The 2009 NBA draft was filled with surprises, givens, and some unpronounceable names from countries most people had never heard of. When the Indiana Pacers had the 13th pick in the NBA draft, the speculators speculated and the analysts analyzed the team looking for the weak spot that the Pacers could harden with a solid pick in an otherwise permeable draft class. There were noteworthy players at noteworthy positions that commentators and experts alike felt the Pacers would improve through addition. The Pacers were noticeably soft on the inside, lacking a presence in the paint on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball. Indiana felt that they were close to major success; they had some incredible talent on the team, with Danny Granger leading the team in scoring and name recognition.
For some perspective on the Pacers management style, one just needs to gaze into the not so distant past. The Pacers were absent of any sort of big man that could appreciably alter the game. So, to rectify Indiana’s lack of a center, they made a deal to acquire the draft rights to Roy Hibbert from the Toronto Raptors. Big Roy didn’t exactly become the wrecking ball in the paint that the Pacers had hoped they were bringing in. The gentle giant was more marshmallow than metal down in the post for Indiana, providing the Pacers with his share of overall lack of an edge to his game, more round than the actual basketball.
The Pacers, desperately seeking the promise land of the NBA playoffs, knew the type of player that they wanted. A player who would bring the muscle to the Pacers hustle, someone who would be the greatly needed rebound machine who intimidated opponents with his ferocity and brute strength, the Pacers could use a strong power forward. Or they could go another route, possibly lock up the point guard spot if they weren’t sold on the much maligned Jamal Tinsley or the soon to be departed Jarret Jack. Players at both positions were available for Indiana, either way the Pacers were sure to please the fanatics back at the home of the Indy 500.
Then the tenth pick came, then the eleventh, and then the twelfth pick all came and went. Miraculously, players that fill the niche that the Pacers were devoid of were available still. Ty Lawson, the spry point guard from North Carolina who dominated March Madness with his rapid movement on the floor and understated ability to make a clutch basket, was available and ripe for the picking. So was undersized big man Dejuan Blair, the large power forward from Pittsburgh who thrashed 2nd overall pick Hasheem Thabeet in their meetings in college. Even with their choice of player wide open, most experts believed that these players would still be available later in the draft. If they so desired, the Pacers likely could have traded down in the draft and received extra picks and/or cash for their favor.
Instead the Pacers decided to seize the opportunity at hand and not hope that other teams would pass on the player they wanted. A player they felt so confident about that they were willing to guarantee millions of dollars to him and ride his talents back to prominence. That player that Larry Bird felt so confident in was University of North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough.
Dumbfounded and stupefied, the analysts at ESPN struggled to form complete sentences like they were only a couple of months out of the womb. At best they called the pick “a stretch”. At worst they likened the pick to mental retardation, as if some form of battery acid had leaked into the heads and from there penetrated the brains of the men in charge of the Pacers. Stuart Scott attempted to look into the camera and pitch it to the “experts” while Tyler was approaching the stage to meet Commissioner Stern, all the while grinning like he had just hatched the most sinister plan the world has yet to see. Shots of Tyler’s former college coach Roy Williams were plastered on the screen, as his orange-ish tan was aglow like he had just come from the beach. Nobody expected Psycho-T to be selected before many of his basketball brethren like Ty Lawson or Wayne Ellington.
At best, Hansbrough was thought to be a mid-round selection, possibly around the 20th selection. At worst he was going to be a late 1st round pick, possibly slipping into the 2nd round to be eagerly snatched up like he was on the 50% off rack at Kohls. But the Pacers saw the draft a little differently, seeing the draft as a less than average in depth and talent they decided that they wanted a player that they knew what they were getting. There is a fine line between genius and insanity, and most critics and experts believed that Larry Bird had blurred that line. They felt that even if they felt that Hansbrough was the best fit for their team, Indiana could have traded down several spots and still landed the college star. Indiana was regularly graded with the worst draft in the Association, with the experts under the impression that they reached for Hansbrough and may have even made the wrong pick in their position.
The controversy is more than the likely possibility that Larry Bird was on some sort of hallucinogen when he made the decision to select Tyler. It is about Tyler Hansbrough himself and everything that he represents. Hansbrough is the prototypical white basketball player and carries all the proverbial baggage that comes with that label. His entire life story has been played out on the Sunday specials on ESPN on more than a single occasion, with his high status among college basketball circles enhanced even more by his skin tone.
Coming to the esteemed University a year after they had cut down the nets and had nearly the entire team drafted in the first round of the NBA draft, Hansbrough immediately stood out among his ultra talented teammates. With each year coming and passing, Tyler and North Carolina steadily improved and increased the expectations of the normally contending Tarheels. He was dubbed Psycho-T for his absolutely insane style of play and earned near cult-like status among the Tarheel loyalists.
Awarded and applauded by national media, Tyler’s heart, hustle, and fearlessness earned him numerous first-team honors, player of the year awards, and births for North Carolina into March Madness. With all of the media love for Tyler and his approach to the game, a sect of distinct haters of Tyler grew. Soon enough, hardly was Tyler praised as a great college player without mention of his impending ineptitude in the professional ranks. Critics would point to his lack of athleticism compared to the superfreaks that resided in the same starting lineups or rival teams. Sure, compared to Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin, Hansbrough looks like he is playing with cement in his shoes, but his athleticism was and is a tad underrated. Another common moan that boomed from draft experts was his inability to routinely knock down the 18-foot jump shot. Granted, his shot was more rickety than a pre-1950’s rocking chair, however time has shown that shots improve with practice.
Hansbrough has broken nearly all records of significance in his four years at North Carolina under the tutelage of Roy Williams. He was a rarity that was celebrated and unique to today’s game of college basketball. An undeniably hard working player who was talented enough to dominate but not enough to turn professional, Hansbrough was able to see his way through all of his eligibility in college. This paradoxical state is what has led to all of the controversy surrounding Hansbrough like a swirling tornado of doubt and skepticism.
It was just not supposed to happen that way. A player to be rewarded for giving every ounce of energy and hustle in his body in order to win every game he plays in, it is just unthinkable. The hustle, along with the overall amazing play of the hampered Ty Lawson, helped bring another National Championship to North Carolina. This after Tyler had sacrificed his opportunity to turn pro after each of his sophomore and junior seasons. Finally, he had climbed to the top of the mountain, his job done with the utmost satisfaction of himself as well as the fans. All that was left to do was to turn professional and enter the Association’s draft.
As he exited the college ranks, the analysts soon raked up all the mud that they had previously thrown at Hansbrough’s game. He would work out for multiple teams, hoping to impress with his extreme hustle and improved jumper. The general consensus was that he would land somewhere between picks 15-30. Tyler could be, most predict, a solid bench player who brings hustle and determination on the floor whenever he plays. Apparently, his workouts were something to behold, displaying an increased range from the floor and his infamous work ethic.
It was impressive enough to catch the eye of Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers who liked him enough to pick him. But teams are told to beware of the workout phenoms as if they were trolls under the bridge, waiting to trick you and cause mayhem throughout the organization. Many players have vaulted draft stocks and caused a team to essentially burn their treasured draft pick on their unworthy souls. Darko Milicic made himself a more worthy selection than Carmelo or Wade with his tremendous ability to score with nobody guarding him. To reference another sport, Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers leaped into the 6th spot in the draft with an unbelievable 40-yard dash for normally lumbering tight ends.
The point being, the Pacers ignored the lessons of history and common sense to select Psycho-T.
The Hansbrough selection speaks not only to the Pacers temporarily shocking experts into near oblivion, it speaks to the evolution of the Pacers franchise and the Association in general. Let us not be cowardly and ignore the elephant in the room. Tyler Hansbrough is a white basketball player (news to most of you I’m sure), but the issue at hand is the direction of the Pacers under Bird’s guidance.
This is an issue mired in controversy, some columnists and commentators openly speculating as to the motivation of Bird to select Tyler over the likes of Dejuan Blair. The Indiana Pacers have an inordinate amount of white American basketball players on the payroll. Some have suggested that Larry has done this intentionally, to rid the Pacers of the stigma that hovered over them after the Auburn Hills incident. These are not “Euros” who have invaded the game over the past decade; these are your typical white American basketball players with all the stereotypes that are associated with that. They are considered not as athletic, not as naturally gifted, and are forced by their own desire to work harder to get where they are.
But what else could you expect the Hick from French Lick to do? His team had a significant image problem after the incident. A little spring-cleaning was in order, and the fans wanted someone they could connect with. So Bird has effectively brought in hard working basketball players who are appreciated by the fans (Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, TJ Ford). The Pacers are not so much constructing the Third Reich as much as they are building a team with character. The more pertinent question is, will it work?
Back to the issue at hand: Tyler Hansbrough. Psycho-T has embraced the reservations and cynicism that have accompanied him since his college days. Hansbrough is in the NBA summer league on Indiana’s team, playing alongside teammate Roy Hibbert. He has put up some eye popping numbers, displaying a touch from outside and the proper rebounding acumen for a forward. However, it is the summer league, where rookies and sophomores tangle with basketball hopefuls competing for a spot on the bench somewhere in the Association, so take it with a grain of salt.