Retired Basketball Star Shares ‘Mind-Boggling’ Troop Experience
By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity
For most people, wearing a gas mask would probably be uncomfortable. But for three-time NBA All-Star Richard “Rip” Hamilton, who tried one on during a decontamination demonstration on a USO tour, he almost forgot he was wearing it.
“I left it on for like, 30 minutes, and the guy was like, ‘You can take that off.’ But I thought, ‘Man, I feel good in this!” Hamilton joked. “It kind of put me back in my comfort zone, because I wore a mask when I played.”
As if he needed to remind any NBA fan of that. The mask he’s referring to was a clear plastic one that he wore in the mid-2000s after breaking his nose twice. It became his trademark, and he wore it for most of the rest of his 14-year career.
The rest of the USO tour had him out of his comfort zone a bit. But that was a good thing, he said, describing it as “mind-boggling.”
Hamilton reached out to the USO after his longtime friend and mentor, fellow NBA legend Ray Allen, had done a tour and loved it.
Hamilton wasn’t disappointed. His spring tour made seven worldwide stops in seven days.
“In our careers, we travel a lot, but we never travel like this,” Hamilton said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
USO tour veterans like former “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, Army vet-turned country musician Craig Morgan and celebrity chef Robert Irvine were also there, and they prepped him for the experience.
“You’re going to see these troops in remote areas where this is their family. They haven’t seen their kids for months and years at a time, and they’re there to protect us,” Hamilton said they told him.
They started with a tour of the Pentagon, where they met Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife.
“They were some of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met in my life. I didn’t expect that,” Hamilton said, instead thinking they would be prim, proper and no-nonsense, like you see in movies.
The next stop was at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska before flying to Japan and South Korea. Djibouti in Africa was supposed to be next, but they had airplane issues, so they lost that tour stop and had to adjust. Everyone quickly decided to extend the trip.
“Everyone was willing to put aside whatever we had to do back home because we knew how important this experience was to be with the troops,” Hamilton said.
So they finished the tour visiting Iraq, Afghanistan and Spain.
Hamilton was surprised and honored to see dozens of troops wearing his jersey. He even ran into a service member who grew up in the same small town as he did – Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
“My town has 11,000 people in it, and [one service member] grew up three doors from the house I grew up in. It was absolutely crazy,” Hamilton recalled. “We were able to share stories about how we grew up and why he joined the military. It was cool.”
He and the troops chatted, they took photos with his 2004 NBA championship ring, and they even played some ball.
“A lot of guys challenged me to one-on-one,” he joked.
With all the sights to see, autographs to give and planes to catch, Hamilton said the best part of his trip was hearing the service members’ stories. He was shocked at the level of maturity those in their teens and early 20s had.
“I had one conversation with one of the kids who’s the head of his squad. One of his roles was to go out and train Afghan soldiers,” Hamilton said, not knowing that was part of the military mission. “I thought that was amazing because … we just think it’s U.S. soldiers protecting the U.S.”
He was very impressed by the intelligence, technology and preparation needed in a war zone.
“The level of intel that we have to protect our soldiers over there – how they can detect if something shot at troops, or when it comes to a blimp in the air that takes satellite pictures for miles and miles around,” he said. “When I went over there, I felt secure. I didn’t feel like it was a combat zone.”
Hamilton was thankful he was able to join the tour and bring a little cheer to the men and women serving our country – especially those stationed far from home.
“I met one kid over there who said, ‘Rip, I was feeling down being in this remote area, but you just brightened my day up,’” Hamilton said.
The experience was one he’ll never forget, and it may have even made him an advocate for more NBA players to do the same.
“I think more guys should go over there from the league,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do more, and I’m going to continue to broadcast this as best I possibly can … to get guys over there and give their time and spend it with the troops.”
USO tours are all about thanking service members and their families for what they do every day for our nation, so we hope you make that happen, Rip!
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