How Pacers' Hibbert emerged to anchor NBA's best defense

Wednesday February 12th, 2014
Roy Hibbert has helped put the Pacers in position to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Jeffery Salter/SI

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Roy Hibbert, who used to tell strangers that he was a jockey, towers over guards such as Chris Paul.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

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."

At 290 pounds, Roy Hibbert can use his heft to do battle with the likes of the Kings' Quincy Acy.
Jed Jacobsohn/SI

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?"

Roy Hibbert's ability to challenge shots without fouling is a key part of the Pacers' defense against the likes of LeBron James.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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.

Roy Hibbert's size made him stand out in high school, but he was sorely lacking in strength and dedication until he got to college.
Courtesy of the Hibbert family

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.

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