by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
December 12, 2012
Editor's Note: Have a Pacers-related question for Mark? Want to be featured in his mailbag column? Send your questions to Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tyler Hansbrough, normally as stone-faced as the Statue of Liberty after games regardless of outcome, couldn't contain himself.
"This is hilarious to me," he said, following the Pacers' 96-81 win over Cleveland at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"Why's that?" he was asked.
"Nothing," Hansbrough said. "I just think it's funny. He hasn't had an interview postgame for a long time. Now me and Ben get on the court and he's getting interviewed more over there than David West, who's an All-Star."
It was true. Tyler's younger brother, Ben, was around the corner talking into a sudden and steady stream of microphones inquiring about the first meaningful game of his NBA career. His numbers don't jump off the box score—six points, one assist, two steals, no turnovers—but those who saw it had to be impressed. Ben not only brought some life to the second unit and looked every bit an NBA point guard while doing so, he brought out the best in Tyler, who has struggled to this point of the season.
Coach Frank Vogel's decision to drop D.J. Augustin from the playing rotation and go with the rookie free agent was made easy by Ben Hansbrough's inspired play in practice and Augustin's uninspired play in games, so it doesn't qualify as prescient. But it does qualify as consequential. It wasn't that obvious by numerical measurement in Wednesday's victory because the bench was outscored 35-21, but it did show in less tangible ways.
Like tweets. Afterward, Paul George, who had his fifth straight strong outing with 27 points, launched the following warning into cyberspace: "DON'T mess with the Hansbroughs!"
It showed in leadership, too. The rookie point guard knew where everybody was supposed to be, moved the ball quickly, played physical defense and was even shouting instructions from the end of the bench when he wasn't in the game.
"He wasn't perfect, but he definitely provided a spark," Vogel said. "That unit had great defensive energy and he's a guy who'll hit a guy in the mouth. That's what he brings to the table."
He also seemed to provide Tyler with a flashback to the three years they started together on their high school team in Poplar Bluff, Mo. That was most evident in the fourth quarter, when Ben took an inadvertent elbow in the neck from Cavs forward Tristan Thompson and hit the floor. Tyler's brotherly instincts kicked in and he had to be restrained to the point that Ben had to calm him down. Ben hit one of the two free throws awarded from the Flagrant 1 foul. On the Pacers' next possession, a still-revved Tyler drove to the basket from the left side as if he were desperately hoping someone would hit him. Samardo Samuels did him the favor and was called for a foul.
One can only imagine what it must have been like in the Hansbrough household when Ben, Tyler and their older brother Greg were of the roughhousing age. What slab of drywall would stand a chance against their headbanging antics? But while Tyler is usually stoic and serious-minded, Ben is more outgoing and a more natural leader. That could pay huge dividends for Tyler, who has been shooting less than 40 percent from the field.
Tyler finished with seven points and three rebounds, again nothing worthy of a game ball, but he seemed revitalized. He even hit a mid-range jumper for a change—on an assist from Ben. Tyler had passed up a jumper early in the second period. Ben told him to trust his shot. Moments later, Tyler hit a 19-footer. On the next possession, Ben hit his first shot attempt of the game, a three-pointer from the right corner in front of the Pacers bench.
"Sometimes we know how to push each other's buttons and light a fire under each other," Ben said. "If I'm playing soft, or not playing to my potential, he better tell me. Because I know I'll tell him.
"I understand Tyler's game better than anybody. We're good for each other."
Said Tyler: "I know his tendencies. I know what he's thinking and what he's going to do. The only surprising thing is that we're on the same team together. I always had confidence he could play at this level, but it's a little shocking that we're on the same team."
There's a story behind that.
Ben was the Big East Player of the Year as a senior at Notre Dame and a second-team All-American. He seemed destined to be drafted, but tore tendons in his left ankle while working out at Park Tudor High School with coach Ed Schilling and some of his players a couple of weeks before the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago. One of the Park Tudor players not named Yogi Ferrell got under Hansbrough as he went up for a jump shot and by the time he landed his draft dream was over.
Undrafted, Hansbrough signed to play with a team in Germany. Still slowed by his injury, he barely played and was released. He then signed with a team in Slovenia, but left that team. His NBA future didn't look any brighter when he averaged just six points for the Pacers' summer league team, but what happened the rest of the summer saved his career.
He spent time again with Schilling and other area college players at the Trader's Point Academy over the summer, where former Pacers trainer David Craig helped alleviate some of the pain in his ankle, but a chance meeting with Brandon Kuhn, the basketball trainer at Western Kentucky, was the breakthrough.
Hansbrough was on campus to visit his father, and went to the gym to visit an assistant coach who he had known at his original collegiate stop, Mississippi State. Kuhn approached him and told him he didn't look to be in very good condition. He wasn't, weighing 215 pounds at the time, but Hansbrough was taken aback by the stranger's bold assessment.
"All right, you want to work me out?" Hansbrough asked.
"Be here tomorrow at 9 a.m." Kuhn said.
Kuhn put Hansbrough through the most difficult workouts of his life. Part of the regimen included exercises in sand pits in 100-degree weather to strengthen his damaged ankle.
"He just murdered me," Hansbrough recalled. "I'd have to take the rest of the day off. I wanted to go in the gym and get shots up but I couldn't do it. I was in the best shape I'd been in since my senior year at Notre Dame."
It was widely assumed that Hansbrough was invited to Pacers training camp as a formality, maybe even a favor to Tyler. He'd be another warm body for camp and then dispatched to the Development League or overseas. What people didn't know was that he was 20 pounds lighter than in the summer league, and played with a healthy ankle again. Augustin opened the door for him with his insufficient play, and Hansbrough jumped through it. The updated impression is that he's going to cling to the backup spot for the rest of the season, which puts a cloud over Augustin's future. Augustin is working on a one-year contract, and could be a valuable trade chip given his solid play the past two seasons in Charlotte.
That's projecting, though. Reflecting, Ben Hansbrough has made a habit of proving people wrong. He had only two scholarship offers coming out of high school, from Mississippi State and Southern Illinois. The fact he accepted Mississippi State's offer after his junior season cooled the interest of recruiters, but regardless he was regarded as a mid-major player. He played two seasons at Mississippi State and then transferred to Notre Dame, where he proved he could play at the highest level.
The lightly recruited and undrafted younger brother has always been eager to prove himself. Now he's got another chance.
"I kind of like being overlooked," he said. "I try to look on the bright side. I use that as a way to drive myself. I play against some of these guys who were drafted and I have to go out and prove myself. It gives me a chip on my shoulder."
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.
Have a question for Mark about Pacers past, present, or future? Email him at email@example.com for a chance to be featured in a mailbag article.