Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.As North Carolina was steamrolling towards the 2009 NCAA title, a popular storyline emerged claiming that Tyler Hansbrough, the Tar Heels' bruising 6-foot-9 senior power forward, had turned down NBA riches because he wanted to win an NCAA championship.
That was not entirely true.
Sure, Hansbrough wanted to win a title, but when he announced his decision to return to school in April 2008, three of his teammates --Ty Lawson, WayneEllington and Danny Green -- had already declared their intentions to enter the draft. At that point, Hansbrough figured the chances were pretty good that one, if not all, of those guys would not return, which would considerably dimish the Tar Heels' prospects of winning a title.
And yet, Hansbrough decided to come back anyway. It wasn't because he wanted to improve his draft status; he knew full well he was not going to magically alchemize into a top-three pick. Instead, he came back for the most basic and rare of reasons: He loved college. "I thought a lot about what it would be like to play in the NBA," Hansbrough said on the eve of the 2008-09 season. "But every time I thought about it, I thought about how much I'd miss coming home, living with my teammates and doing a lot of the fun things we do. When I finally decided to come back, I felt total relief. I didn't have any regrets."
Hansbrough was so excited that when North Carolina coach Roy Williams found Hansbrough in the weight room and asked him to come to his office to craft a press release, Hansbrough told the coach to write the release himself. He would just as soon finish his workout. When his three teammates decided at the last minute to return to school, the stage was set for a magical season. Over the course of his senior year, Hansbrough broke Phil Ford's 30-year-old scoring record at North Carolina, he became the ACC's all-time leading scorer, and he set a new NCAA mark for career free throw attempts. He became the first player in league history to be named All-America four times. And of course, he led North Carolina to its fifth NCAA title.
He did so while sublimating his individual glory for the sake of the team. Hansbrough did not win national player of the year (that went to Oklahoma's BlakeGriffin). He was not named the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament's East Regional (Lawson won that) or the Final Four (that went to Ellington). Yet, for coming back to school for all the right reasons, leading his team to a championship and closing out one of the greatest careers in college basketball history, Tyler Hansbrough is my choice to be SI's Sportsman of the Year.
It should also be noted that the summer of '08 was the third time Hansbrough turned down the chance to be a first-round pick. After he had become the first freshman to lead North Carolina in both points and rebounds, Williams called a few NBA general managers and discovered that Hansbrough would be picked between 14th and 24th in the draft. Hansbrough turned that opportunity down, saying in November 2006, "I really like this place, and I'd like to see how far we can go in the tournament." Following his sophomore and junior years, Hansbrough was projected to go in the very same range. Sure enough, when he finally did reach the draft he was chosen 13th by the Indiana Pacers.
Hansbrough understood better than anybody that even though he was a man's man on the court, there were many ways in which he needed to grow up -- and do it slowly. He came to Chapel Hill as a diffident, unsophisticated, pickup-driving kid from the intimate town of Poplar Bluff, Mo. (pop. 16,921), a place where, as Tyler put it, "everybody knows what's going on with everybody else." When he started college, he had never used e-mail. The trainer had to show him how to eat sushi. When it came to dealing with the press his first couple of years, Hansbrough would stare into the klieg lights looking pale and bug-eyed, rarely mumbling more than a few words. Said his classmate and roommate Bobby Frasor, "When I first met him, he barely talked."
At every turn, he beguiled Williams with his focus and effort. Hansbrough is a far better athlete than most people give him credit for, but he also squeezed as much out of his God-given talents as any player in memory. It wasn't just in games, either. Hansbrough got his weight-room work done early in the morning so he would have enough time to stretch and shoot 100 jump shots before practice that afternoon. He played so hard so consistently that early in his career, Williams wondered if the kid might be too good to be true. "After his freshman year, I thought gosh, there's no way he can maintain that," Williams said. "But he was more driven after his sophomore year. He was even more driven last year [as a junior]. I've never been around anybody who 24 hours a day is totally focused on trying to do things he thinks can help him be the best player he can be."
That is high praise coming from someone who has spent three decades coaching some of the finest players who ever laced 'em up. (See: Jordan, Michael.) It also helps explain why, two days before North Carolina's Final Four semifinal matchup with Villanova, Williams had to choke back tears while he sat in an empty locker room and talked about his senior. "I don't mean to get upset," Williams said. "I'm being really corny here. Once Tyler decided to come back, I wanted this kid to have the greatest senior year he could possibly have."
Four days later, there was Tyler, climbing a ladder on the court at Ford Field with a pair scissors in his hand and a sheepish smile on his face. And three-and-a-half months later, there was Tyler, climbing the stage at Madison Square Garden, donning a Pacers cap and shaking David Stern's hand with a sheepish smile on his face. He had finally wriggled free of the sky-blue cocoon, yet he still gave the impression that had he somehow been granted another year of eligiblity, Hansbrough would have gone right back Chapel Hill to give it the old college try one more time. By that point, we would not have been surprised. Tyler Hansbrough was a great college player, but more than anything he was a wonderful sportsman.
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