The day last spring when Richard Hamilton came to Washington to work out for the Wizards, he told Wes Unseld, "I hope it works out that I come here." Unseld told Hamilton, with some mock gruffness, to be careful what he asked for. Hamilton remembered thinking to himself, "Sometimes, you go to a place and it just doesn't fit, it doesn't seem like the place for you. But I have a good vibe about this place. I had it right away, from the day I came here for my individual workout."
Playing the curmudgeon, I reminded Hamilton that the Wizards usually don't go to the playoffs, that they hadn't been in serious championship contention since 1982, that he isn't likely to follow up an NCAA championship with an NBA championship. "I understand that," he said. "In fact, when I first went to U-Conn., people told me that U-Conn. had never won a national championship, and that my coach, Jim Calhoun, had never been to the Final Four. It was all true then, and it was hard to wind up where we did in March. But I guess being really good at anything is going to be hard. You have to have the state of mind for it, and I think I do."
That's about the best sentence the first-round draft pick could utter on the day his signing was announced at MCI Center. The Wizards have made some strange first-round choices over the last 15 years, guys who never should have been taken high in the draft because they didn't understand that it does take a certain state of mind.
The Wizards have a long way to go, and they need talented players who think it's a good idea to be here. They don't need anybody whining about this being too far away from home, or not close enough for their boys to drive down. They need a kid who can be in shape from Day One, listen to the coach, kill himself trying, carry the veterans' bags if they tell him to, be a little humble but all the while knowing respect is earned, not just handed over. It's a lesson Steve Francis is going to have to learn one of these days.
The Wizards, and the Washington community for that matter, can only hope Hamilton continues to be what he is now, which is a nice kid, unassuming, respectful of authority, quick to address anybody older than him with "Mr." or "Mrs." At a time when kids come into professional sports thinking the world owes them something, Hamilton is too grounded to be that presumptuous. "I want kids to say, 'I want to be like him,' " he said.
Of course, the closer we get to the scheduled start of camp, the louder the question will become: Can Richard Hamilton play?
There's no sense in trying to answer that question now, or even make silly forecasts. The best thing you can say about Hamilton is there is every indication he won't cheat anybody, that he'll max out. "There are some guys out there who just have a ton of natural talent," he said. "I didn't get here off natural talent. I have to work, which is okay."
Work, back at home in Coatesville, Pa., meant waking up at 5:30 in the morning for a run up and down the hills for conditioning during high school and college summers. Hamilton was in the gym by 7, usually with one of his old coaches from high school, Ricky Hicks, who would get him inside. He'd practice with Hicks, eat breakfast, go back to bed, then wake up and lift weights with his dad, Richard Sr.
God knows, the Wizards could use a player of unlimited talent. But the best thing about successful self-made players is they have a little fear at each level that they won't be good enough, just enough fear to work desperately on everything. After becoming a proficient long-range shooter as a sophomore, Hamilton figured the Big East coaches would figure out his game and shut him down as a junior if he didn't come up with something new. "I knew they'd make me drive, or use a box-in-one to take away the three-pointers," he said. "My thing is to work on everything. One dimension, any one dimension can be taken away, especially by NBA defenses. So I can't say I'm working on any one thing this summer. I'm working on everything."
One thing Hamilton won't have to work on, thankfully, will be playing in the front court. Wes Unseld pretty much ruled that out yesterday. The kid will be in the back court--period. Asked about Hamilton's mid-range shooting skills, Unseld said he didn't want anybody to get carried away: "He doesn't take bad shots . . . but some of that mid-range will get taken away. He'll have to adjust that. He'll have to learn how to take slower players off the dribble and take longer shots sometimes over small, quick players."
It's a pretty cool thing to be able to discuss the Wizards' first-round pick and not have to deal with the issue of contract haggling, as was the case with Tom Gulgiotta and Juwan Howard. The Wizards could have used Grant Long, but he chose the Grizzlies. The club still needs a power forward. "We don't have a power forward as we visualized it," Unseld admitted. "I don't know whether we're going to be in a big hurry to sign someone now just because he is a power forward."
Anybody expecting the Wizards to throw shot-blocking rookie Calvin Booth into the short-term picture at power forward shouldn't get their hopes up. Unseld called Booth a "Lay-back center, meaning he can lay back, let you shoot it and then block it." But Unseld was quick to add, "Calvin's got a lot of work to do. I'm not going to jive you on that. He's got to do better with his conditioning. He can be effective until he gets tired, and then he just shuts down."
Second-round picks, however, are bonuses. First-round picks are lifeblood in the NBA. Hamilton can't help his franchise's sorry recent history; he can only affect what happens from this day forward. It was mentioned to him that the basketball public here is a bit cynical, and might take a while to warm to anybody new, given the recent failures.
"I'm going to start as soon as possible," he said. "It's not time for me to relax just because I've signed. To be a player at this level, it all starts over. I've got to make a career for myself."
He's not going to alienate anybody with that attitude.