Richard Hamilton drives for a shot attempt against Rasual Butler in the first half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2005 NBA Playoffs (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Richard Hamilton Still Embodies Hard-nosed Detroit

Richard Hamilton knows a thing or two about the NBA Finals. He sat down with Boardroom to talk about the sport’s biggest stage, memories of the ’04 Pistons, and his post-career life.

As the years go by and NBA champions of the past fade further from our memories, there are a few images that endure. Michael Jordan rising for his game-winning jumper over a crossed-up Byron Russell in 1998. Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in 2001. Ray Allen’s game-tying stepback three for the Heat in 2013.

And when you think about the title-winning 2004 Detroit Pistons, one of those lasting images that comes to mind is Richard Hamilton in his legendary face mask.

There’s not necessarily one moment; just Rip being Rip, his face slightly obscured by the translucent plastic “Superman cape,” as he called it, originally donned to protect a nose he had broken twice before. It’s as much a part of mid-2000s Pistons lore as Rasheed Wallace’s 1-of-1 antics, the Malice at the Palace, drafting Darko Miličić, and the legend of Mr. Big Shot.

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Rip played for the Pistons from 2002-11, essentially growing up with a city that went through it all. He was the leading scorer on the 2004 championship team, helping to deliver the franchise its first title since 1990. On a Sunday evening 18 years later, Rip sat down with Boardroom at an NBA watch party at Pier 17 in New York ahead of Game 2 of the 2022 Finals to relive his time in Detroit and talk about what’s next.

RUSSELL STEINBERG: What brings you to the event today and how did all this come about?

RICHARD HAMILTON: The league reached out to me and said, “hey, do I want to be a part of this Finals event?” which I had to. That’s something that’s a big part of my life, to get an opportunity to interact with the fans, interact with all the different people that made the game so special. It’s fun for me.

Fans at the NBA’s Finals watch party in New York (Photo courtesy of the NBA)

RS: Think back. What’s that experience like getting ready to play in a Finals game?

RH: The whole world is looking at you right now. In the regular season, a lot of times just the local media, the state that you represent, is watching. When you’re in the NBA Finals, the whole world is paying attention to that game. So you just try to stay in routine, do all the stuff you’ve been doing to get there so you can make it seem as normal as possible. But it’s one of the most exciting feelings I’ve ever experienced in my life.

RS: You won a championship in Detroit and went through so much with all those guys. What does that city and franchise mean to you?

RH: It means everything to me. It took me from a kid to a man. The way that we played, the way that I played, represents the city. Hard-nosed, come to work every day, put on your hard hats. Ain’t nobody gonna give you nothing. You gotta go out there and get it, you gotta go out there and take it. So to get the opportunity to go out there and represent a great city like Detroit and their fans, I always felt like those were the best fans in the world.

We sold out, I think, seven years in a row. Something crazy like that. So it’s something that I love. I love the fans there, and it’s a big part of who I am.

RS: You played there during a turbulent time for the city of Detroit. What did it mean to be able to give the fans something so special amid such real challenges?

Pistons wing Rip Hamilton drives the ball up court against the Cleveland Cavaliers, 2009 (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

RH: Well, that was a big thing for us. We talked about it with our ownership group. We talked about it amongst ourselves. With what everybody is going through in their everyday life — the recession hit during that time — hey, this is an opportunity for people to come out and forget what they’re dealing with in everyday life.

It’s important for us to put on a show. It’s important for us to go out there and represent the city in the right way so we could take their minds off of whatever they’re dealing with for a couple hours and give them some positivity in their life to hopefully take some steps forward once they leave the arena.

RS: In that era of the NBA, the Lakers were the Lakers and the Spurs had their run, but your Pistons teams are fondly remembered for the particular attitude you carried. What do you recall most about those years?

RH: It was a bunch of different personalities. That’s what I try to explain to people. Think of our team, you think of all of us — you don’t just think of one person. You think of the whole team, but we were so different. And if you ever get us all in the same room, you see how different we are, but we understood what we were trying to do, and that’s win a championship. We understood we had to be selfless. We had to lean on each other in order to get to the promised land.

Like, Ben [Wallace] was a very quiet dude. Ben didn’t say a lot. But when Ben spoke, it was like, “oh, ok.” He’s very quiet. You wouldn’t think that. When people think of Rasheed [Wallace], they’ll think of all the different antics, but you wouldn’t think of him as arguably my favorite teammate, probably the best teammate of all time.

I think it was a great mix. Larry Brown was able to bring all the personalities and combine them because he understood that we need everybody to be them, but we need to play together.

RS: After your playing days, you had your number retired. What did that mean to you, and what’s it like to see your No. 32 jersey hanging from the rafters?

RH: Surreal. I looked at a picture today that I had from when they were retiring my jersey and I still can’t believe it — because I didn’t start playing this game for that. I started playing this game because I fell in love with it and I was able to get out of the neighborhood, win an NCAA championship, I wanted to win an NBA championship. It was never for individual stuff. But it tells you if you buy in, you do it right, you do it as a team, good things will happen. But it’s still surreal to me.

RS: You won an NCAA title at UConn and an NBA championship, and you always talk glowingly about your teammates from both those teams. You must have felt like you were part of some perfect matches in your career.

RH: Yeah, the one thing about my game is you could put me in any situation on any team and I could still be productive because I didn’t need the ball in my hand. I was able to fit into whatever the coach needed me to fit in. I always had a great point guard, Khalid El-Amin knew how to find my sweet spot. Chauncey Billups knew how to find my sweet spot.

“[Detroit] took me from a kid to a man. The way that we played represents the city; ain’t nobody gonna give you nothing. You gotta go out there and take it.”

I had great coaches. Jim Calhoun, a Hall of Fame coach. Larry Brown, Hall of Fame coach. So I was blessed with a lot of different stuff and I was able to adapt my game. A lot of people can’t adapt and they think, “you know what? They have to adapt to me.” That’s where it’s all wrong. I was able to adapt to any situation.

RS: What have you been up to since your playing days ended?

RH: Doing TV, CBS, I do stuff with Turner. [An] AAU coach with my kids, running around with them, being dad and coach with them. Got some real estate stuff, investment, part-owner of a soccer club, Club Necaxa, in the Mexican soccer league. Doing some entrepreneur stuff, but most of my time is with my kids.

RS: What got you into soccer?

RH: I wanted to be an owner of a professional team. Shawn Marion, a good friend of mine, was always talking about different deals that we could be involved with, and it was a situation where we both wanted to be the owner of a soccer club, a basketball club, a baseball club, so that was the first step for us.

RS: Did you get involved in any of these ventures while you were still playing, or was this all after?

RH: No, me and my wife talk about it all the time — when I played, I had tunnel vision. I couldn’t focus on anything else but the game, and sometimes I tell myself, hey, I wish I could have done both because I’d be able to leverage a lot of those relationship during that time, but I was so locked in. I don’t think I could be so locked into the game and give the game what I needed to and do all the other stuff on the side.

Now that the game’s not there anymore, I can get into the other fun and creative stuff. I want to be a part-owner of a G League team; that’s my next goal. Just learn the business. Basketball’s been a big part of my life, so I want to be able to give back and be looked at as much more than just a basketball player.

RS: What is it that attracts you to ownership?

RH: The control part, and me being able to now when I’m talking to a kid or talking to somebody that has to do with the team, I’ve been through it. I’ve already experienced it. So it’s not just me standing on a pedestal and just pointing fingers, but I was able to go through the process. I would be able to understand what it is to be a kid, first time away from home, from mom, and going through experiences where you’re trying to fit in, you wanna make it to the league, and so I think I’m able to be well-versed with everything when it comes to the game of basketball.

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