The ball found its way to Pacers center Roy Hibbert in the third quarter of Indiana's upset of the Lakers in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant was doubling frantically in the high post, throwing tight, jumping-jack defense at Hibbert wherever he turned. But Hibbert didn't seem to mind. He waited and waited despite Bryant's harassment until point guard Darren Collison appeared behind Hibbert's left shoulder to receive his pass for a backdoor layup.
"I feel like I have eyes in the back of my head," said Hibbert. "Being at Georgetown we had a passing offense where the ball went through me. I try to do that here -- if people throw the ball down to me and they cut, I'm going to get it right back to them."
Few NBA offenses run as much motion around the post as the surprising 10-10 Pacers, but then few teams have a center who can pass as well as 7-foot-2 Hibbert. It's no coincidence that Hibbert spent three days last summer working with Bill Walton, the Hall of Famer who was the finest passing center of modern times.
"[Bill] had a drill from the high post," said Hibbert, "and he was like, 'Just make passes between your legs, behind your back.' They were silly passes to the guards while they were moving, and he was like, 'Don't be afraid to make those passes.
"We watched tape on Hakeem [Olajuwon], we watched Pau Gasol and David Robinson and how they were able to see guys [cutting] and they didn't think twice about making those passes. It just came natural to them, and Bill said I have that [ability] so I should do it."
At 23, Hibbert has emerged as an enormous reason to believe in the promising future of these young Pacers. Through Dec. 9, his scoring is up to 15.3 points per game (from 11.7 last year), he's averaging a team-high 8.4 rebounds (up from 5.7), 3.0 assists (from 2.0) and 1.9 blocks (from 1.6) in 29.8 efficient minutes. Since last season, Hibbert has lost 35 pounds, found a cure for exercise-induced asthma (he uses an inhaler morning and night after his condition was diagnosed last summer) and developed confidence that is on display during the pregame introductions, when he raises both hands high at the sound of his name, whether at home or away. That last bit comes from Walton.
"He said you have to love yourself," said Hibbert. "He was like, 'You have to be all about yourself!' I told him, 'Basically what you're telling me is swag.' Come out like this."
He raised both arms.
"All eyes on me," said Hibbert. "I do it now because of Bill, that's why I come out like that."
The Pacers are the most entertaining .500 team in the league. There is little that's average about this team, apart from its so-so record. They are a startling No. 1 in field-goal defense (42.7 percent) thanks in part to the leadership of Danny Granger, the ball pressure of T.J. Ford and the improved paint defense of Hibbert. They rank No. 1 in blocks (6.8) and No. 4 in rebounds.
If they push the ball across midcourt within 2.5 seconds, then coach Jim O'Brien rewards them by refusing to call a play: They either finish the break or else flow into their passing-game offense that makes full use of Hibbert's versatility. He can finish as both a roller and a popper as he has an excellent 19-foot jump shot, which he tends to convert as an afterthought when his passing options are covered. Other times when his teammates are weaving and flurrying around him he looks -- dare I say it -- like a modern-day version of Walton himself.
"[Louisville coach] Rick Pitino, whose team played against Roy's, said, 'He's not a good passer; he's a great passer," said O'Brien. "And he is. And he will get better. He turns the ball over too many times right now (2.5 per game this season), but that's just him getting a feel for his teammates. The more he gets used to playing with these guys, he'll have a 2-1 assist-turnover ratio. He'll average, I believe within a year or two, seven assists a game."
Hibbert weighs 278 pounds after shedding the pounds since last season. He keeps his body fat at 8 percent (down from 14 percent last year) by eating nutritious meals he carries with him on the road that can be microwaved in his hotel room. He stayed in Indianapolis last summer to undergo a traditional NBA workout in the mornings followed by mixed martial arts training three afternoons per week. "I was on my knees, punching," he said. "They used to call me BMW back in college -- 'Body Made Wrong.' I've never been able to play 30 minutes, and I'm doing that on a consistent basis now."
Hibbert wants to be an All-Star someday, but his goal last summer was the most improved award. "I made wristbands that had MIP," he said. "I can't wear them in the games -- they're black and I guess we have to wear our team colors -- but that's what drove me to work really hard: MIP, MIP, MIP. Because I want that award."
When the Pacers sent Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto during the 2008 draft as part of the six-player deal that gave them the rights to Hibbert as the No. 17 pick, they were second-guessed for trying to insert a slow half-court center into O'Brien's up-tempo offense. "The offense wasn't going to change, he said that from the beginning," said Hibbert of O'Brien. "So something had to change. It had to be me."
Now they go into next summer with gobs of cap space to fill in around a promising young point guard in 23-year-old Darren Collison, an All-Star scorer on the wing in 27-year-old Granger, and Hibbert, a multiple-threat center. It appears Pacers president Larry Bird knew what he was doing after all.
New Orleans Hornets, you are -- and will be for some time -- a subject of much rumor. Perhaps former minority owner Gary Chouest will buy you from the NBA following the lockout now that he no longer has to negotiate with George Shinn. Perhaps you'll be purchased by Yahoo! co-founder David Filo. Believe me when I insist to be personally in favor of anything to keep you in New Orleans, which is one of my favorite cities of the world.
But how much civic pride is there really for a team that isn't the Saints and is now in its seventh full year as a tenant of the city? You couldn't have enjoyed a hotter start and you couldn't be led by a more gregarious star and yet you rank No. 29 in attendance at 13,584, ahead of only the lonesome Kings.
Is the NBA more interested in maintaining your zip code or in fetching a sale price that reflects well on the other teams and their owners? Maybe both priorities can be filled at the same time. But commissioner David Stern has acknowledged that the likelihood of escaping your lease this summer makes you more valuable on the open market, which means you're likely to earn more for the league by moving than by staying. The longer you're held in the NBA's trust, the more your fans are likely to view the team as an occupier than as a vested citizen.
Maybe I'm wrong, but sentimentality isn't a big seller in this market. It's up to the green-visored accountants now.
Mr. Next LeBron James, you are (neither for the first nor last time) overestimating your importance. The players talk about looking out for your rights by asking the NBA to return to an 18-year age limit that would enable you to skip the mandatory season of college in order to turn pro straight out of high school. But the players aren't going to be worrying about you if they're locked out in July and they go through November, December and January without a paystub. Much is made of this age-limit talk, but it doesn't figure into the hard reality. The owners want the players to surrender $800 million in annual salaries. Who on either side of that $800 million argument is going to spend three seconds worrying about the age-limit rule? Once this mess begins to grow out of hand, you and your potential are going to be an afterthought, to be brought up at the far end of the conversation, long after the money has been worked out.
George Karl, you have got to be in. I don't know how quickly you can expect the invitation, but with win No. 1,000 soon to come on the heels of 18 straight seasons at .500 or better, you will be there with Dean Smith, Larry Brown and all of the other Tar Heels in Springfield.
"I knew I wanted to live here [in Los Angeles] for my life after basketball. I'm always creating stories and doing a lot of creative writing, so I figured when my career is over, if I put in the work now and do a lot of creative writing, by the time my career is up or even as I get further in my career I'll be able to write my own scripts and have my own business.
"Eventually I want to write and direct films. So right now, I just do a lot of writing. I'm writing all of the time -- when I'm at home watching games, when I'm in hotel rooms, on the plane. These are stories I'm writing -- narratives. But I'm also starting to get into writing scripts now.
"I'll write at least one story a month. Even my Blackberry is full of them, because I'll write on my Blackberry or in my notebook. I usually won't write them on my laptop, I use that for other things. It's just a hobby right now. You know, you got a lot of time during the day. Sometimes it will take me three or four days to write a story; sometimes it will take me an hour.
"I'm always very critical of my work. I don't show it to people until I find that one I like. I mean, I'll show them to my fiancée and some of my friends. But I try to keep everything close to the vest until I know I'm ready to take that next step.
"I watch a lot of movies for everything -- for who wrote it, what's the dialogue, just for the whole story from a visual standpoint. From the words to the work of the actor -- you look for everything. I would say I look up to people like Ron Howard; as a director I like that he's a good storyteller, he goes deep into the story and he never forgets that there's a story there. That's the most important thing is to be able to tell a story in a small amount of time. I like Adam McKay, I like his comedy. I like Adam Sandler, and of course, guys like Francis Ford Coppola and Christopher Nolan.
"I have a bunch of friends in the business. Even though they are in nice high positions -- power positions -- I haven't went to them for anything because I want to prove myself first and foremost. When I feel like it's something that I'm proud of, I'll definitely show it to them. Probably this summer I'm going to try to get an internship as a directors' assistant. With who, I don't know -- whoever is available."
"It's a good system for Kirilenko. I wonder if he may flounder without the structure if he goes elsewhere. For a lot of other teams the shooting guard and small forward are almost interchangeable, but Kirilenko is not the ball-handler type."
"You know what I found out about these guys? Only one of them so far has followed the mascot code: Don't speak. The one that didn't speak was in Miami -- Burnie, the big red fur ball. He didn't speak. After we take the pictures I always say, 'Hey, thanks for helping me out,' and they're like, 'Hey, no problem, anytime!' This guy Burnie wouldn't speak to me, but all of these other guys turn out to be very chatty. I was kind of surprised."
"The thing is that you give yourself a chance. Greg gives us a chance to try to win a championship, but there's no guarantee if he's healthy we're going to win a championship. But he gives us a good chance, and that's all you can ask for. If we had Kevin Durant, there's no guarantee we're going to win a championship. So people are like, 'If we had Kevin Durant ...' But there's no guarantee.
"[Boston center Kendrick] Perkins gets hurt for that seventh game, and they went the whole year and now he gets hurt. It's no guarantees, man, there's none. The year before, Kevin Garnett gets hurt and all you're left with is excuses. It's the game, it's real life and you've got to try to make the most of the opportunities. You build your team as solid as you can and give yourself a chance, but last year only one team won it, and everybody else was second or third or fourth."
What became of tall people before the 1891 invention of their sport? What would have become of Bill Russell or Larry Bird or Shaquille O'Neal in a world without basketball? Troy Justice is on the other side of the world investigating that question -- and he is influencing the answer.
"It's the perfect fit for [all the tall boys and girls in India]. It gives them the platform in which they can be a part of a great game and use their height. I'm finding all of these boys who are coming to train, and every one of them I've met loves the game and is hungry to learn. But they just don't know anything. They've never seen the game."
Now, suddenly, basketball is being introduced to their lives.
"There is a boy who is 6-foot-11 and 18 years old -- he's only been playing basketball for the past eight months," said Justice by phone from India. "He catches on so quickly and he has incredible potential. But he has so much to learn. He has all of the natural skill sets and tools, he's a very aggressive young man, but he just got off to a late start."
Justice, 44, first visited India in 1991 as coach of the touring Athletes In Action basketball team. Last February, he became the first (and only) NBA employee based in India. He is a basketball evangelist who has been charged with laying the groundwork for the NBA to reach its (unlikely) five-year goal of making basketball the second-most popular sport in the world's second-most populated country. There are 1.2 billion people in India, and so far, the minority that cares about basketball is passionate for it.
"Everyone in the [basketball] community is there because they love the game," Justice said. "They know the stats of these NBA guys, they know the players and the entire rosters, they know the standings, they stay updated on everything. They're wearing the jerseys and when they come up to me, all they want to talk about is their favorite NBA team and the players they watch."
The ultimate goal is to discover and develop the Yao Ming of India -- a dynamic star of India who will succeed in the NBA and serve as an example to help grow the sport back home. But who knows when that will happen? Justice is only beginning to make American colleges aware of the potential for young talent in India. Each day, he moves from city to city, overseeing the Mahindra NBA Challenge -- a community basketball league that has doubled to 6,000 players across five Indian cities over the last six months -- while running clinics of all kinds for boys and girls and adults as he lays the groundwork for the NBA to open an Indian office early next year.
"A lot of our Mahindra teams are YMCA club teams," said Justice, noting that the YMCA helped export basketball to India for scores of years before the NBA's arrival. "Most schools and university colleges have at least one court. Then you'll go around and see a court that's cracked and there will be weeds growing up in the court, and they'll be out there playing on it. I've seen hoops nailed up on a pole with no backboard. There are coaches who have basketball classes for children from age 4 all the way up to the seniors, and you'll see all of these man-made basketball hoops 6 feet, 7 feet, 8 feet tall for the younger kids to shoot at."
He dreams of being able to look back years from now and tell a story of how these few courts gave birth to a national sport. Someday, he hopes, it will be assumed -- fair or not -- that every tall person in India is a basketball player.
It is much more difficult to narrow the options in the talent-rich West. I picked Gasol over Nowitzki because of the Lakers' across-the-board contributions, but it's a tight call. Love's extraordinary rebounding numbers prevail over his team's losing record. The last guard spot in the West goes to Ginobili, but it could just as easily belong to teammate Tony Parker. Tyson Chandler makes the team for his work at the defensive end, where he is doing almost as much to transform Dallas as Garnett did for the Celtics three years ago.