How Pacers' Hibbert emerged to anchor NBA's best defense
In Room 1245 of the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, Roy Hibbert lies on a bed where he won't actually sleep. There is nothing wrong with the bed -- king-sized with a 13½-inch mattress, nine-inch box spring, down blanket and enough pillows to soundproof a recording studio -- unless the guest happens to be a 7' 2" center with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. Instead of smashing his scalp into the headboard, Hibbert strips the sheets and tosses them atop an air mattress that a Pacers trainer lugs from city to city. He sleeps on the ground, alongside his cellphone, which broadcasts the tranquil tones of an app called Pzizz. Hibbert credits the app for helping cure his insomnia and diminish his postgame dependence on Ambien. He pushes a button and lets a soothing male voice fill the room.
Hibbert is the lone Pacer on the 12th floor, by choice, an only child who still relishes rare moments of solitude. He stood in the rear of the elevator on the ride up, bidding goodbye to teammates David West and Chris Copeland, until he was left with a middle-aged woman who appeared about 5' 3" and wore a towel over a swimsuit. She stood in front of him. "Did you enjoy your massage at the spa?" Hibbert asked. His booming baritone emanated from above. The woman turned slowly, cautiously, and tilted back her head. She took stock of the giant in her midst, black-rimmed glasses over his eyes, wide smile across his face. She looked as alarmed as a point guard tiptoeing into the lane. "I was at the pool," she replied quietly. "It was nice."
The NBA is populated by exceptionally tall men, but the tallest among them are often the most uncomfortable with their height. "You see a lot of seven-footers," says Pacers assistant coach and former NBA power forward Popeye Jones, "who only play because they're seven feet." They walk with their shoulders hunched, staring at sneakers that resemble galoshes, while general managers scour the globe and wonder why they can't find any serviceable centers. Hibbert is a different breed of big. He savors his size. Born to a mother from Trinidad who is 6' 1" and a father from Jamaica who is 6' 2", he was 22½ inches at birth. He dunked in sixth grade, reached 6' 9" in eighth, 6' 10" in ninth, 7 feet in 10th and 7' 2" in 11th. He measured himself daily, adding pencil marks to his bedroom wall. "I learned that when you sleep, air fills in between your vertebrae, so you're taller in the morning than the afternoon," Hibbert says. "I always measured in the morning."
His parents, who enrolled him in prestigious private schools, pushed him toward tennis and golf, piano and clarinet. "They thought basketball was for dumb jocks," Hibbert says. But he enjoyed everything associated with his stature -- other than repeatedly banging his head against doorways -- and hoops was an obvious extension. He joined a CYO team in third grade, but because of his extraordinary elevation was forced to match up against much more talented fifth-graders. "Everyone had to play at least one quarter," Hibbert remembers. "So they used me the first quarter and made me sit on the bench the rest of the game." Still, he delighted in the participation trophies. He memorized the intro music to NBA Inside Stuff. He collected basketball cards. "I have Brian Shaw's rookie," he claims, "in mint condition." He was uncoordinated and underdeveloped, but towering and passionate.
Hibbert's mother, Paddy, was a Human Resources associate for the Boys & Girls Club and knew when NBA players were making appearances near the family's home in Adelphi, Md. As a boy, Hibbert met Shaquille O'Neal and Juwan Howard, Tim Duncan and Dikembe Mutombo, mainly because he stood out in every crowd. He didn't have many friends since most of his classmates lived in different towns, and he struggled to concentrate in class, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. His length was his gift and his identity. When strangers asked if he played basketball, he replied with a straight face, "No, I'm a jockey." When they asked if he feared anything, he quipped, "Yes, heights." He is endlessly amused by his own cartoonish dimensions, posing for pictures in which the camera cuts off his head and snapping selfies in which he's attempting to squeeze into airplane bathrooms. When he attended a UFC fight last summer he tweeted a picture of the unfortunate fan sitting behind him with the message: "Hate to be this guy. ... Because I get up to cheer A LOT! #SorryBro." Shaking hands with Hibbert is a near impossibility. You just hope to grab some fingers.
Indiana boasts the best record in the NBA this season, due mainly to the continued ascent of MVP candidate Paul George, the emergence of triple-double dynamo Lance Stephenson and the evolution of a tightfisted defense that recalls the '85 Bears. The Pacers' relentless pursuit of the top seed in the Eastern Conference is inspired by a belief that they will capsize Miami if they just get Game 7 at home. But George and Stephenson, regardless of what the February standings say, won't outduel LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on their own. Hibbert is the one who scares the Heat into teardrops, simply by doing what always came naturally: stretching as high as he can and embracing every inch.
On the nightstand next to the bed is a notepad, and on the first page Hibbert diagrams the drill that changed a career, a team and the outlook of the modern NBA. It was the summer of 2009, and Jim O'Brien was the Indiana coach, Frank Vogel his defensive-minded assistant. Hibbert was a reserve center who had just completed an unimpressive rookie season during which he led the league in fouls per minute, alternating between two disparate approaches: trying to block every shot and take every charge. He stayed in Indianapolis afterward, while peers flocked to Las Vegas or Miami, and he watched Dwight Howard's Magic meet the Lakers in the Finals. "I saw Dwight do something, and I don't even think he meant to do it," Hibbert says. "A guy drove on him, and he jumped straight up in the air. I thought he was going for the block because that's what he always does, but he held back. There was contact, but it was a no-call. I thought, I've got to learn how to do that."
Vogel explained to Hibbert the NBA's principle of verticality, which allows a defender to jump straight up and absorb contact from a ballhandler, as long as he establishes a legal defensive position before leaving the ground and remains vertical in the air. The principle defies conventional wisdom -- drivers are taught in YMCAs everywhere that they can draw fouls by creating contact with moving defenders -- but it is indeed part of league rules. Vogel designed a drill with Hibbert stationed in the paint, forward Jeff Foster at the top of the key, and swingman Brandon Rush in the left corner. It ended with Rush driving to the hoop in a two-on-one with Foster. "They weren't allowed to shoot any jumpers or floaters," Hibbert says. "They had to attack the rim and I had to get three stops in a row without fouling. It was the most frustrating thing. I'd throw up the ball. I'd tell them I couldn't do it. But that's how I learned the straight-up."
Vogel recalled an exchange between Mutombo and Yao Ming, printed by the Houston Chronicle in early 2009, when Mutombo chided the 7' 6" center for taking charges. Why, Mutombo wondered, would a man so tall chain himself to the ground? Why would he minimize his greatest advantage? Vogel instructed Hibbert never to take another charge. Instead, he should wait for ballhandlers to elevate and chest-bump them in midair. If he kept his body and arms raised, resisting the temptation to tilt downward for the block, the principle of verticality would protect him. "When I played, we all went for blocks, and most still do," says Popeye Jones. "No one did the straight-up. Roy basically invented this. He became the godfather of it."
Hibbert studied video of opponents, to time their jumps and gauge their releases. "If someone serves up the ball, I'll send it out of there," says Hibbert, who is third in the NBA in blocked shots. "If he tucks it, I'm going straight up every time." He knows Carmelo Anthony will serve it up, which is why he's swatted two of his dunks in the past nine months. He knows LeBron will tuck it away. The Pacers let Hibbert pitch a campsite in the post, covering for him on the perimeter so he can do the same for them at the rim. "Bring your guy to me," Hibbert tells teammates, "and I'll take care of it." He stands with one foot in the paint, bent slightly at the waist, eyeing the man with the ball. As the driver creeps inside, Hibbert shuffles over. They rise in unison, meeting belly to belly, Hibbert unfurling his arms to the rafters. His palms face the floor like suction cups. He's not 7' 2" anymore. He's way bigger.
Hibbert reminds referees in every captains' meeting, "I'm going straight up tonight." Vogel tells them, "He's the best in the league at verticality. Let's honor it." And they do, to the outrage of ballhandlers and hecklers alike, who cannot fathom how so many collisions produce so few whistles. "I hear it everywhere," Hibbert says. "There's this guy in Toronto who wears a turban behind the bench, and he's always yelling at me, 'That's a foul, Hibbert! That's a foul!' But I know the rules." Even in the charge circle, Hibbert is allowed to knock the wind out of his adversaries, provided he's upright and airborne.
Vogel sat politely through a meeting last summer with coaches and officials in Chicago, biting a hole through his tongue as counterparts railed against Hibbert. "What the refs finally told them was, 'I hear what you coaches are saying about Roy, but the bottom line is we've studied it on tape, and the son of a gun is really good at it,' " Vogel recites. The NBA, at its essence, is a showcase for the grace and athleticism of unusually large people. "Wouldn't you want them to be making plays against each other in the air?" Vogel asks. "Isn't that the most exciting part of the game?"
There are no statistics to measure straight-ups, but Indiana is holding teams to 41.3% shooting, the league's lowest clip in 10 years. The Pacers' other defenders are no slouches, but Hibbert is the most vital. According to NBA.com, players are converting just 41.4% of shots against him at the rim, a figure unmatched by any top center. He appears personally offended when somebody actually scores, cocking his head, rolling his eyes and muttering expletives. "A lot of times I'll go body-to-body with a big guy, and I can either get the foul or get to the rim," says Isaiah Thomas, the Kings' point guard. "But because he goes straight up, you can't get the foul, and it's really hard to shoot the ball over him." Thomas is 5' 9". Next to Hibbert he looks like he's standing at the base of the Grand Canyon. "You either have to pull up midrange," Thomas says, "or you have to go with the floater."
The floater, otherwise known as the teardrop, has become the most popular antidote to Hibbert's straight-up. "LeBron never shoots floaters," says one Eastern Conference scout. "But against Roy he shoots them all the time. He gets frazzled around him." Synergy Sports found that, in the past two seasons plus the playoffs, 31% of James's shots have come at the rim. Against Indiana that number falls dramatically, to 20% this season. Not coincidentally, James averages nearly six fewer points against the Pacers, and his shooting percentage is 11 points lower. "Roy puts fear in peoples' minds," says Pacers point guard George Hill. "You see them think twice."
All of which made the decision to pull Hibbert for Sam Young with 2.2 seconds left in overtime in Game 1 of last year's Eastern Conference finals so bizarre. Vogel worried that Hibbert would not be able to cover Chris Bosh away from the basket, but James blew past George for the game-winning layup, with Young late on the rotation. The Pacers lost in seven. "I'll ask you," Hibbert says. "Did he serve it up or did he tuck it? He served it up. He served it up. He served it up." He shakes his head, same as he did on the bench that night in May.
Everywhere he goes, north of Biscayne Bay, Hibbert hears the refrain: "Beat the Heat." Given the state of the East, Indiana and Miami might as well fast-forward to the conference finals, James with the ball and Hibbert in the paint, two 747s set to collide in the sky. Hibbert fears that James will master that little floater, which may be why he asks young Pacers at practice, "What do you have for me today? Are you going to challenge me or not?" Second-year guard Orlando Johnson always obliges. "It's like slamming into a brick wall," Johnson says. "I feel it the next morning. I'm sure he feels it too." There's a reason, beyond the shortage of stats and highlights, that so few other centers have mastered the straight-up.
Not everyone is willing to accept the pain.
A World Wrestling Entertainment event came to Washington in 2001, and 14-year-old Roy Hibbert bought tickets with his friends from Georgetown Preparatory School. "We got the foam fingers and the Rock T-shirts and everything," Hibbert remembers. In the crowd he spotted 19-year-old Kwame Brown, the Wizards' freshly minted No. 1 draft pick. Hibbert left his buddies to introduce himself. There is a difference between a tall teenager and a tall teenager who is a basketball prospect, and as Hibbert approached, Brown appraised him. "He looked me up and down," Hibbert says, "and then he walked away."
As a child Hibbert's affection for basketball never wavered, but his dedication did. He grew up in a row of town houses with a communal backyard, which neighbors used to drink and smoke. Hibbert's father, Roy Sr., drove him to Blockbuster every Friday night and let him rent a video game for the weekend. He was safer inside, with his Sega Genesis and his favorite comedies like Seinfeld and The Office. "Then the season would come around and I'd play," Hibbert says. "But when it was done, I'd be sitting right back in my room eating Doritos and watching TV. I wasn't motivated. Things came too easily." Hibbert's high school team was the Little Hoyas, a misnomer considering their front line was bigger than the Heat's: 7' 2", 6' 10" and 6' 9". Hibbert barely fit in the weight room. He heard about workout facilities but didn't go. He quit AAU. He never participated in Baltimore's burgeoning youth scene. Dwayne Bryant, then the coach at Georgetown Prep, tried to schedule opponents with similarly sized centers, but they were difficult to find. The Little Hoyas traveled to Pennsylvania so Hibbert could play in a tournament against 7' 3" Shagari Alleyne, from New York City's Rice High. Hibbert keeps a photo of the showdown on his phone.
He committed to Georgetown as a sophomore, and with urging from Bryant became a regular in the school's famed pickup games at Yates Field House. He once rode in Patrick Ewing's H2 Hummer. He marveled at Michael Jordan switching sneakers for every game. He played against Randy Moss. But not all his memories are so pleasant. Hibbert was as big as a skyscraper, and also as mobile. "Alonzo Mourning abused me," Hibbert says. "Mike Sweetney put me in the basket. I got my ass handed to me a lot." He heard, secondhand, that one of Georgetown's colossal alums cracked: "If Roy Hibbert is going to be the Hoyas' center, it will be a long four years." But there's something else the Georgetown giants said, with astonishment, every time they saw Hibbert returning to the gym: "He always comes back for more." He was finally challenged.
The stories of Hibbert's freshman year at Georgetown under coach John Thompson III are well told but hard to believe, given his high school success. He could not do a push-up. He could not jump rope. He could not run on the balls of his feet. He could not stand up from a chair without using both hands or complete a back squat without falling down. "His relative body strength was nonexistent," says Augie Maurelli, former director of strength and conditioning at Georgetown, now an associate athletic director at Delaware. "Roy was just a very quiet, unassuming, docile kid." But he was never coddled. Thompson's father, the legendary Hoyas coach, famously called him "Big Stiff." He told him he'd be the tallest mailman ever.
"Oh, I heard worse than that," Hibbert says. "I remember it all. But I keep it inside." Some in the program wondered if the staff wanted him to transfer. "They said he was slow, goofy, couldn't run and chew gum at the same time," recalls Roy Sr., who works as a lieutenant in a Maryland prison and takes law school courses online in his spare time. "As a parent that was tough to hear." After a 25-point win at Davidson, in which Hibbert went scoreless, the troubled freshman called home from the team bus. "What are my options?" he asked. He thought about transferring. "Mommy and Daddy," he finally said, "I'm going to prove them wrong."
Hibbert required the full attention of both strength coaches, Maurelli and Mike Hill, to perform his workouts. Maurelli counted reps while Hill held the back of Hibbert's jersey to stabilize him. Once they made him spin a hula hoop to enhance his coordination, and sometimes they turned up the music and asked him to dance. Hibbert stopped taking his ADD medication because he thought it slowed him down, but he feared he would never concentrate well enough to hold a regular job. Hibbert promised Maurelli a car if he could get him drafted. "Roy was not a good basketball player when he got here," says Thompson III. "He could barely move. But he had a caring that was uncanny."
Hibbert lived in a suite with freshman basketball players, but he was a self-described "loner" who locked his door and lost himself in his video games. Most of his friends were international students he had met at Georgetown Prep. "That period was not easy," says former Indiana general manager David Morway, now assistant GM in Milwaukee, who scouted Hibbert. "But it was part of what attracted us to him. The way he handled it, the way he grew from it, showed us he could fight through anything." Hibbert stayed four years at Georgetown. On the eve of the 2008 draft Indiana sent center Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, and the No. 17 pick. "That trade was the start of the rebuild," says Morway. The Pacers intended to spend the pick on Hibbert, but it seemed unlikely that a seven-footer who could sink hook shots with both hands would still be around. David Falk, Hibbert's agent, called Larry Bird, the Pacers' president, and said, "I can get him to 17." You don't often hear of an agent trying to move his client down in the draft, but Falk believed Indiana was a fit.
At first, Hibbert was not so sure. After beefing up to 280 pounds at Georgetown, O'Brien asked him to shed weight so he could run the floor, and he dropped to 250. In a game at New Orleans, then-Hornets forward David West asked if he had contracted a virus. "What happened to Big Fella?" he wondered. Hibbert clashed with O'Brien and sought out a sports psychologist so he could vent in private. "Maybe this isn't the place for me," he thought. Hibbert gravitated toward defense mainly because O'Brien delegated that part of practice to Vogel. In 2011, O'Brien was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Vogel, who anchored Hibbert inside and promoted George to the starting lineup. After the season Hibbert made two small gestures that helped set the Pacers on a course to contention. He walked up to Bird's office and said, "Coach Frank is the guy." He also had a rubber wristband made online for George that read ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. Hibbert recognized what few others did, that the Pacers had the best rookie and the best rookie coach in the NBA. "I cherish what he did," George says.
Indiana is indeed the place for him. When Portland offered Hibbert a maximum contract worth $58 million over four years in the summer of 2012, and he was about to board his flight for the West Coast, the Pacers coaxed him back from the airport. They matched the offer and presented him with a cast picture of Parks and Recreation, with Hibbert Photoshopped in the middle. The picture showed that the Pacers finally understood their irrepressible big man, down to his sophisticated taste in comedy. Hibbert has made three cameos on Parks and Rec, and he occasionally texts thoughts to cocreator Mike Schur. "A lot of athletes are into Entourage," Schur says. "Roy is a comedy nerd, a real comedy nerd." Hibbert uses his twitter account, @Hoya2aPacer, to test material. "People show me a lot of love. Then 2 mins in2the convo they realize I'm not Greg Oden." ... "Forget Halloween. Its is stupid. Who to walk around asking for candy neway .... damn I wish I got invited 2 a Halloween party. I'm so lonely." ... "I looked angry during the game its cause I used flexall/Bengay on my knees under my black tights. Somehow it got on my balls. Burned so bad."
Big men are often funny, rarely fiery, but Hibbert is both. Now 290 pounds, he is as comfortable with his weight as his height and unafraid to toss it around. He feuds with Golden State's David Lee, and he won't wear a sleeve over his left arm, despite bursitis in his elbow, because Dwight Howard wears one. He called the Pacers "awful" and "soft" after a win last season over the Hawks. He was fined in the playoffs for cursing at reporters and using a homophobic slur. "That was such dumb s-- I said," he laments. He writes messages on post-it notes that he sticks to his bathroom mirror, including one that reads, I'M THE BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER. Whether the fuel flows from his freshman year at Georgetown or his early days in Indiana, he is finished taking punishment. The time has come to mete it out.
One minute remains in the kind of game that good teams lose and championship teams win. Indiana is at Sacramento, in what Vogel calls "the dog days of winter," when players admit to daydreaming about May and even referees jokingly ask if they can "just get this over with." Hibbert pretends not to hear. "Miami could take 20 in a row again," he says. "We need more distance."
The Kings lead by three, with the ball, and power forward Jason Thompson takes one dribble to the left elbow. Thompson is 6' 11", but when he notices Hibbert standing sentry under the hoop, he stops as if he's seen a tsunami. Thompson dishes to Aaron Gray, a seven-footer, who also wants no part of Hibbert. Gray kicks out to Thomas, the teensy point guard, and he is bold enough to drive. The only shot Thomas can manage over Hibbert, though, is the predictable floater. The ball doesn't reach the rim, but teammate Derrick Williams rushes over to grab it and rises for the putback. Hibbert goes up in unison, extending one of those unshakable mitts, and taps the ball where only he can snag it. Williams sprawls to the floor. He looks like he has been laid out by a free safety. Kings coach Mike Malone hollers, "There's no foul? There's no foul?" and 17,317 take up his cause. They're still grousing as the Pacers tie the score in regulation, pull away in overtime and retreat to their locker room. Hibbert peels off his size 2XL jersey and pulls a portable stereo from his duffel bag. He dances to the deliberate lyrics of rapper Ty Dolla $ign. Yes, he can dance.
So was there a foul or not? After a dozen viewings of the video it's hard to say. There was a play at the rim. There was contact between a shooter and a defender. The shooter fell backward. The defender didn't budge. He maintained his position, as vertical as a maypole, straight up.