ON THE office desk of his Chapel Hill home, next to the portraits of his wife and children, North Carolina coach Roy Williams keeps a framed 8-by-10 picture of a young man drenched in his own blood. No, Ol' Roy doesn't harbor a soft spot for slasher films. But he does for Tar Heels junior forward Tyler Hansbrough, and to Williams the photograph—taken a half hour after Duke's Gerald Henderson broke Hansbrough's nose with a flagrant foul last season—symbolizes the epic toughness of college basketball's fiercest gladiator. "He has two cotton swabs up his nose and blood all over his arms and jersey, and he says, 'How do I look, Coach?'" says Williams, who can't help but giggle at the memory. "What a goofball."
This is an article from the March 10, 2008 issue
Mention the photograph to Hansbrough, and he'll flash the maniacal grin of his hoops alter ego, Psycho-T. "I was like, 'Get a picture of this so people will believe how bloody it really was,'" he says during a rare moment of repose in the house he shares with teammates Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard and team manager Preston Puckett. "It was gushing. It was crazy."
No player in memory has absorbed, initiated and (let's be honest) enjoyed more bumper-car moments in the lane than the 6'9", 250-pound Hansbrough, SI's choice for national player of the year. Yet even though Hansbrough has banged his way to more free throw attempts (310) than any other player in the nation, that hardly means he's lacking in finesse. "He finishes with a soft touch, but he can do that after being beaten to death by three people in a matter of two seconds," says Williams. "It's like sumo wrestling followed by George Gervin's finger roll."
Hansbrough's chief player of the year rival, Kansas State freshman forward Michael Beasley, comes armed with his own Akebono-sized credentials. Not only were Beasley's averages (26.7 points and 12.6 rebounds) slightly better than Hansbrough's (23.4 and 10.4) at week's end, but they also exceeded those of Texas's Kevin Durant (25.8 and 11.1) when Durant became the first freshman to be named national player of the year, last season. But Beasley's competition for the award is stiffer than Durant's was. Hansbrough's individual numbers are certainly good enough; he and Beasley were two of only six players averaging at least 20 points and 10 boards. What's more, Psycho-T has been a tougher defender, and he clearly outpaces B-Easy in the most important deal breaker: North Carolina was 27--2 and ranked No. 1 on Monday (not least because Hansbrough averaged 29.0 points during the six games that point guard Ty Lawson recently missed because of injury), while unranked Kansas State was 18--10.
Sure, Beasley is likely to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft—at least 15 spots ahead of Hansbrough, should both declare for the pros this year—but the last time we checked, POY was a college award. "Beasley is a better player," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, "but with the year Carolina has had and the fact that [Hansbrough] plays every second like it's his last, I'd vote for him. When we were getting ready to play Carolina [last season], we'd show clips of him to our guys and say, 'See, this is what we mean when we talk about playing hard.' He's putting out more effort for longer stretches than most college players can even begin to understand. And he's certainly great for college basketball."
Hansbrough's credentials are impressive enough, but it's hard not to give him bonus points for squeezing out every bit of his potential, for never coasting, for giving three All-America seasons to the college game during an era in which nobody expects more than one. "Tyler is not even the most gifted player on my team, much less the most gifted player in college basketball," says Williams. "But no one has a bigger heart. No one has more desire than Tyler Hansbrough."
WHERE DOES Hansbrough's competitive drive come from? Look at his family. His father, Gene, can still recall the details of the afternoon doubleheader nine years ago when his two youngest sons went head-to-head despite not playing in the same game. "We had a sixth-grade game, and Tyler scored 46 points," says Gene, an orthopedic surgeon in Poplar Bluff, Mo. "Then we had a fifth-grade game after that, and Ben scored 46 points. And afterward Ben said, 'Tyler doesn't have anything on me now, does he?'"
Competition is everywhere in the Hansbrough chromosomes. Gene was a high jumper at Missouri. Tyler's mother, Tami Wheat, a medical sales rep, is a former Miss Missouri. Ben is now a sophomore guard at 20--8 Mississippi State who could make his own impact on the upcoming NCAAs.
In many ways the Hansbroughs are college basketball's version of the Manning brothers. Just as Peyton and Eli Manning have an older brother, Cooper, whose pro football prospects were ruined by a debilitating health condition (spinal stenosis), the Hansbroughs say their older sibling—24-year-old Greg—might have become an even better athlete than Tyler and Ben had he not suffered partial paralysis in the left side of his body after undergoing surgery at age seven to remove a life-threatening brain tumor. "It's the fight in Greg that a lot of times has driven me," says Tyler. "I just play basketball games. He fought for his life, and his toughness was incredible."
Greg's parents had taken him to the hospital for a CT scan after noticing that he was struggling to make lefthanded layups that used to come easily. "That tumor was as big as a tennis ball," says Gene, who could only find one U.S. neurosurgeon, at the Mayo Clinic, who was willing to operate. Tyler, who was five at the time, remembers watching Greg learn how to walk again and later seeing him try to run but fall down and break his arm instead. "I was so young I didn't realize how tough it was going to be," says Greg. "My main goal was to come back and play Tyler one-on-one." And, in time, he did.
"When Greg came home, the doctors said he'd never ride a bike again," says Gene. "Well, one of the first things we did was get a bicycle and go down to the baseball field. He'd fall off and pick himself up, but eventually he rode that bike. You couldn't tell Greg he couldn't do something. He even played high school basketball. He wasn't a star, but he'd get in a game and, boy, you talk about an ovation." No one cheered louder than Tyler, who later took Greg's number 50 and still wears it in honor of his brother.
These days, when Greg isn't finishing up his senior year at Columbia (Mo.) College and preparing for his future job as a track coach, you can find him training just as hard as his brothers. He has run three marathons and six half-marathons. "I could sit here for hours and tell you how proud I am of him and how much he's done for me," Tyler says. "For him to beat the odds and run marathons is just unbelievable."
WHEN HANSBROUGH arrived in Chapel Hill in the fall of 2005, he had never used e-mail. He had never eaten sushi or bison or ostrich. He had never danced in a lecture hall in front of 200 people. And he most certainly had never had a pedicure. Today he does all of those things, even as he holds on to the influence of the beloved hometown he calls The Bluff. (That's plain to see in his black Dodge Ram pickup, with its cattle guard the size of a small Mississippi River barge.) "I love college, just being here and living with these guys," Hansbrough says.
Maybe that's why he has already cosigned the house lease for next fall, why he vows there's only one scenario that might cause him not to return for his senior season. "If I were to leave early," Hansbrough says, "I'd want to have that national championship." The desire for a title drives him mercilessly. When the Tar Heels fell behind by 18 points at Boston College last Saturday, it was Hansbrough who led a furious comeback, finishing with 25 points. Carolina won by 10. "He has almost put this team on his back," says Ginyard. "He wants the game in his hands."
And so, as the season winds down, Hansbrough's coach will file away every moment in his memory bank. "When he leaves, I'm going to just sit and think about how lucky I was to have coached that kid," Williams says. "I've had great players, but this one is unique. Every moment he's thinking, How can I be the best player I can be?"
There's also a human side to Hansbrough that was harder to see two seasons ago, when his shyness sometimes made him appear like a hoops-playing cyborg. "When I first met him, he barely talked," says Frasor, his roommate for three years. "Now he's on campus talking to people, making jokes, showing his personality." For Halloween, Hansbrough poked fun at himself by donning the face mask he wore in last year's NCAA tournament and dressing up as Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. During his performance communications class last fall, Hansbrough did the Souljah Boy and Oompah-Loompah dances on stage in his and Frasor's rendition of the YouTube clip Evolution of Dance.
This is no robot, after all. He bleeds. He cries. And he's not as fearless as he seems. He has an abject dread of elevators and airplanes. After a game at Georgia Tech last season, in fact, Hansbrough was so freaked out by the windy conditions that he begged off the team's charter flight and took the bus by himself back to Chapel Hill. "I'm pretty terrified of flying," says Hansbrough, who calls earning potential bus trips to Raleigh and Charlotte for the NCAA tournament "another motivating factor" for trying to clinch the No. 1 seed in the East region.
Who knew? Maybe, in the end, we needed to see Hansbrough's imperfections before we could fully appreciate his achievements, before we could embrace him as the Face of College Basketball. Now, on the eve of perhaps his finest hour, there is no disputing that title. "I think he's more worthy than anybody we've seen in a long time," says Williams. "You're talking about the highest character, the highest degree of dedication and desire and focus. There will be other players who are better than Tyler, but I don't know that there will ever be another Tyler Hansbrough."
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G D.J. Augustin, Soph., Texas
G Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jr., Memphis
F Tyler Hansbrough, Jr., North Carolina
F Michael Beasley, Fr., Kansas St. (below)
C Kevin Love, Fr., UCLA
G Eric Gordon, Fr., Indiana
G Stephen Curry, Soph., Davidson
G Jerryd Bayless, Fr., Arizona
F D.J. White, Sr., Indiana
F Luke Harangody, Soph., Notre Dame
G Kristi Toliver, Jr., Maryland
G Candice Wiggins, Sr., Stanford
F Candace Parker, Jr., Tennessee
F Courtney Paris, Jr., Oklahoma
C Sylvia Fowles, Sr., LSU
G Andrea Riley, Soph., Oklahoma St.
G Marisa Coleman, Jr., Maryland
F Maya Moore, Fr., Connecticut
F Crystal Langhorne, Sr., Maryland
C Ashley Walker, Jr., Cal