At the Hansbrough home in Poplar Bluff, Mo., three boys could once be found running around the yard and through the woods, chasing each other and inflicting all sorts of pain. Greg, Tyler and Ben were all good kids -- "sweet boys," their mother Tami calls them -- but they were also competitors and, when necessary, fighters.
"I don't remember them fighting, really," Tami says.
But her youngest son tells a different story.
"We played cops and robbers a lot," says Ben, now a senior guard at Notre Dame. "And it could get pretty intense. I always knew that if I was the robber and I got caught, it meant I was going to get beat up."
That happens when you're the youngest, when you're the smallest, when your big brothers are tough enough to battle through a brain tumor (like Greg) or develop into one of the great college basketball players of this century (like Tyler). But Ben took his lumps, both in the yard and on the basketball court, where regular games of "21" meant a steady diet of swinging elbows and random smacks.
These days, while Greg is running marathons and Tyler is playing for the Indiana Pacers, Ben is leading a Notre Dame team that looks poised for a deep NCAA tournament run. The Fighting Irish, picked seventh in the conference by Big East coaches in the preseason, have gone 13-4 in league play and will wind up no lower than second in their loaded conference. Hansbrough has been the catalyst, leading the team in points (18.4 per game), assists (4.2), steals (1.3) and three-point shooting (43.7 percent with 73 made).
Not bad for someone who was long known primarily as Tyler's little brother. Scout.com ranked Ben a two-star recruit when he signed with Mississippi State out of high school. After two years in Starkville, he grew frustrated with the program's culture and the style of play. "It was too much of a pro-style offense," he says. "It was a lot of isos, not a lot of team play."
After a solid junior season, Hansbrough's biggest improvement this year has come in his leadership style, not his play. Struggling to compete with his older brothers as a boy, Hansbrough developed a nasty streak, an intensity that sometimes fueled anger on the court. Rarely one to mince words, Hansbrough was never shy about chastising teammates for mistakes.
"When I played bad, he would let me know," says Tyler, who won a state championship with Ben at Poplar Bluff High. "He's used to being able to do that, because I played with him for so long, and I could take it. But he had to learn not everybody is your brother. You can't be like that with everybody."
Hansbrough started every game and finished third on the team in scoring as a junior, but with star forward Luke Harangody gone to the NBA, he wanted to take over as the team's leader this season. That effort got off to a shaky start. At the Old Spice Classic in Orlando last November, Irish coach Mike Brey benched Hansbrough in crucial moments of two games.
"He was out of control, both in his play and emotionally," Brey says. "He was just too wired, and that wasn't helpful to our team."
But Hansbrough has harnessed that intensity as the season has progressed, dialing back his anger without losing his edge. "I've watched the way other guys lead," he says, referring to a summer spent playing pickup ball in Chapel Hill with former Tar Heels Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams. "Seeing the way they handled themselves taught me a lot."
Now he picks his moments to give his words greater impact. "He's realized what certain guys are capable of," backcourt-mate Tim Abromaitis says. "Now he only pushes guys to live up to their own ability."
His rough edges have been smoothed, but Hansbrough's competitiveness hasn't waned. Brey says that in 25 years of coaching, the only player he's seen match Ben's intensity is Christian Laettner. "He's got an amazingly unique psyche," Brey says. "He wants it every single day."
At a shootaround before Monday's Senior Night game against Villanova, Brey had his team play "Knockout," the common playground game, as a way to keep loose and have a little fun before the game. When Hansbrough was eliminated, he argued with the assistant coach who served as the game's referee, saying he'd been unfairly knocked out. He simmered for a bit but re-emerged at the pre-game meal, still jawing, still fighting for his case. "Everybody's laughing," Brey says. "We all think it's hilarious. But he's legitimately pissed."
Later that night Hansbrough took his frustrations out on Villanova, scoring 30 points and prompting Wildcats coach Jay Wright to say, "We've seen a lot of great players this year so far. After that performance, I'd say he's the best I've seen now."
Before playing that night, Hansbrough joined his family on the court for the Senior Night celebration. As they took their places for pictures, Ben gave Greg a couple fist pounds on the chest, then jostled with Tyler for position in the family photo.
And for at least a moment, baby brother was the one delivering the blows.