Hibbert Welcomes the Responsibility

Mark Montieth headshot
by Mark Montieth

October 5, 2012

When Roy Hibbert sat down behind the microphone for some media discourse on Monday, he broke the silence with small talk.

"Everybody have a good summer?" he asked.

"Yeah. You?" came the loaded reply, accompanied by raised eyebrows.

"Yeah," Hibbert conceded with a grin, "I had a real good summer."

It's like that for Hibbert now. The basketball world knows he signed a four-year, $58 million contract in the off-season that made him the highest-paid Pacer, which does indeed make for a real good summer. He'll be reminded of it every two weeks, assuming he chose to be paid that way, but he'll also likely hear about it whenever he misses an easy shot, gets outplayed by an opposing center or somehow contributes to a loss.

Such is the dilemma that comes with a life-altering contract such as the one Hibbert autographed. Teams might as well throw in a double-edged sword with such deals, because the player faces increased scrutiny from that point forward. Many fans have a built-in resentment toward highly-paid athletes, and are looking for a reason to pounce. How an athlete responds to that pressure can make or break a career, or at least influence a legacy.

The early indications in training camp are that Hibbert hasn't been swayed either way by his windfall. He doesn't appear to have shifted into I've-got-it-made mode, nor is he putting pressure on himself to dominate every possession in practice. His teammates haven't showed any hints of resentment, either, although some did jokingly inquire about obtaining low-interest loans from him. He'll have to live with such inconveniences, at least for awhile.

Hibbert appears uncomfortable when asked about the contract. Normally talkative and lighthearted, his answers grow more serious and clipped. He even played the "it wasn't about the money" card on Media Day, but he was convincing in his argument.

Roy Hibbert

"It was the fact that in the back of my mind I want to be with the Pacers, but at the same time I think back to the draft class and there's a few people ahead of me and I thought I'm better than those guys," said Hibbert, the 17th pick in the 2008 draft. "What I was given this summer was a statement for my hard work."

It was a statement that could make it more difficult for the Pacers to lure high-level talent to place around Hibbert, given salary cap restraints, but also a statement that they intend to remain competitive for years to come, and are willing to pay for the privilege. The trick now is for Hibbert to handle his end of the "bargain" by taking inspiration from the contract, rather than tension.

"Roy puts a lot of pressure on himself every year," head coach Frank Vogel said. "That's certainly a concern. It's something we'll talk about. He's aware of it. But he can't change himself too much. I don't think it will be a problem."

Hibbert has improved steadily throughout his career with the Pacers. He was an All-Star last season, and averaged 11.7 points (on 50 percent shooting), 11.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in the playoffs. Those numbers won't pave a road to the Hall of Fame, but they are difficult to replace and vital to a team hoping to still be playing next June.

The Pacers will accept similar numbers this season, given the balance of their starting lineup and depth of their bench. Hibbert won't have to average 20 points to justify his millions, he'll just need to continue to refine his game and maintain a high level of effort – rebound and defend, of course, but also command a double-team that creates opportunities on the perimeter for his teammates.

"We just need him to be steady," David West said. "He's not one of those guys who's going to go out and try to do things he's not used to doing. Just continue to dominate the interior, and that's going to make us better as a group."

The Pacers' history with mega contracts is mixed. Reggie Miller played through them without flinching. Jalen Rose, however, signed for seven years and more than $90 million in 2000, after he had led the team that reached the NBA Finals in scoring. He was traded 1 ½ seasons later, frustrated by having to share the on-court wealth with rising stars such as Jermaine O'Neal and Al Harrington. Three years later, O'Neal signed for seven years and nearly $130 million, becoming one of the highest-paid players in the league. He finished third in the MVP balloting the following year, when the Pacers won a franchise-record 61 games, but he was traded five injury-plagued seasons later in the deal with Toronto that brought Hibbert to the Pacers. By then, O'Neal's reputation among fans had become scarred, and it seemed a relief to all parties concerned that he was gone.

Should Hibbert want to consult anyone on the challenge of playing in the shadow of dollar signs, he could do worse than talk with Austin Croshere, the former Pacer who works the team's radio and television broadcasts. Croshere signed a contract exceeding $50 million in 2000, after playing well in the Finals against the Lakers. He freely admits now that it became a burden.

"I definitely put too much pressure on myself," he said. "I don't know if it was so much because of the contract, I just felt I had taken another step and wanted to put up numbers that supported that. When it didn't happen right away, I certainly got frustrated and down on myself, which compounded the issue."

Croshere points out, however, that Hibbert has fewer obstacles than he and Rose had. Both of them had to adjust to a new position and a new coach after signing their contracts. Rose moved from small forward to point guard and Croshere from power forward to small forward in Isiah Thomas' new offense. Neither found a natural fit, although Rose was fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Hibbert is still playing center, still playing for Vogel and still merely one-fifth of a balanced unit.

"Hopefully, Roy understands this team doesn't need him to do anything different than what he did last year," Croshere said.

"Roy's got a great situation with a coach who believes in him, and he works incredibly hard. I expect great things from him this year, but I don't necessarily expect his numbers to increase. And they don't need to increase for this team to be successful."

Hibbert says he understands that. He might have arrived in a financial sense, but he's still on a journey as a player. He sounds ready to embrace whatever he encounters.

"I've always wanted more responsibility since I came into the league," he said. "For the most part right now I feel totally at ease."

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