June 25th was a night of much anticipation. All the numerous pre-draft workouts the Indiana Pacers had held all throughout the month of June had finally come down to this moment.
"With the 13th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Indiana Pacers select...Tyler Hansbrough from North Carolina!!!"
A mixture of boos and cheers followed at the Indiana Pacers draft party in Conseco Fieldhouse. Even though I am a temporary member of the media for the summer, I could not help but be giddy inside when the Pacers selected the all-time ACC scoring leader. He reminds me of the most recent Pacer hero to walk through the Hoosier state. You guessed it. Reggie Miller.
Why Reggie Miller? Three simple reasons.
1.) Toughness. I don't care what anyone says about talent. There has not been a tougher collegiate basketball player in the last two years. His sophomore season in a game against Duke, Hansbrough received the brunt of a cheapshot from Duke guard Gerald Henderson late in a game that North Carolina clearly had in hand. Henderson had broken his nose and I remember thinking "There is no way this guy can get up after that!" Not only did he get up, but he was ready to flatten Henderson like a pancake at IHOP. Had his teammates not held him back, a bed in the hospital would have been reserved for Henderson. After that I thought "surely, there is no way this kid is going to play the next game. He'll at least take a couple of games off." Wrong. He was right back out there the next game with a mask on his face for protection after he was told to sit out numerous times, but profusely refusing.
Rewind to 1996. Reggie Miller had been knocked to the floor by Otis Thorpe, forward for the Detroit Pistons, at a home game in Market Square Arena. Miller suffered a fractured orbital lobe. I thought "This is it. His season is over. No way he can continue." After spending some time away from the court, Reggie, against Donnie Walsh's will, returned after a brief medical hiatus to lead a broken team to the playoffs, taking the ball to the rack fearlessly against guys 3 times his size. Forget his 3 point shot for a moment and ponder how nuts and how tough he was? To take the ball to the rack that many times and refusing to quit no matter how many people were saying "Just bag it. There's always next season" exemplified his toughness and accountability to know that he was the heart and soul of that basketball team. And they NEEDED him.
And the same could easily be said for Hansbrough. He knew his team could ill-afford to lose him. I don't care how good Ty Lawson was in terms of talent. Hansbrough was the HEART and SOUL of North Carolina for four years. He was also knocked down hard in the Pacers pre-draft workout, lost a contact, and could not see. He could have easily said "I'm done. I don't want to get hurt before I even get drafted." Not only did he not quit. He finished the workout and finished it strong. And even when the workout was over and every other player in the workout was chatting with their buddies, he was working on his jump shot, his free throw, and fine tuning his post game. He had to be pulled away from the court. Why? That leads me to my next point.
2. Passion. I saw no change in Tyler Hansbrough's demeanor whether it was the first game of the season or the championship game against Michigan State. He was always running at full throttle and he never stopped until the clock read zero or until Coach Williams said, "That's enough tonight Tyler." That exemplifies passion. When a person is passionate about something, they do not need something to go their way, benefits, or a favor to motivate them. They do it simply because they LOVE it. Hansbrough loves this game just as much as Reggie Miller and the President who drafted him. Don't believe me? What say you Jim O'Brien?
"It is a foundation that we want to build on, and the young man sitting between Larry and I is a guy that plays with an unbelievable amount of passion."
Passion is what helped Reggie get back on the court when he was told he could not play with a fractured orbital lobe. Passion is what helped him fight through the adversity of receiving death threats from fans who were unhappy with the direction the team was heading between 1996 and 1998. Passion is what allowed him to play until the ripe old age of 39 and CARRY a team to the second round of the playoffs when that team had no business being there in the 2005 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Here's how you know if you are passionate about something. If you cannot see yourself living without something, then there enlies your passion. Can you see either of these guys living without basketball? I don't think so.
Speaking of passion. When was the last time the Indiana Pacers had a player with passion?
Stephen Jackson? Please.
Ron Artest? Ok, look. You need passion, not misguided passion borderlining insanity.
Jermaine O'Neal? Not when things were going poorly.
Jamaal Tinsley? Oooh. I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Who was the last player that showed this organization and this city passion? You guessed it again. Reggie Miller. Danny Granger may be on his way after being named the league's most improved player. A fresh injection of passion, that being Hansbrough, would do this team and city a lot of good. The comparisons to Jeff Foster are way off base in terms of the style of play. But in terms of hustle, they are very similar. Hansbrough will be like Foster because he will become a fan favorite. Hansbrough's not exactly one of those guys who likes comparisons, which gives him the next criteria.
3. Something to prove. For 2 years, Tyler Hansbrough has been told his game will not translate to the NBA. Even after being the 2007-08 Player of the Year and winning a national championship, people doubt him. It is a whole lot easier to pick apart and criticize a player's game when they have played collegiately for 4 seasons as opposed to a player who is one and done. You see them more and you can notice the little things that you didn't notice the previous year. It's pretty outlandish that a guy with that kind of resume has to stand in front of the Indianapolis media and say "You know. I'm pretty good." Not because he's arrogant, but because no one believes it. At least not at the NBA level.
Keep in mind there were many who said after their blowout loss to Kansas in the Final Four in April 2008, UNC may never win a championship. Hansbrough received the brunt of the criticism. And what happened next year? He had something to prove. And boy did he ever prove it.
Reggie was underdogged his whole life. For the bulk of his childhood, he was not even the best player in his own family. Cheryl Miller took all the limelight and with good reason. Youtube her if you have the chance. He sustained a disease in which his knees were told he couldn't walk. Next thing you know he's hitting a three to send Patrick Ewing and the Knicks home crying. He was only accepted into UCLA after all the top-level recruits went somewhere else. Funny how things work out.
Now even though Hansbrough never had to overcome a severe medical ailment, his days of being the underdog go back even to his high school days in Mississippi when he played for Poplar Bluff High School. In 2005, right around the time Reggie retired, Hansbrough and his teammates knocked off the undefeated and number one team IN THE NATION, Vashon High School. You know what he heard all before that game.
"You can't beat this team. They're too good. They've never lost. You're not good enough."
The Tar Heels were told after they lost to Maryland in Maryland, they may not be the team everyone thought they were. They were bound to disappoint again.
See a pattern?