RIP EXCELS AT A JOB NOBODY ELSE WANTED

It is a story you don’t hear enough in sports. Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, who is dazzling people in these NBA playoffs, got that good by realizing, one day, that he wasn’t that good.

He was a teenager, attending one of those showcase camps for high school stars — you know, the kind where college coaches lurk like vultures and shoe companies try to eagle-eye the next LeBron — but unlike a lot of kids who watch their own moves, Hamilton spent his time looking around.

He saw players making rim-rattling jams. He saw players making long three-pointers. Those were both things he liked to do. And he silently congratulated himself, saying, “Man, I guess we’re all gonna make the NBA.”

Then one of the camp leaders gave a speech. A speech in which the real odds come out.

“He said maybe four kids out of the hundreds there might make the league one day,” Hamilton, 26, recalls now. “I couldn’t believe it. When I heard that, I said man, I gotta find something all these other guys aren’t doing.”

And so Hamilton, who had been dribbling wildly past everyone his age, gravitated to a skill that the fewest players wanted. The mid-range jumper. The crowded, bumpy mid-range jumper. The hard-to-gauge mid-range jumper. The sure-to-draw-an-elbow-or-an-eye-poke mid-range jumper. The eight-foot-to-20-foot mid-range jumper, just this side of the lane, just that side of the lane, halfway down this baseline, halfway down the other.

He staked it out like a homesteader.

And he made it his own.

The concrete path to glory

He began with a drill on his hometown court, a concrete slab in Coatesville, Pa., a small town less than an hour from Philadelphia. “We had a McDonald’s and a Dairy Queen and that’s it,” Hamilton says. His court was purely small-town as well, metal rims and wooden backboards. Hamilton would throw the ball ahead, catch it, take one bounce, and shoot.

Then he’d throw it someplace else, take one bounce, and shoot.

In high school, he had a coach named Ricky Hicks who would throw the ball all over the court. Run to it, one bounce, shoot. Run to it, one bounce, shoot.

Then, in college, at Connecticut, Hamilton advanced to two bounces. Run and get it, two bounces, shoot. Then a head fake thrown in. Bounce, head fake, shoot.

Every summer he came home to Coatesville, and he and Hicks would do it again. Countless hours. Countless days. Throw, fetch, shoot. Throw, dribble, shoot. Rip tried to stitch every inch of court into this routine, simulating any possible angle from which he could receive the ball. Get it. Pull up. Shoot.

Now, understand, this is not much fun. His contemporaries were practicing their windmill slams, or measuring their accuracy from the three-point line, throwing their arms up when they made one. That stuff is highlight reel. Jams. Treys. Who puts a 12-foot jumper on “SportsCenter”?

But there are a lot fewer guys who can sink those 12-foot jumpers than there are guys who can wham a ball down a rim. Hamilton’s endless pull-up-and-shoot drills eventually made him familiar with every angle and every touch.

“The good thing when you pull up to shoot is that nobody knows where you’re gonna do it but you,” he says. “I figure half the time the guy can’t stop on a dime and jump with me, so I’ll get a clearer shot. And if they think you’re going hard to the basket, they’re gonna keep going even when you don’t.”

A game of practice and instincts

Hamilton, averaging 20.4 points in the playoffs, has been the offensive story for Detroit in its marathon series against New Jersey. Which is no small thing, considering how tough offense is to come by for the Pistons. His jumper with 15 seconds left Sunday night assured Motown at least one more game this season. It was, most likely, his biggest shot as a professional.

“The last shot I remember that meant that much was a three-pointer I hit in the national championship game in college,” he says. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. But at the time you’re shooting it, it just feels like you’re going up for another shot. It has to. If you start thinking about all that rides on it you’re not gonna make it.”

A lot of players talk about hard work. So much so, you can’t tell the hard workers from the hard talkers. But you usually can see it. What Hamilton does, racing around the floor, making water-bug cuts, moving without the ball then getting it, one dribble, shoot — and why does that sound familiar? — is the straightest line from practice to real game a player can achieve.

Isiah Thomas used to say that basketball is a series of moves you have done so many times in your life, they come natural to you in the most intense moments. Next time you see Hamilton pull up on those least likely spots on the floor, look hard. You might see the concrete of Coatesville beneath his feet. His game is a lesson to wanna-be players everywhere. Sometimes, the stuff nobody wants to do is the stuff that makes you a somebody.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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