You know what’s funny? We think of the UConn Huskies as one of college basketball’s traditional powers, yet in the late nineties, they had yet to reach a single Final Four. Now they’ve got four national championships. Out of five Final Four appearances. Which is incredibly efficient of them.
Do you remember that first title? It happened in 1999. Against Duke. With, in retrospect, a pretty stacked squad. The field general was a portly, 5’10” Minnesotan named Khalid El-Amin. (Thought: college basketball seemed to lose its way right around the time it stopped featuring the occasional fat point guard. These days, guys don’t stay around long enough to get fat.) Down low the Huskies had 6’11” Jake Voskuhl, who was sort of like a poor man’s Bryant “Big Country” Reeves. Or a poorer man’s Nick Collison. And the coach was, of course, the towering, super-Irish-looking, super-duper-Boston-accented Jim Calhoun.
But without a doubt, the active ingredient was Richard “Rip” Hamilton, the slim, 6’7” sharpshooter from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who seemed to be able to hit any shot on the court, and whose game closely resembled that other great UConn marksman, Ray Allen. That spring Hamilton, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led all players with 145 points, which averages out to a scorching 24.2 points per game.
“My uncle used to say, ‘All right, we got to have meditation time. And we got to visualize that we’re going to play great.’ I always geek myself up and allow myself to believe that I’m going to have a great game.”
Hamilton didn’t disappoint in the final, either. He scored all kinds of baskets. Threes. Layups. Free throws. Midrange jumpers. Leaners. He poured in 27 points and powered the 33-2 Huskies—9.5-point underdogs to a Duke team featuring future NBA-ers Trajan Langdon, Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Corey Maggette—to a three-point win. Which allowed UConn fans to savor their first title and party like it was, well, 1999. (Sorry.)
So with the Final Four upon us, we figured it was a good time to revisit Hamilton’s big night in St. Petersburg, Florida. We also got to talking about his time with Michael Jordan—and what he does with all those sweet masks from his NBA days.
First of all, can I call you Rip?
Yeah, man, you can call me Rip. I’m not going to do anything to you.
OK great. I wanted to ask you a few questions about that 1999 final against Duke. Going in, what was your mindset and the team’s mindset?
Well, going into the game, we knew we were going to win. It’s kind of crazy, but I think we were ranked number one for like 18 weeks or something like that—half the season. And Duke was ranked number one for the other half of the season. I messed up my groin early in the season and we lost one game, and that’s when Duke became the number one team in the country. So we felt as though we should’ve been the number one team the whole season.
So when we got an opportunity to meet them in the championship, we just felt that we were that good. And we probably had the most confident point guard in college basketball history in Khalid El-Amin. So it was great, man. It was a great run. We were all young, having fun, and we were like, ‘this is an opportunity of a lifetime to bring Connecticut its first championship.’
You personally delivered, too. You scored 27 points and were named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player. Did you exceed your own expectations?
Not really. Not at all. I’m a very confident individual, especially with basketball. You know, as a kid, my Uncle Chuckie and my father and me always went to hoop-it-up days, where we used to go out and play three-on-three against older guys in Philadelphia. And we used to sit in an RV, and my uncle used to say, “All right, you know what, we got to have meditation time. And we got to visualize that we’re going to go out there and play great.” So I always had that trait since I was a kid. And before the game, I always geek myself up and allow myself to believe that I was going to go out and have a great game.
Do you remember anything that Coach Calhoun told you guys before the game or at halftime? Because at halftime you trailed by a couple points.
Calhoun is… is Calhoun. He’s very strict. He’s all about business. And I can remember before the game he came in very loose. Like, “Hey guys, you know, just relax. Go out there and have fun. Have a great time.” And it kind of gave us a chance to really take a deep breath and say: “All right, you know, let’s just relax. Let’s go out there and have fun. If Coach is smiling, we should be out there smiling and having a good time too.” That was a thing that I really, really remember.
I also wanted to ask about your season with Michael Jordan on the Wizards. What was it like playing with Jordan?
I loved it. It was probably one of the greatest experiences that I had as a professional basketball player. And the biggest thing that I remember is… playing at the University of Connecticut and having a sellout every game, playing on national TV every other game, and just the whole craziness that comes with that. And then getting drafted by the Wizards, and then in the first two seasons, having probably a quarter of the arena filled up, and only winning twenty-some games. And then Michael comes in, and it was right back at it. Right back like college basketball. Sellout crowds, playing on national TV every other game. So I felt more in my comfort zone.
Say what you will about the mask: Rip won an NBA title rocking it.
Do you have a funny Michael Jordan story?
Well, there’s many. When Michael first came to the Wizards, I never got an opportunity to meet him. And just like every other kid in the world, I’ve been a fan of his my whole life and he was pretty much my idol growing up. So I can remember when I first got to meet him, I walked up to him when he was the president of the team, and I was like, “Michael!” And he was like, “Yeah.” He started talking, and I couldn’t understand him at all. It just seemed like it was a whole bunch of mumbling. Because I was so hyped, I wasn’t even paying attention to the conversation. I was just looking at him, you know? And then when I left and I went back in the locker room, a couple guys said, “Hey, you was talking to MJ, what did he say?” I said, “Man, I have no idea.” I was so excited.
What’s next for you?
I’m actually doing TV right now. I’m doing some work with NBA TV, doing some work with ESPN. I want to continue to do that. I love it. I’m passionate about it. I love to talk basketball, love doing interviews. So I think that’s my new calling. And getting an opportunity to play with my kids. And hanging out with them. And being a dad and being a family person. So I’m excited about my new chapter.
Finally, what do you do with all your masks?
Oh, the masks. I’ve got them tucked in storage right now. They’re on hideout. But I’m going to bring them back out. I don’t know when, I don’t know where, but I’m going to bring them back out.
How many do you have, anyway?
You know what, when I was playing, I ran through a lot of them, breaking them after every shot I missed. But I got a lot of them. I don’t know how many.