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Editor's note: The following is adapted from Chris Palmer's new book, "The Sixth Man: A Season Inside the NBA Playground" copyright (c) 2006 by Chris Palmer. Excerpted by permission of ESPN Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Here, you get a glimpse of the Detroit Pistons' Richard Hamiton -- off the court.
Detroit, Jan. 15
Like I said, waiting is a big part of my job. But there's waiting and then there's waiting for Richard Hamilton. The Pistons' running joke is that when Rip's involved, Greenwich Mean Time goes out the window. Rip shows up whenever Rip feels like it. If he's supposed to be at a charity function at 5, feel blessed if he shows up at 5:30. Meeting him for dinner at 8? Well, don't kill yourself to get there.
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Don't misunderstand. Rip Time doesn't apply to practice, games, or team flights. He's often one of the first to arrive for basketball-related functions. He knows what pays the bills. But the rest of the time you, me, and everybody else has to adjust to his time zone.
Hamilton's such an easygoing guy, it's hard to get him, well, going. He may first want to run back another game of Madden football or round up his buddies and load them into the Range Rover. No sense trying to figure it out. Just roll with it.
I arrive in Detroit too late to catch the Sixers-Pistons game. It's my first DNP of the season. At about 10 o'clock, I give Josh Nochimson, who also happens to be Rip's business manager, a call. He tells me Rip had 25 points and six assists in the Pistons' 99-95 win. He doesn't know I saw the game on TV.
"I think everyone's about to get together," he says. "You want to hang out?"
"Yeah, what's the plan?"
"I'll give you a call in about an hour. Let me call Rip and try to put something together. If you don't hear from me, call me."
I can already imagine the excuses I'll hear tomorrow. An hour passes and, what a surprise, my cell doesn't ring. I leave Nochimson a message, telling him to call me in the morning. Then I order Domino's, watch Frankie Muniz tell Conan O'Brien he's too short to get chicks and go to sleep. It's hard to tell if I was a victim of Rip Time or not.
You have to understand that as a writer, no matter how close you think you are to an athlete, you're not a player. And if you're not a player, you can plan on watching a lot of TV. Whenever I make plans with Hamilton or [Damon] Jones or [Elton] Brand, whether to meet for lunch or some other activity outside the arena, I'm never certain it's going to happen until I'm in the car sitting right next to him. The more people swirling around an NBA star, the higher the odds your plans will fall through. They've got too many distractions. And, because they've got teams of handlers to perform every little chore for them, the act of getting into a car and driving to meet someone is a monumental task. It's much easier to hit the reset button on the PS2 and apologize the following day. On top of that, there's the Confusion Factor. Maybe it's unique to me, but when I'm coordinating plans with professional ballplayers, they seem to speak another language.
Elton Brand and I once agreed to meet for lunch at Aunt Kizzy's Back Porch, a soul food joint not far from his old apartment in Marina del Rey. I hooked up with him in the parking lot outside the Clippers practice facility.
"I got something to do real quick," he said, "but just follow me and I'll meet you there later."
Now what the hell does that mean? Do I follow him or not? Before I could phrase the question, Brand was pulling out of the parking lot.
"F--- it," I said and raced to my car.
On another occasion, back when Jamal Crawford was playing in Chicago, I arranged to meet him outside the team's practice facility and follow him to his house. "I drive a black Escalade with rims," he said before disappearing into the locker room. I sprinted to the player's parking lot and discovered six black Escalades with rims. Now, for reasons I've made abundantly clear, I could not call his cell phone to ask which one was his. I had to stake out the exit instead. Because it was freezing outside and I feared frostbite, I ran to my rental car first. The moment I got behind the wheel, I saw a black Escalade flying by me in the rearview mirror. I had to decide right then and there if I was going to chase it. Lose Crawford and the day is done. I drove behind the Escalade for a good six miles before I noticed the Washington State license plates. Being that Crawford was the only Bull from that state, I felt relieved. And a little foolish.
Detroit, Jan. 17
The Mayback glides to a halt in the parking lot outside the Palace of Auburn Hills and the doors fly open, dispensing Richard Hamilton's boys into the light. Hamilton himself steps from the passenger seat. His mink coat is unzipped, revealing one of his signature Rip City jerseys, a tribute to his hometown of Coatesville.
Few passions in sports come close to Hamilton's devotion to his blue-collar birthplace 44 miles west of Philly. "No one ever wants to gives us respect," he says. "There used to be a sign on the highway that let you know when you got to Coatesville, but they took it down. Then I looked on a map and we weren't even there. Where's the respect?"
Because the downtrodden steel town gave him life, because it kept him out of trouble, taught him values, and introduced him to basketball, he's made it a lifelong goal to put it back on the map.
"Everything I have I owe to Coatesville," he says. "That's where my heart beats."
With the exception of the 15-minute drive to and from practice, Hamilton rarely goes anywhere by himself. Make that never. Not to the grocery store. Not to the West Indies. There are very few moments in his life that his childhood buddies have not witnessed.
"If I looked around and [my friends] weren't there, I wouldn't feel right," he says. "Once I drove to a game by myself and the parking attendant looked at me like something was wrong."
The guys followed him from Coatesville Area High to the University of Connecticut, where he led the Huskies to a 34-2 record and a national championship in 1999. They moved west with him to Detroit, where he won an NBA championship in 2004. With each lifestyle change, each new demand on his time, the guys were there to keep him grounded. Says cousin Jontue Long, "We'd be walking down the street and people would be pulling him in all different directions asking for pictures and autographs and we'd just be left standing there. At first it was awkward because we didn't really know how to act." But when the crowds dispersed, Rip's boys saw that he was just as puzzled as they were. "He was rich and famous but he was still Rip," says Long. "He was still Coatesville."
Still the same kid who'd sneak into darkened rooms at basketball camp with one hand full of lotion and another full of baby powder and smear them onto some poor kid's face. He'd wait till breakfast the next morning to see which one walked into the mess hall tarred and feathered, all the while cracking up.
"We're not his entourage or his posse," says Mark Brown, a financial advisor with Smith Barney, whose dark blue business suits stick out among the legion of Rip City jerseys. "Our friendship is from the heart, as real as anything there is. We all have our own productive lives, but we've been together forever."
To seal their bond and pledge their allegiance to Coatesville, 10 members of Rip's crew have CV FOR LIFE tattooed on their abdomens. The 11th member declined to join them with good reason: "He has a big stomach, so we let him get it on his shoulder," says Rip. Hamilton has CV on his jewel-encrusted bling, on his license plates and etched into the back of his game shoes, too. For him, all things begin and end with the town where he was born.
With the season nearing the halfway point, though, Rip's Pistons have yet to find their groove. For a team with such talent, they have a mind-boggling propensity for overlooking the extra pass, standing around on offense, and barely striking iron with their jumpshots. But you won't find 12 players who know each other better. If Rasheed Wallace's corner 3 is falling, his teammates find a way to get him the ball. If Ben Wallace suddenly streaks downcourt, they know just where to hit him with the lob.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies a week and a half ago, however, none of that was evident. For the first time in history, an NBA player led his team in scoring without making a single shot from the field. All 14 of Hamilton's points came on free throws. He went 0-for-10 from the floor. "I never thought I'd have to coach effort," said Larry Brown. "I've never had to do that in my entire life, and this is the last group I expected to do it with."
Detroit, Feb. 10
Coatestville, Pennsylvania is 28 miles and a world away from the immaculate yards that lie like giant green floor mats beside the upscale homes of Philadelphia's Main Line, the tree-lined streets where Kobe Bryant lived during his high school days with his mother, father, and two sisters. Up and down the Main Line, daddy's little girls steer their BMW 325s with the kind of entitlement that doesn't require them to use turn signals or throw you a "sorry" wave after they cut you off. But basketball is the great equalizer across the state of Pennsylvania. You can't shut off the baseline with your zip code. You can't raise your field goal percentage by changing the address on your birth certificate.
Kids from Coatesville work hard. They know the value of an honest day's pay. They learn it by watching their parents shuttle back and forth with their lunch buckets from the local steel mills. Not far from the middle class development of Brandywine Homes, where Rip Hamilton was raised by his parents, Richard Sr. and Pamela Long, there are two slabs of asphalt and, rising out of the ground, steel poles with chain link nets on rusty old hoops that always present a hazard to fastbreakers. Here in Ash Park, reps are made and destroyed, depending on whether or not you brought your A-game. The well-worn courts sit in a small valley surrounded by steep grassy hills like a workaday Coliseum. The fact that Rip and his boys had to pass the Oak Street projects to get to the park was just extra incentive to bring it.
Hamilton earned respect from the project ballers by wearing them out. Because you can't beat what you can't catch, he never stopped moving. "He's always been that way," says cousin and one-time teammate Jontue Long. "The way his heart, lungs, and breathing work, it's a gift."
One of the first people to discover that gift was Kobe Bryant, who played with Hamilton on a Philadelphia-area AAU team in the summer of 1995. Tonight at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Kobe's Lakers will square off with Rip's Pistons in a rematch of the 2004 NBA Finals, which the Pistons won in five games to claim Detroit's first title in 14 years. Only this time, there will be no Shaq. No Phil Jackson. And no Kobe. As the Pistons race out to a 23-4 lead, Kobe watches the slaughter unfold from his seat behind the bench. Wearing a brown corduroy blazer and a pink dress shirt, he tugs nervously at the knees of his pricey pre-faded designer jeans as Rasheed Wallace forces Lamar Odom into a turnover resulting in a Hamilton dunk. Of the 12 men on the Lakers' active roster, only Luke Walton, Brian Cook, and Slava Medvedenko played on last year's Western Conference Championship team. The Pistons are the sole marquee attraction on this night, leading from tip to buzzer in a 103-81 romp. Four starters score in double figures, with Tayshaun Prince leading the way with 25 points. As the Pistons run away with the game, Kobe stares at the ground. His image is broadcast on the Jumbotron and the crowd begins to boo. He doesn't bother to look up. He's the most hated man in the NBA right now. Not in a love-to-hate kind of way. More like a despised kind of way. Like you-thought-you-were-the-s----the-way-you-looked-down-at-us-with-your-straight-from-high-school-Main-Line-nose-in-the-air-for-so-many-years-but-look-at-you- now sort of thing.
People love to pile on Kobe Bryant. Probably because it once seemed like Kobe had everything. Looks. Money. Game. Raging sense of entitlement. And he knew it. Never really rubbed it in your face, but you could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. He knew it. Knew you knew it. And that was a little infuriating for most people. Reporters and players and league officials and shoe reps from adidas regularly talked behind his back. They shut up when he walked by. No one wanted to get on his bad side.
Shaq -- the world's greatest living center -- refused to tiptoe around Kobe and he got shipped off to Miami. So how could Kobe's current teammates front like they had no worries? "Some people just stayed out of his way," a former Laker told me. "It was easier. Most of the time he kept to himself, but he was watching you. Watching the way you practiced like he was Jordan or some shit. You couldn't argue with it because you weren't going to win that argument. Everybody upstairs loved Kobe. Even the ones that didn't acted like they did."
These days, Kobe's bad side is not so treacherous. Although the Colorado thing is behind him, he can't flex his muscle like he once did. He's human now and everyone knows it. The only way he's getting back on top is to win people over. That's what any smart person in Kobe's position would be thinking and Kobe Bryant is a smart person. He needs friends in a way he never has before. He has at least one.
The final buzzer sounds and Kobe wades through the flood of players, coaches, ballboys, and security personnel to find Rip Hamilton, coming toward him, unhitching the Velcro straps on his protective facemask. The two embrace for a long time, patting each other on the back, whispering congratulations and what's ups. They step back, exchanging toothy grins, Hamilton's left hand on Kobe's shoulder, Kobe's on the back of Hamilton's head. Never have I seen Kobe so at ease, so openly friendly with an opponent. More shocking still is to see someone else so relaxed around him. Players from other teams are reluctant to fraternize with Kobe, largely because they assume he has no interest in friends. But Kobe wants to shed the loner tag, to be one of the guys. He wants to laugh and joke with his colleagues around the league. For him, though, it's not that simple.
Except with Hamilton. With Hamilton, it's easy.
Beatwriters who follow Kobe struggle to name players he counts as friends. They recall attempts to socialize with his teammates outside the walls of the Staples Center or the Lakers practice facility, but scarcely know of anyone who's been to his home. He simply lives too far away.
Hamilton is the right fit for Kobe. His sunny disposition makes it easy for Kobe to be himself, even if he doesn't yet know who that is. Kobe trusts him, refuses to judge him. They have a history.
Detroit, Feb. 12
I'm driving up I-75 towards Auburn Hills when I spot the sign for Adams Road. I pull off the exit and loop around to an intersection that gives me the option of going right or left. "Take Adams north until you run into South Boulevard," Josh Nochimson had told me a half hour earlier. Of course, Adams appears to run east to west. The Pistons tip off in 35 minutes and I'm running late, but I refuse to let The Confusion Factor rear its ugly head, so I make a left and hope for the best. Five minutes later, I arrive at the two-story townhouse where Nochimson sleeps when he's not running Hamilton's life.
Upstairs in the living room, boxes are everywhere, reminders of the move Nochimson made three months ago. On a small table sits a three-inch stack of unopened mail -- tax papers, account statements, official looking stuff -- addressed to Richard C. Hamilton.
Nochimson's name is engraved on a nearby glass trophy commemorating the 1999 NCAA Basketball Championship won by the University of Connecticut. Hamilton was the star swingman. Nochimson was a team manager.
Nochimson checks a few college box scores on ESPN.com and we jump into a leased silver Audi A6 once owned by Sergie Federov of the NHL. Nochimson promptly plugs his phone into the cigarette lighter, slips on the earpiece with wraparound microphone, and begins sorting out who gets what tickets. His commands are quick and to the point without betraying his endearing nonchalance.
"Where are those seats? 103? Listen, get him on the phone. No. Is she coming tonight? Rip's parents are behind the basket. Come on, just do it. Can you believe this?"
He fingers the volume on the stereo, nearly muting Bruce Springsteen -- Greatest Hits, and gets down to business. His rapid-fire speech is a bit more irritated. Too many tickets, envelopes, seats, sections, requests. Ten minutes later, we pull up to the Palace and Nochimson flashes a laminated card with the words GUEST OF RICHARD HAMILTON at the parking attendant. He waves us into the lot next to the section reserved for players. We walk the 20 yards to the entrance for friends and family. Nochimson slips off the earpiece, if only for a moment, and lets out a sigh. "This is a big game tonight," he says. "Who are we playing?"
These are good times in Motown. The Pistons are making the extra pass. Rasheed Wallace is asserting himself. Antonio McDyess looks three years younger on his feet. Chauncey Billups has harnessed the backspin on his jumpshot. Coach Brown is smiling. With each new day, anticipation builds, bringing the Pistons one step closer to duplicating the feat that shocked the basketball world.
The Wizards are no match, quickly succumbing in a 107-86 rout.
"We were really great tonight," Brown says, perusing a dog-eared final box score at his postgame press conference. "Look at that, 33 assists on 43 baskets. Man, we were just great tonight. This is about as good as it gets."
Just after midnight, Hamilton settles into the barber's chair in front of the mirrored wall in the full-service barbershop situated on the second floor of his million-dollar home. His personal barber, James Wilson, trims the scraggly baby hair on his forehead and temples. In walks Hamilton's cousin, Jontue Long, wearing a size 52 jersey with the words RIP CITY on the front and COATESVILLE on the back. Rip's assistant, Henry Cooper, who lives in the basement, arrives next, wearing the same jersey, different colors. Before long, nearly a dozen friends from Hamilton's beloved hometown have turned the room into a 30-by-28-foot laugh riot. They tease each other just as they did in Ron's Barbershop back home, especially Cooper, who once drove a moped through Ron's front window.
"You know A.I. got 60 tonight," someone says to a chorus of disbelief.
Hamilton spots Long's jersey. That's Long's version of a tux, he says. Long doesn't disagree. Soon the gang is caught up in a heated debate on the time-honored topic: Tupac vs. Biggie. Hamilton turns 27 tomorrow. The party's tonight and everyone's in town. Then again, when Hamilton's around, they're always close at hand. Thirty minutes later, it seems half of Coatesville is standing on the white marble floor of his two-story foyer. Hamilton towers over everyone, adjusting his ever-present do-rag. "How many people we got?" he asks, trying to count heads. "Fifteen? Sixteen? Seventeen? Who are the designated drivers? How many cars do we need?"
Someone asks if tonight will be fun. "Yes siiiiir," shouts Hamilton, using his personal catchphrase. His pals call it a Coatesville thing. When you hear it, things are going well in the House of Rip. Tonight is a Yes Sir kind of night.
Because the crew is so deep, we have to commandeer Hamilton's entire fleet. The birthday boy throws on his fox fur -- complete with real fox heads on the elbows -- and jumps in the Maybach he bought last year with the money he got for winning the championship. The license plate reads 04 BONUS.
Long gets behind the wheel of the Bentley coupe. A third driver takes command of the Range Rover. Hamilton lets his sister and her friends drive the Jag. He's owned that car for awhile so he won't be too upset if the bumper comes back dented. I ride with Nochimson in his Audi. As we roll down Woodward Avenue through Birmingham, a leafy suburb not unlike Philadelphia's exclusive Lower Merion, Antonio McDyess pulls his car out of a bank parking lot and cabooses our caravan.
This is how you're supposed to roll.
The street leading to the club that will host Hamilton's party is routinely closed to traffic, barricaded by police officers with orange cones. Hamilton inches the Maybach toward the cones and rolls down the window. A police officer scurries off to move the cones aside and we proceed half a block to the club's entrance. The line to get in winds around the block. Hoochie mamas stand three and four across next to girls who have to get up at seven in the morning and go to work at banks or doctor's offices.
"Are they shooting a rap video or something?" I ask.
"I don't think so," Nochimson replies.
"They need to be."
We quintuple park right in front of the club, which used to be a strip joint, and open our doors in unison. It'd look really cool in slow motion. When the onlookers see Hamilton, they let out a gasp. "Look at his coat," says one admirer.
Two 300-plus-pound bodyguards emerge from the club's door to escort us inside. We line up single file, one bouncer in front, the other in the rear, and snake our way to the third floor. Scarcely an inch of unoccupied dance floor remains. The club's new owners left the stripper poles up and they're getting plenty of use by young women. I'm sandwiched between Hamilton and McDyess. People reach out to touch them as we walk by.
The bouncers lead us to a VIP area on the top floor. We take cover in a small room way in the back. I'm pretty sure it was once the champagne room. Behind the bar, a mother and daughter team are serving thirsty patrons. I spend most of the night just inside the roped-off VIP area chatting up the Coatesville crew and watching the women vying to crash the party. One in her mid-20s, dressed in fishnet stockings and a tight black skirt, manages to convince a bouncer that she's a guest. She gets all the way to the tight hallway outside the former champagne room. She can see Hamilton's white do-rag bobbing in the crowd. She whispers something to the bouncer guarding the entrance. He isn't buying it. She'll have to wait for Hamilton to come to her.
She stands for nearly 25 minutes with her neck craned skyward, staring intently in Hamilton's direction, willing him to make eye contact with her.
"Do you know Rip?" I ask her.
"Yeah, I met him twice. Once at a mall," she says with confidence. "He definitely remembers me. I'm just waiting for him to come out. We're really good friends."
"If you're such good friends, how come you're standing here?"
She shoots me a frown.
"The bouncer doesn't recognize me. They usually have a different bouncer here."
When the house lights come up, it takes the club's staff nearly half an hour to clear the way for Hamilton's crew. The girls in fishnet's gang are reluctant to leave without any face time. Two bouncers drag one away by the arms. She curses them, telling them that her brother will be back to shoot up the place. Outside in the street, the cars are waiting right where we left them. The police clear a path so we can make a quick getaway up I-75.
Nochimson whips out his phone, going over the last-minute details for tomorrow morning's trip. Hamilton has chartered a jet to fly a dozen of his boys to Connecticut for a 1 o'clock game against North Carolina. They have to wake up in four hours.
"The jet is going to cost us a fortune for one day's use," says Nochimson, taking off his earpiece one last time. "But it truly is the only way to fly."
Chris Palmer's new book, "The Sixth Man: A Season Inside the NBA Playground" is available now on Amazon.com.