Richard Hamilton has an entourage now, although it is not exactly the kind of posse that would make Jay-Z proud. There are no strippers, no limo drivers. No one follows Hamilton around just in case he needs his cell phone pre-dialed.
Instead, the former Washington Wizard has at times over the last few months employed a personal chef, a nutritionist, a physical therapist and a personal trainer. It is a sizable crew, but it is not a party crew. "It's an eat-your-vegetables kind of crew," Hamilton jokes and then recites some of the mantras he's picked up from his new associates. "Don't eat fast food, build up the muscle and always have bowls of fruit. Lots of fruit. Exciting, huh?"
It is no surprise that Hamilton fell into a sedate crowd when he was traded to the Detroit Pistons this past summer; these are not your father's Bad Boys, and besides, the kid from Coatesville, Pa., with eyes as bright as searchlights has never been particularly wild or flashy. Still, when Hamilton welcomes his old team to The Palace tonight, it will be encouraging to note that unlike so many of the NBA's young stars, he seems aware that becoming a franchise player involves more than just having the most tricked-out truck in the team parking lot.
It involves work, like the kind Hamilton did all summer, eating right and exercising to pack 13 pounds of muscle onto his willowy 6-foot-7 frame and make it easier to grind his way to the basket. It involves time, like the half-hour Hamilton stays after many of the Pistons' practices, trying to add a reliable three-pointer and step-back jumper to his arsenal of mid-range shots. More than anything, though, it involves commitment -- not just to passing up the McDonald's drive-through but to his teammates and to team defense, which had previously not been Hamilton's strong suit.
"He's worked very hard, and that includes defensively," Detroit Coach Rick Carlisle says of the player whose defensive play was so lax at one point last season he was briefly pulled from the starting lineup.
"I was not going to judge his defensive reputation until I saw him in person," Carlisle says. "What we found was that he wasn't just a good defender, he's a better-than-good defender at the two spot, and playing the two is not easy in this league. He plays the whole game, stays after practice, has a regimen. That kind of devotion from a 24-year-old with his level of ability is exactly what we want on this team."
Of course, like many coaches, Carlisle's favor seems to shift a bit from game to game. Hamilton does not always get a lot of minutes in the fourth quarter, even when the score is close, because Carlisle likes to reward his reserves if they are playing well. And while Hamilton is leading the Pistons in scoring and is second on the team in assists, his numbers both offensive and defensive are not so spectacularly different from last season, when he played 63 games for the Wizards.
In Washington, Hamilton averaged 35 minutes, 20 points, 2.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds; in Detroit so far, he has averaged just a little more than 31 minutes, 20.2 points, 2.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds. (The Pistons, too, seem to be in a bit of a time warp, starting out with a 12-5 record, compared to last year's 11-6 mark.) Yet even if the numbers don't always show it, Hamilton is a noticeably riper player this season, involving teammates more, banging through opponents more. This is perhaps because his game snaps so soundly into Carlisle's offensive system, a series of motion-based and pick-and-roll sets that take advantage of his quickness and ability to create space with and without the ball.
But it also may be because Hamilton has simply been through more. He says he was "shocked" when the Wizards traded him to Detroit in September as part of a six-player deal that also brought Jerry Stackhouse to Washington, and that the experience toughened him. He also learned a lot about himself moving halfway across the country, and while he plans to keep his house in Rockville, he is pleased to find himself adapting to living outside of the Northeast for the first time.
Most of all, though, Hamilton seems supported by the girders of his new teammates, who think of him differently than the Wizards did. To many of Washington's players, Hamilton would always be the sweet, baby-faced player they'd picked seventh overall in the 1999 draft, the work-in-progress taken under the wing of everyone from Juwan Howard to Michael Jordan. To the Pistons, his history is really only beginning now, in his fourth year in the league, making it easier for them to see a future with Hamilton as one of the league's most valuable franchise players.
"Rip still has things to learn, but he's already come in and adapted to our systems and our team really quickly, which is what we needed," says forward Michael Curry. "And if you look at his quickness, just his raw talent, he could really develop into something special."
Hamilton is banking on it; in fact, he likes to say the trade in September was "one franchise player for another." That might not quite be true yet, although if enthusiasm is any indication, it might not be far from it. When the then-undefeated Mavericks were playing Seattle last week, Hamilton turned on his television and rooted for Dallas, just because the Mavericks were coming to Detroit next and he wanted to be the player to knock the team off its perch. He wasn't -- the Mavericks smoked the Pistons a couple nights later -- but everyone on the team noticed Hamilton's eagerness to charge into the fray.
He is just as keyed up about the Wizards coming to town. "I'm ready, I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go, and I ain't going to hold nothing back," he says, promising a repeat of his performance in Detroit's 86-66 preseason drubbing of Washington. He is even considering showing off before the game, strolling into the arena in one of the mink coats he's bought since his move, although when pressed, he acknowledges that even this extravagance has more to do with the cold Michigan winter than with any sense of splashiness.
At least it'll look good with the entourage. "That's me, livin' large," he says, smiling, and then he realizes that is exactly what he intends to do.
"I don't ever want to be ordinary," he says. "I'm working hard to make sure I'm not."