who acquired Hamilton from Washington in a controversial 2002 trade. "It's not fake. I'll be talking to him, and after 10 minutes he'll say, 'What did you say?' And I'll say, 'What do you mean, what did I say! I've been talking to you for 10 minutes!' It drives you crazy."
That state of oblivion enabled Hamilton to raise his level of play last postseason, during which he appeared unfazed by the rising pressures. In the regular season he had been one of several options for the well-balanced Pistons, averaging 17.6 points in the company of point guard Chauncey Billups (16.9) and power forward Rasheed Wallace (13.7). But as the team worked its way through elimination rounds against Milwaukee, defending conference champion New Jersey and top-seeded Indiana and into the Finals against the Lakers, Hamilton ascended from a role player to a 21.5point scorer who produced in the biggest moments. After Bryant, his former Pennsylvania high school rival, sank a game-winning three over him to steal Game 2, Hamilton outscored Bryant 31-11 in Game 3 to set Detroit back on course to win the championship in five games.
That kind of impact was everything Dumars envisioned when he boldly decided to send veteran All-Star Jerry Stackhouse to Washington in a six-player deal for Hamilton, who has yet to play in an All-Star game (though that should change this season). "Rip is a guy you don't have to call a play for--he runs off screens, and the flow of your offense doesn't stop," Dumars says of Hamilton. "For me it was an incredibly efficient way for somebody to get 20 points a night without the traditional way of stopping, calling a play, isolating, going one-on-one and just completely interrupting whatever flow you might have had in the game."
Hamilton may be the NBA's best in three crucial areas: balance, conditioning and midrange shooting. Pistons strength and conditioning coach Arne Kander compares him to an Olympic runner because of his genetic makeup and driving ambition to improve. "He never gets tired," Kander says. "He has incredible mechanics when he runs, along with a strong back, which enables him to stay upright." That explains how Hamilton is able to slalom through the snarling, elbowing traffic at full speed then trampoline straight up for a jumper.
Though his talent for moving without the ball was polished at UConn, where he helped the Huskies win the 1999 national championship as an All-America in his junior season, the midrange shot didn't become his specialty until after a Wizards practice in April 2001. He was trying to guard Michael Jordan when his newly unretired teammate took two dribbles and pulled up for a 15-footer. "Get that in your game," Jordan told Hamilton.
In this era of low-percentage, long-distance shooters, Hamilton is an anachronism who pays little attention to the existence of the three-point arc: Last season he attempted only 68 threes. (The league average for shooting guards with a minimum of 40 starts was 257.) Meanwhile, he converted a career-high 45.5% (530 of 1,166) inside the arc, mainly from 18 feet and in. "With my speed, people always think I'm going to go to the basket," Hamilton says. "But when you take that one hard dribble and elevate, it's the toughest thing in the game to guard."
Hamilton has a healthy addiction for conditioning. While growing up in the relative isolation of Coatesville, Pa., a mill town 45 miles west of Philadelphia, he would study all of the instructional videos he could find and re-create drills. His father would bring a camcorder to every game, enabling Richard to study his moves and tirelessly improve his fundamentals. In high school he would show up for track meets a few moments before routinely running a five-minute mile. After forgoing the champagne in the Pistons' locker room in June--he says he has never tried alcohol or drugs--Hamilton celebrated the championship by taking a rare month off, which did not preclude a daily two-mile stroll with his pit bulls, Shark and Diamond. "I'd start running with them and keep running until they'd give up," Hamilton says. "When I'd get them back to my house, they'd be the best dogs in the world and just sit there the whole day."
Coming off a season in which he also produced career highs in assists (4.0 per game) and steals (1.32)--a natural result of coach Larry Brown's incessantly emphasized priorities--Hamilton is counting on a June reprise. Look for him to finish more often with his left hand as the defense permits, and watch him flourish with Billups, who has learned to predict Hamilton's uncanny moves like a quarterback throwing down-and-outs to a wide receiver.
Do not, however, expect him to get carried away with his newfound role of elite scorer. "We have several guys who could be All-Stars, but we're willing to sacrifice and put that aside and win games, and I don't see it changing," Hamilton says. "Why? Because it's so much fun."
While the rest of the league bulks up in the weight room, HAMILTON LOOKS LIKE A STICK FIGURE from a 1970s pre-creatine highlight reel.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg