Rip to the rafters: Pistons honor Hamilton by retiring No. 32

Rip Hamilton’s No. 32 went to The Palace rafters in Sunday’s halftime ceremony.
Pistons photo
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – In the hours leading to his coronation as Pistons royalty, the tears fell as often for Rip Hamilton as his jump shot did all those seasons when The Palace throbbed with the pulse of an NBA championship contender.

“I already cried three times today,” he said an hour before the Pistons and Celtics game and the halftime ceremony where his No. 32 was run to the rafters to join Ben Wallace’s No. 3 and Chauncey Billups’ No. 1.

Make it four. He started tearing up as George Blaha rattled off his many accomplishments, then sobbing as Chauncey Billups – speaking for his teammates – wrapped up his tribute to Rip with this: “We came here the same year together, met as friends and now we’re brothers. I cherished every single moment we played together. I cherish every single thing about you and I love you, man. Congratulations.”

Chauncey and Ben, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince … that was just the tip of it. Lindsey Hunter, Mike James, Mo Evans, Mehmet Okur, Antonio McDyess, Michael Curry and Elden Campbell were also there. His college coach at UConn, Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, and his high school coach, as well. And, of course, Larry Brown.

It was very likely the last time the Goin’ to Work Brotherhood will be united at the building they electrified all those winter and spring nights for the better part of a decade.

Of the five starters inextricably linked for life, all but Prince began their NBA careers elsewhere. It made them that much more aware and appreciative of the special bond they formed here. Rip said he talks to other players who won championships and asks how often they connect with their teammates.

“Some haven’t talked in 10 or 15 years,” he said. “Man, we talk two or three times a week.”

On Saturday night, they did what they did hundreds of times over the years on the road – went out as a group to eat – and then they gathered in Rasheed Wallace’s hotel room.

“Until 4 o’clock in the morning,” Hamilton grinned. “Laughing, telling old stories. Our bond was special.”

Hamilton fully expects to be at ceremonies in the not-too-distant future to honor Rasheed Wallace and Prince, too. To a man, the idea that they wouldn’t all have equal recognition to reflect the secret sauce in their recipe for success is a little crazy.

“Our motto was ‘We’re the best five alive.’ Before every game, that was our chant in the middle of the huddle: ‘Best five alive.’ We all knew in order for us to be great at what we do, we need each other. We need our brothers.”

But those ceremonies, when they come, won’t be at The Palace. Hamilton repeatedly called the honor “surreal,” but the ride to the arena helped ground him, the same route he took all those years from his Bloomfield Hills home.

“Coming down Square Lake and seeing The Palace to the right, man,” he said. “This is special. I’m right back in it again. Felt like I’m going to a game. This is the Lakers all over again. That’s the feeling I have in my stomach. Can’t eat. Don’t want to talk to anybody.”

But when he got the chance, he composed himself – had a handkerchief in his hand, dabbing at his tears – and thanked everyone from his parents to his high school and college coaches to his wife and three children and, of course, his teammates.

He told the story of writing his goals as a kid on a piece of cardboard he kept above his bedroom door. Every time he accomplished a goal, it would get crossed off and on to the next.

“I said I wanted to be an NBA player. I wanted to be an NCAA champion. I wanted to be an NBA champion,” he said. “But not once did I write on that board that one day that jersey would be going up in the rafters.”

But that’s where No. 32 is, in the familiar company of No. 1 and No. 3. If that’s the last time they’re all at The Palace, they went out with a bang.