18-year veteran's success manifests in successor

Updated: May 20, 2005, 4:51 AM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a beautiful ceremony. Just beautiful. As if the basketball gods had spent years planning it, with rehearsals just for Reggie and Rip.

Reggie Miller (R), Richard Hamilton
In Hamilton, left, Miller faced the younger version of himself.

Clearly, those people put a lot of thought into the details as to the proper way for Richard Hamilton to receive the master-of-the-mid-range torch from Reggie Miller in Miller's final game.

The irony. The symbolism. It was startling. Get this: They feature Reggie in the first half (17 points on 7-of-9 shooting), then have Rip star in the second (21 on 7-of-10) and drop 10 in the fourth, which was always Miller's time.

They make it so that Rip comes off of a Ben Wallace screen -- just the way he learned from Reggie -- and swishes the 17-foot J with 53 seconds left to put the Pistons up five and assure that this would, indeed, be the teacher's last lesson.

Hamilton -- my goodness, this right here gave me goose bumps -- rebounds the last shot of Miller's career. ("That's going to be a trivia question," he said later.) Rip is at the foul line (the other line behind which Miller made his living) when Reggie goes to the bench to a standing ovation from the Conseco crowd, the Pacers, and the Pistons.

Rip makes both foul shots, of course, giving him 28 points for the night, one more than Reggie. Reggie finishes 11-for-16, Rip 10-for-16.

C'mon.

"I thought that it was somewhat prophetic," said Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars. "Reggie has an incredible game to finish his career, and the guy who he's passing the torch to has the exact same kind of game.

"In situations like this, Rip wants to prove his mettle. As the game was going on, Rip was almost playing like he was saying, 'Hey, hey, don't forget about me. I'm here.' He showed up. He manned up."

Just a second.

Whew.

Deep, huh?

There's more. After the game, Reggie and Rip embrace near midcourt, Rip having given Reggie the perfect going-away gift: He put the Pacers away, Reggie-style. The way Rip played, serving as a worthy adversary for Reggie's final shootout, was the perfect way of complimenting/complementing his idol. Throughout the second half, Rip, the adoring pupil, shows the professor just how much he has learned and how hard he's worked at the crafts Reggie perfected: moving without the ball, catching and shooting. Before he leaves, Reggie gets to see his legacy live and in living color.

In an ideal tribute, Rip was cold-blooded, poised in spite of the elements and his emotions. He was clutch. He was Reggie. And then some. And you know something? Reggie would not have wanted it any other way.

"I told him, 'Thanks,'" Hamilton, who played 46 minutes, later said of the pair's postgame encounter. " 'Thanks for everything you've done.' Everybody in the NBA should thank him, because he played the game the way it's supposed to be played. He told me, 'Yo, carry the torch. Everything that I was trying to be, I look at you and you play the same way. Carry this torch and go win another championship.'"

After the first half, it looked as though Indiana would win this game and force a Game 7. (Oh, yes. The final score of this one was 88-79, Detroit. The Pistons won the series, 4-2, and will play the Miami Heat in the conference finals. Sorry, but by the end, the game was somewhat an afterthought.) Miller and the Pacers had escaped from their series-long shooting slump, connecting on 56.8 percent of their shots. Hamilton, meanwhile, was quiet, with seven points, and at times looked helpless trying to defend Miller. "I don't think Rip was really into it that first half," Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups said.

Hamilton, admittedly, found himself to be a bit caught up in the conflicting emotions of trying to extend the Pistons' season and simultaneously ending Miller's illustrious career.

"It was definitely very emotional," Hamilton said. "I think every question somebody asked me about Reggie's last game, I just didn't want to answer it.

"In the first half, when he had 17, it was killing me. A guy hasn't lit me up like that in a long time. I really took on the challenge. I really took it personally. I told Chauncey to get me the ball, let me make him work just as much as he's making me work."

A pep talk from Billups worked, and Hamilton responded in the second half, accounting for nearly half the Pistons' points (49) and making all four of his field goals and both his free throws in the fourth. Watching Miller and Hamilton chase each other around and cut each other off and meet each other on the other side of screens in the half court was like watching two brothers pursue each other in a tiny backyard.

"It's two guys playing a brand of basketball that goes back to the early days of the game," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, "when you used to watch guys like John Havlicek and Bill Bradley, guys like that who were great playing off movement."

Very few young players outside of Indiana tried to pattern their games after Reggie Miller, whose skills were more subtle than sexy. Hamilton was no exception.

"I wanted to be [Michael] Jordan," Hamilton admitted. "But I couldn't jump that high. I wanted to be Magic Johnson. But I never grew to be 6-9. They were my two favorite players. I was always a person to dribble the ball and things like that, but I was never great coming off screens until I got to college. [Connecticut coach Jim] Calhoun taught me how to come off screens.

"I always watched Reggie Miller but I always hated him for the simple fact that I loved the Bulls so much. It was crazy because he had the best guard in history, Jordan, playing defense on him and he still got his shot off. It was something that nobody could stop. When I got to the league and started playing against him, he would always get me in foul trouble. So I really watched him. I really sat down and was a student of the game, like, 'Why is he getting this shot? Why can't I get that shot?'"

Few thought this had a shot to be a good series, but it was, despite the dreadful shooting. Both teams showed what they're all about in Game 6: the Pacers dug down and came up with one last, valiant effort, while the Pistons hung tough on the road and closed out a pesky team, on Reggie Night. In the end, some good came from the Nov. 19 brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills: Reggie ended up retiring as a key figure on a playoff team rather than a bit player, and it added more interest in what is now the sport's marquee rivalry.

Yes, the brawl was an ugly moment in sports history, but these teams managed to take it and turn it into something beautiful -- six games of intense, mostly quality playoff hoops, culminated by as touching a sight as you'll ever see, that of the victorious Pistons and their coach leaving their bench to salute Reggie in the game's final minute.

"I don't think there's been an NBA game, college game, or anything, where a team was actually about to move on, a guy comes out the game, and the other team is actually cheering," Hamilton said. "That just shows you what he's done for this game of basketball. Showing guys like me how to move without the ball, how to create a shot off one, two dribbles. For a guy his age, to play the way he played tonight was unbelievable."

His co-star was pretty good, too.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.