“I missed the games. I missed preparing for them. I missed the excitement.”
There have been several acts to Tyler Hansbrough‘s basketball career. Some remember him for the first one – when a tall, sinewy boy wonder was anointed a basketball prodigy. Others remember him for the second – a coming of age story during his four years at University of North Carolina, frequently gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated. Many recall his third act, as an Indiana Pacer, when he fearlessly patrolled the paint and engulfed rebounds. When Hansbrough stepped away from the game at the beginning of this season, some believed the curtains had closed on his career. It turns out, however, that was only the intermission…
Hansbrough is back for the finale. After almost a season-long hiatus, he is dominating for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds in 33 minutes per game.
“I didn’t want to sit out a whole year,” Hansbrough said. “There’s a limit to the amount of time that you can play so it kind of weighed on me. I was eager to get back on the court.”
Hansbrough last played in the NBA for the Charlotte Hornets in 2015-16. He became a free agent after that season, but didn’t receive any NBA contract offers. During his break from basketball, Hansbrough continued to work out and practice while contemplating his next move. Throughout that process, Hansbrough reached out to his old college coach, Roy Williams, for advice.
“I still talk to him about big-time decisions, I always run it through him,” Hansbrough explained. “The thing about Coach Williams is I know he’s going to give me an honest answer. He’s always going to have my best interest when he talks to me.”
At the end of the day, the comeback was Hansbrough’s decision to make. After accruing more than $16 million in NBA contracts, it wasn’t about the money. He concluded that he loved the game and if he needed to play in the D-League, it would be worth it to earn his way back to the NBA.
“I thought I’d get picked up, but I didn’t. So it was like, ‘Here’s the situation I’m in,’” Hansbrough said, pausing as if to take stock. “This is an opportunity for me to get back to the basketball routine and make something of the year instead of just sitting on my couch.”
After seven years in the NBA, Hansbrough doesn’t take the game for granted. He knows the same things that made him a successful player in the past are the same things that will allow him to be one once again.
“I still approach it like any other game. I still want to go out there and play well. My goal is to win.”
While Hansbrough is focused on his current team, he knows that his play may book him a ticket back to the NBA, which is his ultimate goal. There are several teams that could potentially use a tough, interior player who has 44 postseason games worth of experience.
“I’m always confident. I feel like I can help any team with the energy and rebounding I provide,” Hansbrough said. “I think I can come in anywhere and help.”
Hansbrough’s NBA career officially began on on June 25, 2009. That was the night president of basketball operations Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers selected him with the 13th pick in the NBA draft. They added the 6’9 power forward to a front court that already featured a first-round pick from the previous draft, sky-scraping big man Roy Hibbert. Hansbrough was excited for the opportunity to join a burgeoning team and appreciated Bird’s faith in him.
“Anytime you’re around greatness, you can always take things and learn from them. One thing I always respected about Larry was that he always worked hard. It seemed like he was at every practice.”
Hansbrough proved to be a cog in the Pacers’ rotation on a team that was one win away from making the 2013 NBA Finals. He helped match up with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in an intense Eastern Conference Final series against the Miami Heat.
“We took them to Game 7. It’s not like they ran over us. It was really frustrating, especially when you are at the pinnacle of your sport and you’re one game away from going to the NBA Finals. We felt like we were there. We gave them a good run. We just fell short.”
The chemistry and success of that Pacers team gradually began to crack after the series. Indiana elected not to re-sign Hansbrough and he left for the Toronto Raptors in free agency. However, Hansbrough doesn’t have any regrets from those Pacers days. He is appreciative to have played on a contending team and to have experienced the thrill of the NBA playoffs, which he says is unlike anything else.
“I don’t want to compare the NCAA tournament to the NBA playoffs because I feel like the NBA playoffs are so much more exciting. You have a home court advantage, which the fans are really into, versus the NCAA which has more of a corporate feel when you play the games because you don’t have a home court and everyone’s away. It is just a different feel.”
Tar Heel Days
“The ceiling really is the roof!” Hansbrough said with his trademark Missouri chuckle. “I can’t tell you what it means, but I can tell you this – when Michael Jordan talks – you listen.”
Hansbrough is a fan of Jordan’s infamous proverb proclaimed at UNC’s senior night this year. Although it is seemingly a paradox (take a second to think about), it has become a rallying cry for the Tar Heels and their fans, as UNC prepares for an impending Final Four matchup with Oregon.
It is difficult to believe that any basketball player could measure up to Michael Jordan’s legacy at the University of North Carolina. If there is one, however, it is Hansbrough. From 2005-2009, he dominated the ACC and the NCAA, becoming the first player to be named first-team All-American and first-team All-ACC in four consecutive years. Hansbrough holds the NCAA record for free throws made and UNC’s record for rebounds, all while averaging 20.2 points and leading UNC to a 120-22 record in four years.
But Hansbrough isn’t remembered for his regular season statistics. He is remembered for being a compass on fans’ brackets. Year after year, you could almost automatically pencil his team into the Elite Eight or Final Four. Hansbrough, who is UNC’s all-time leader in tournament points scored, played in two Final Fours and won the National Championship in 2009.
“Obviously my low post threat and Ty’s [Lawson] ability off the dribble presented a lot of problems for opponents,” Hansbrough said, fondly recalling the championship season. “You also couldn’t help off of Danny Green or Wayne Ellington.”
The ’09 Tar Heels featured six future NBA players, including five first-round picks. All six 6 currently play in the NBA or D-League.
UNC basketball alumni make an annual pilgrimage every summer back to Chapel Hill to play pickup games.
“Kendall Marshall goes back a lot,” Hansbrough said. “Marvin Williams too. A lot of guys come through to play pickup and work out.”
When all the stars return, who does Hansbrough like to play with?
“My ’09 team,” he said, with a wry laugh. “Ty, Wayne, Danny, Ed [Davis]. Those guys.”
UNC basketball’s brotherhood runs deep and keeps all of the players connected physically and emotionally.
“A lot of the alumni come back to play with the current players, like the ’09 class came back,” said Clippers rookie and UNC alum Brice Johnson, who has spent time with the NBA D-League’s Salt Lake City Stars this season. “That’s one of the best parts of going to Carolina. There’s such a great brotherhood that comes back and plays with you during the summer.”
Hansbrough has been following UNC’s current March Madness run. After all, he has a vested interested. He’s played pickup with Justin Jackson and Luke Maye at the Dean Smith Center on humid Carolina summer nights, the sound of the air conditioner purring overhead. Jackson leads UNC in scoring, with almost 20 points per game in the tournament. Maye drilled the game-winning jumper with three-tenths of a second remaining against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
“I always follow them,” Hansbrough said. “Anything can happen in one game, so I hope they come out and play and they have good luck and good success. They’ve got good pieces and they’ve proven they can beat anybody. Hopefully they go and do that.”
Hansbrough went silent, letting the words marinate for a second. Although he said he usually doesn’t like giving advice, he has one more thing to tell this year’s Tar Heels.
“There’s not much left of the season, so make the most of it now. These next few games, do something special.”
With both the NBA and D-League playoffs looming, Hansbrough, in his finale, hopes can do the same.