- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Richard Hamilton doesn't like the perception that he's old and past his prime. Like any proud athlete, he feels he still has more to give, and he believes he is finally in the type of shape that will allow him to stay on the floor after missing chunks of the past two seasons.
After scoring 23 points in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, the 34-year-old veteran was asked what it felt like to play like his "old self."
"What's my old self?" he said, pouncing quickly with a chuckle, before the question could even be completed.
Hamilton listened as it was pointed out that he struggled in his last season in Detroit and before the question could continue into the struggles he'd had to stay healthy in his first year in Chicago, Hamilton had heard enough.
"Why was it?" he said. "It had nothing to do with basketball. The game is the game. It had nothing to do with basketball."
After missing 38 games due to various injuries last year, Hamilton tried a new approach to get his body back in order, hiring a therapist.
"This year, my biggest thing was just to try to come in and be as healthy as possible," said Hamilton, now in his 14th season. "When I'm healthy, I can play. When I ain't healthy, I ain't no good to the team sitting on the sidelines. So that's the biggest thing for me, just trying to stay healthy and trying to be a good teammate."
Despite his inability to stay on the floor last year, Hamilton is being counted on heavily to produce this season. But his teammates are confident that Hamilton can turn back the clock and be the type of scorer and playmaker that he used to be. With Derrick Rose out, it's Hamilton who will become a focal point of the Bulls' offense.
"You can run an offense through Rip Hamilton," Bulls center Joakim Noah said after Tuesday night's win. "People underestimate that just because he's not ... to me, when he's hitting shots like that, it's such a plus for us, but what people don't realize is that most of our offense is run through him. If it's not him getting a shot, a lot of guys are getting open shots because of his presence on the court."
Coach Tom Thibodeau is counting on Hamilton to score consistently given his experience and track record.
"Rip was terrific moving with and without the ball, making plays," Thibodeau said. "He is so experienced. He is feeling a lot better this year, and it is showing. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense because you can put two on him, and if not he's going to knock down those shots all day. He is a very good decision maker and when help comes he hits the open man every time."
Hamilton's run-around style is still tough to control when he's healthy; the question is can he stay that way for an entire 82-game season? He believes he can. That's why he split his summer working in Las Vegas and Maryland, trying to get his body back in order.
"I never thought about being flexible or anything like that, but my dad always told me when I was younger that you got to stay limber," he said. "But mid (summer) once I started really working on my body and really understanding my body from a stretching standpoint. I was always good with food and rest and all the other little stuff and things like that, running, but never with stretching. So I really found that it helped this summer."
He will continue the new summer program for the rest of his career.
"One thing I realized (was) that I'm not 23, I'm not 24. I got to do all the little stuff to stay and play at a high level. You can get away with it when you're young, but you can't get away with it when you're 14 years in the league. I'm just trying different ways to catch an advantage."
And it's an advantage that he appears to have regained.
"Playing against him was frustrating because you'll be like, "Man, how is he getting open every time on the curl?" Bulls guard Nate Robinson said. "He just never stops running, and I think he wears down defenders when he runs because he can do it.
"A lot of people can't do it. Him and Ray Allen are real gifted at that and for him it just makes it easy. I told Rip, he can go a whole game without even dribbling the ball, just how there playing and having fun. It's pretty fun to be on the other side (with him). The grass is greener."
Confidence has never been Hamilton's problem. But even he admitted that last season's starts and stops were hard to deal with. For the first time in close to a decade he had to re-acclimate himself to a new city and a new team. That's why he leaned on former Detroit teammate, and close friend Chauncey Billups for advice and support.
"It was tough," Hamilton said. "I knew that coming in. I knew trying to squeeze 60-something games in a short amount of time, coming to a new situation on the fly, I knew it was going to be difficult, but I tried to stand up to the challenge. Once I got hurt, it was like, 'Boom,' there's nothing I can do. I came back, played two more games, and got hurt again. There's nothing I can do.
"The one thing I just tried to do is stay positive. Me and Chauncey used to talk all the time. He went down with an Achilles (injury), the first time he's been hurt in a long time, since we was together in Detroit. It was a crazy year. It was a crazy year for everybody, not just for players, for fans and everything else."
But it's a new year now and Hamilton is trying to make the most of it. He admits he has thought about retirement a lot recently, and he knows there isn't much time left in his career.
"I think about it," he said. "I think about it all the time. Because when you play so long, you can't play forever. I got little kids and stuff like that so I think about it a lot. My biggest thing right now is just to try and win another championship and to fight for that."