Richard Hamilton might not ever be adequately appreciated for his NBA career, but he’ll always have the mask.
Richard “Rip” Hamilton was a good basketball player, and some — mainly Detroit residents — think he should be in the Hall of Fame. Hamilton led the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons team in scoring and once dropped 51 points on a New York Knicks team led by *checks notes* Antonio McDyess at the Garden in 2006.
But none of that is why Hamilton is remembered even by the most casual NBA fan. Hamilton’s legacy will always be connected to the clear plastic protective face mask he wore from 2003 until he retired in 2013.
Every time a player today has to wear a protective mask their performances often get singled out either because they didn’t perform well, or their play was elevated. Think LeBron in Miami with his black mask, Kyrie Irving dropping 41 on the Knicks or Russell Westbrook’s 49-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist, 3-steal stat line in 2015 while wearing a mask (and headband).
All of these performances were phenomenal to witness, even more because they played at that level wearing a clunky piece of plastic, but like Bane says in The Dark Night Rises in the middle of kicking Batman’s a** for the first of many times in that film, those players adopted the mask, Rip Hamilton was born in it, molded by it.
As the story goes, Rip Hamilton broke his nose one too many times and after numerous surgeries and missing games left and right he finally conceded to wearing a mask to protect his nose. His first game with the mask, decent but not on par with what we had come to expect from Hamilton up to that point — 7 points, 6 assists, 3 steals in a Pistons win.
To close out the season Hamilton hit a groove, hitting the 20-point mark a handful of times and almost touching 30 once. But it wasn’t until the playoffs that the legend of the mask grew, specifically in Game 3 the 2004 Finals.
Hamilton had to go against one of the greatest NBA player of all time in Kobe Bryant all series, but that night Rip not only out-dueled Kobe, but he also exposed him on defense, crossed up defenders and muscled his way to the rim to hit difficult shot after difficult shot. He finished that game with 31 points giving the Pistons a 2-1 series led, and eventually winning the title. The mask became not only Rip’s good luck charm but a symbol for the whole team.
It wasn’t that Hamilton just performed well while wearing the mask, he made it cool, fashionable an accessory that added to his game. He later called it his Superman cape, something that when he tightened those velcro straps around his face signaled that it’s time to get down to business and go to work.
Several players wore face masks before Rip, but the swagger that he brought to it is unmatched. To wear the mask AND throw a headband on top of it? He was the first to do it and players after him have emulated it, but they’ll never come close to matching the significance of Rip wearing it.
The mystique the mask brought almost begs the question, would Rip Hamilton have been remembered as well as he is now if not for the mask? There’s no doubt his game spoke for itself — again, he did lead the Pistons in scoring for several seasons — but the mask made him stand out on a Detroit team that was overflowing with talent.
He was easy to identify on the floor, making him a fan favorite inside The Palace of Auburn Hills, and he was regularly dropping 20 a night which made it even better. It didn’t have as big of a cultural significance as MJ’s double socks, Allen Iverson’s many accessories or Kobe’s shooting sleeve, but when Rip Hamilton took the floor looking like Hannibal Lecter, he was guaranteed to put on a show.
Although the mask gets talked about more than his achievements on the court, Rip Hamilton’s name will always be synonymous with that mask and when you look past that piece of plastic you’ll realize how great of a player he actually was.