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2021 NBA Playoffs

Devin Booker sought advice from Rip Hamilton on wearing mask

The Suns star struggled in Game 3, but doesn’t think the mask is to blame

LOS ANGELES – Richard “Rip” Hamilton is viewed as the NBA’s most renowned expert on wearing a protective mask while playing basketball. The former Detroit Pistons star has advised Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid and J.R. Smith on the best way to play in the NBA with a mask. Hamilton’s phone rang again on Tuesday night after Devin Booker broke his nose following a collision with LA Clippers guard Patrick Beverley during Game 2.

The Phoenix Suns star was seeking advice from his childhood hero about wearing a mask during the playoffs.

“ ‘When you put it on, it’s not going to change the way you shoot,’ ” Hamilton told The Undefeated about what he told Booker. “ ‘It will be weird. But once you put it on, leave it alone.’ They tend to want to take it off during a free throw, on the bench or during a timeout.

“ ‘Leave it on because you will be more worried about the mask off than on. You will be more confident with it on. You tend to clench up when you go to the basket, but with the mask on you are protected when you go to the basket and are poked in the eye or mouth. You feel invincible. You play more confident with the mask.’ ”

Wearing the mask for the first time on Thursday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center, Booker was more mortal than invincible. Booker missed 16 of 21 shots from the field and six of seven 3-point attempts. The 6-foot-5 guard scored a playoff season-low 15 points and the Suns lost 106-92.

Was the mask to blame?

“It’s fine, honestly,” Booker, 24, said. “I don’t really see [the mask]. It doesn’t affect me.”

“It’s hard to say,” added Suns head coach Monty Williams. “He won’t make excuses about [the mask].”

Booker, who lived primarily in Michigan until moving with his father, Melvin, to Moss Point, Mississippi, as a sophomore in high school, grew up a huge Pistons fan. His favorite player was Hamilton, who averaged 18.4 points over nine seasons with the Pistons from 2002 to 2011 and was part of the 2004 championship team. Hamilton was known for his midrange jumper.

Hamilton said he first met Booker at Ocean Beach in Toms River, New Jersey, when the latter was about 17 years old. While Booker would end up playing in the 2014 McDonald’s All American Game and was a five-star recruit, Hamilton had never heard of him.

“He told me back then as a young kid that I was his favorite player and that he was trying to go to the NBA,” Hamilton said. “It was very random that I got introduced to him at Ocean Beach. I had played in Detroit and he was a Michigan kid. I didn’t know how great of a player he was at the time.”

After Booker went to the University of Kentucky, he reconnected with Hamilton. In 2019, during halftime of an exhibition game in Mexico, Hamilton swapped one of his vintage Pistons jerseys with Booker for a Suns jersey. Booker has enjoyed having a relationship with his basketball idol.

“I’ve been preaching for a long time that he is my favorite player of all time,” Booker said. “I’ve had short conversations [with him] in the past.”

Richard Hamilton of the Detroit Pistons became known for wearing a protective mask after his nose was broken three times.

Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Hamilton was known for wearing a protective mask after breaking his nose three times. The three-time NBA All-Star also continued to wear the mask post-injury and it became his signature look. He said he was once upset at the NBA because they allowed LeBron James to wear a black protective mask.

“They wouldn’t allow me to wear an all-black mask, but they let LeBron wear one,” said Hamilton, who is starting his own protective mask brand.

Booker’s phone call to Hamilton was primarily about the mask. But Booker also made a point to get some basketball wisdom from Rip as well.

“He told me he stuck with it because putting on his face mask put him in character. He felt comfortable getting in the paint with extra protection. An extra layer. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t take it off when you shoot free throws.’ Don’t let it be a distraction to you.’ …

“I thought this was the perfect time to talk to him some more and get some advice. He chopped it up with me for more than a minute and gave me some great feedback, and the great mindset to go with out there.”

Hamilton said he used anesthesia to aid getting his nose repaired by doctors on three occasions, but said Booker proved to be tougher. Booker took eight shots to numb his nose, which was broken in three places, before getting on a plane to Los Angeles on Wednesday for Game 3. Booker said the worst part of the broken nose was getting it set back into place.

“There is a procedure that they say they put you under for,” Booker said. “But we had to fly out a couple hours later, so we just numbed it up all over the place. It took eight shots to numb it up. They go in there and they break it back in place. It was my first time experiencing that. But they said [Suns forward] Cam Johnson went through it, so I know I could.”

Moving forward in the series, the Suns hope Booker will be able to adjust to wearing the mask. They will also have to figure Beverley out.

After Booker scored 40 points in Game 1 against the Clippers, Beverley has held the two-time All-Star to 10-of-37 shooting from the field and 2-of-10 from 3-point range the past two games. Booker said Beverley’s success has come from being “ultra-aggressive.”

“He is denying and limiting touches,” Booker said. “He has one objective there and we understand that. Other things should open up. We should see what is open and see what we can get.”

Hamilton is confident that Booker will figure it out. He said there is a lot about Booker’s game that reminds him of Bryant. Hamilton and Bryant played on the same AAU team, played against each other in high school in the Philadelphia area and played in the McDonald’s All American Game together before battling on the NBA stage.

“He’s Kobe-like,” Hamilton said. “He’s a student of the game. He wants to be better.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.