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Tyler Hansbrough's Very Good Terrible No Good Day

April 16, 2011

Within the team aspect of the game, there are individual victories and losses. This fact is hard to ignore, and this fact was on display this afternoon as the Indiana Pacers came within a few plays here and a few plays there of sending the city of Chicago into a frenzy not seen since the days when Mrs. O'Leary's cow was kicking over lanterns. Today the cow would have been former North Carolina standout Tyler Hansbrough, as he drained a countless number of eighteen foot jumpers in the face of a helpless Carlos Boozer.

Don't let the final score tell you it didn't happen; more so than any other time in his two year NBA career, Tyler Hansbrough invoked a page from his legendary ethos of being one hundred percent psycho. In the first Playoff game of his career against a superior opponent, the all-time leading scorer of the ACC played like he was back in Hansbrough Indoor Stadium (formerly known as Cameron Indoor Stadium), as he transformed Carlos Boozer into Shelden Williams on Senior Night. In short, he was simply the best big man on the floor today, not in a regular season game, but in a game that truly mattered.

The great irony of Tyler Hansbrough's career continues to be his nickname. He's been called Psycho T at least since he was a freshman at North Carolina, but perhaps the nickname says more about those who continue to watch this player and misjudge his talents. The definition of the word psychosis suggests "hallucinations, that indicate impaired contact with reality." Tyler Hansbrough wreaked as much damage in the country's best college basketball conference as anyone in its history, yet on draft day we all wondered if he would ever become more than a bench warmer in the NBA. We cast him as the big man version of Gonzaga's Adam Morrison or Duke's JJ Reddick. We were correct about Morrison. We were slightly wrong about Reddick. And we were most definitely wrong about Tyler Hansbrough, only we still can not admit our mistake, even when faced with a game like today where Hansbrough scored twenty-two points against two of last offseason's most coveted big men, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Even after a game like today that followed in procession with several other games where Hansbrough was the best big on the court, we will tweet from a voice of surprise if it happens again and, chances are, it will happen again.

It would be easier to understand the disbelief in the man's abilities if his per 36 scoring average wasn't 17.8 over the last two years, demonstrating that days like today are actually the norm for the NBA's last, American-born Great White Hope (all apologies to Jimmer Fredette).

Tyler Hansbrough will never be able to escape the race ghost, because his costume isn't a sheet with holes cut in it but his own pale skin.

Personally, I have three reasons to root for Tyler Hansbrough. One, he played at North Carolina, becoming my favorite player since Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota. Two, he's goofy. I'm sure his veins percolate with caffeine before every game. Three, his confidence; never has he ceased to forge ahead becoming more than what he was.

Hansbrough came into Chapel Hill with very little fanfare when compared with some of the other legendary freshmen that have called the Dean Dome home and very little was expected of him and his team that first year, but he defied all expectations. In fact, his whole career, from college to now, has been played out in defiance of the expectations the basketball world has had for him. Expectations that would probably be much different for him if his skin color were any other pigment, and if this were any other arena other than basketball, he would be as boring as the status quo, as oppressive as an intolerant majority, or as unrebellious as a Bing Crosby Christmas sweater. But this is basketball, so Tyler Hansbrough never becomes just white noise but, for better or worse, either a mascot or a symbol.

No matter how fast Hansbrough sprints down the court or how hard he dunks on a rim or how far he extends the range of his jump shot, he cannot, in our minds, lose the ball and chain of being just another hardworking mule, within the context of our expectations for him. A black player, however, can escape that label or at least mute it so there is something else to discuss. Jared Dudley, a man with no lateral quickness, can, if he contributes to a Playoff run like he did for the Suns in 2010, become a jack of all trades; a renaissance man. Kurt Thomas, with his Tyler-like unblinking eyes, can become an enforcer, a tough guy, a brute force. But Tyler Hansbrough, and to a lesser extent even his teammate Josh McRoberts, will always be what their teammate Jeff Foster is: a nondescript role player. They are hustle guys. Good teammates. Hard workers. And college brand names. Or, at best, definitions by negation: Tyler Hansbrough is once again proving that he has the athleticism to play at this level, which so many believed he would never prove. And the strangest aspect of this skin deep doubt placed on Psycho T is how fervently  he insists that he is genuinely a good basketball player and not merely the byproduct of a white media's love affair.

Tyler Hansbrough is not and should not be viewed as the bastard child of America's whitewashed "glory days." In fact, bringing race into the equation of his game probably has more to do with our own projections on the game of basketball than anything to do with Tyler Hansbrough's vertical. Let's face it, some of us, maybe just myself, can't escape the white men can't jump taunts that we experienced as children, on the blacktops of Gaines School Elementary. I also realize that even by examining how the color of his wingspan has boxed Hansbrough in I'm probably just perpetuating an issue that would have wilted if columns such as this one didn't keep watering it. The problem is that even on a day when his play should speak for itself Tyler Hansbrough cannot come out of the bright lighthouse beacon that is Larry Bird. When Larry Bird sits and watches his Indiana Pacers battle the Chicago Bulls and smiles smugly from a sea of red, it is difficult not to view Tyler Hansbrough as the clumsy follow through of number thirty-three's legacy.

Watch any documentary about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and there will be a clip or an interview where basketball player or writer explains Larry Bird's implied "blackness" or "street cred" in the fact that number thirty-three garnered the respect of America's inner city playgrounds, that his shooting touch, competitive spirit, and passing ability were not just revered by white middle class America but praised by black fans as well. The thing is, it's been a long time since Larry Bird wasn't management or syndicated programming for ESPNClassic. The two best white players of the last decade are Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, both foreign born, leaving a wide-eyed Tyler Hansbrough as some sort of last king of Gondor, only to make such a suggestion appears to promote the idea that African-American dominance of the game is some sort of dark force creeping out of Mordor, when it isn't, and to suggest so is racist neuroticism. No, Tyler Hansbrough is just an endangered species, not due to over hunting, or illegal poaching, or anything with a sinister slant, but due to an ecology that changed without any alterior motive other than for the good of the game.

White or black, the man continues to get up off the floor, whether it's a broken nose or a possible concussion, and raise his arms in a V, and the gesture is both gripping and inspiring, even if the gesture is nothing more than an intimation of one heart and soul's love for a game that it also happens to be very good at playing, no matter how often we try to make it about something else or to forget the wealth of talent that inspires it.

If anything, Tyler Hansbrough is a symbol of love and sacrifice and a past that is all but dead.

And in related news, Derrick Rose scored 39 points to lead the Chicago Bulls in a comeback win against Danny Granger's Indiana Pacers; there was no 2011 Chicago fire.


Langston said...

Can you believe this is the same team we saw play Washington in December? I remember thinking that the Pacers were one of the most talented and disappointing teams I've seen play live and that they could be a decent team if they just gelled and Hibbert enforced his will. But I never would have thought that Frank Vogel would be the answer.

April 17, 2011 at 10:40 AM
Teach said...

Completely different team than the one we saw. I thought they might make the Playoffs this year, but I erased that idea after seeing them live. Then they were Vogelized. Yes, it should be its own verb. The switch from McBob to Hansbrough was key, as was the rediscovery of Hibbert, as you already pointed out.

They'll lose this series, but you have to feel good for the franchise.

April 17, 2011 at 2:58 PM

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