Adulthood, NBA can wait; Hansbrough not ready to grow up
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The sneak attack came from the back door.
The media relations and marketing folks at North Carolina lured Tyler Hansbrough into a room for what they said were some innocuous questions for the Dean Smith Center's video board.
After a few minutes, they paused.
And from the back door, in walked Bobby Frasor, Hansbrough's roommate of four years.
Right then, Hansbrough knew: He'd been punked by his own university.
Tyler Hansbrough put a hold on his NBA career mostly because he thought he wasn't quite ready for the pros and could get better if he were to spend one more year in college.
But if there is a side benefit to the deferment of adulthood, it is the joy of still being a kid, of doing things such as belly-laughing when your roommate gets you to rap for the camera. ("He says he has some freestyle skills, but it's pretty comical," Frasor said.)
And that was every bit as alluring to Hansbrough as money and fame is to most people in his position.
"Growing up isn't that much fun," Hansbrough said. "Next year, I'm not here hanging out with all my boys, having a good time. I'll be working. I love UNC. I love college. I love college life, being a college student, and I'm going to enjoy this last year as much as I can."
He will walk one hell of a tightrope in the process. Hansbrough longs to be the goofball who can jump off a fraternity balcony and into a swimming pool, but he is the superstar whose flight to splashdown became an immediate Internet sensation.
He loves to torture his body with crazy workouts and silly games (Who knew pingpong could hurt?), but the stress reaction that continues to shelve him was felt like a seismic tremor across Tobacco Road.
He just wants to play hard, statistics be damned. But the Tar Heels are the first preseason consensus No. 1 team in the history of the coaches' poll and will be judged not by wins and losses but seemingly by margins of victory.
He's an ordinary kid who's the face of a sport. Who said being 23 was all fun and games?
Every once in a while, an athlete comes along who becomes more than just another really talented player. He becomes a temporary icon of the game. It takes longevity, which is why these guys are so rare. The flyovers of Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose were consuming and impressive, but those players were merely making connections on their way to the final destination of the NBA.
When Hansbrough decided to return for his senior season, he joined a unique group. He stands alongside Christian Laettner, Tim Duncan, J.J. Redick and Joakim Noah, guys who stuck around (except Noah, who stayed for his junior season but departed thereafter) to smell the roses and hear the wrath for one more season.
Growing up isn't that much fun. Next year, I'm not here hanging out with all my boys, having a good time. I'll be working. I love UNC. I love college. I love college life, being a college student, and I'm going to enjoy this last year as much as I can.
"I remember [then-Oklahoma State] coach Eddie Sutton running down the bench to shake hands with Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, recalling his time at Kansas. "I'm sure part of it was he was happy to see them go, but part of it was to tell them how much he enjoyed competing against them. That's what Tyler deserves. We should all be grateful to be able to watch him again this year."
Certainly that will be the case in Chapel Hill. But everywhere else? Not so much.
Americans may love winners, but we get rather selective with the love when it comes wrapped around college colors.
Looking for a guaranteed bet for Vegas? See whether they'll give odds on the guy who will receive the most taunts, finger points, finger salutes and nasty signs this season. And if they offer anyone's name other than Hansbrough's, laugh out loud.
"There are a lot of not-very-respectful people who will say some really crappy things but who respect the hell out of you," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has commanded his fair share of "respect" over the years. "Don't pay attention to the words, pay attention to the attention. The attention is respect. The words are not. If anybody is yelling at Tyler Hansbrough, it's because they're mad he's not on their team."
Krzyzewski went through the gantlet with both Laettner and Redick. There is no handbook on dealing with the scrutiny and expectations that come with the bounty of success. Krzyzewski found that his most vital tool was empathy. Realizing that at some level, not even Laettner or Redick's teammates could relate to what he was going through, Krzyzewski made it his business to constantly pull his player aside to ask a simple question: "How are you?"
Redick remembered his senior year as the best of his four years in college. But on the road, things were a little less than rosy.
"It was bad," he said. "In terms of personal attacks, everything and anything was said. There were no limits, so I definitely heard some shocking things."
Hansbrough already has had his share and knows it will be even worse this season. He said he's not worried about any of it, that he welcomes the negative vibes from away gyms because they motivate him, and those who know him well say that's not false bravado.
"It won't faze him; if anything, it will motivate him," Frasor said. "He's never gotten angered at crowds. If anything, he laughs it off and brushes it off. The more they talk about him, the more they complain about him, the more he'll bring."
Hansbrough is well aware of his unique spot. As the first Associated Press player of the year to return to college since Shaquille O'Neal did in 1991, the ACC Player of the Year, three-time All-American and first consensus preseason All-American since Duke's Jason Williams in 2001, Hansbrough really has nowhere to go but down. His statistics will be dissected every bit as much as Carolina's record, with critics desperate to make a case that he isn't as good as he was last year.
Hansbrough, whose on-the-court fire hides underneath an off-the-court flatline, shrugs it all off. He has the perfect temperament to handle this sort of thing, somewhere between Laettner's fiery bring-it-on attitude and Redick's confident indifference.
For starters, there's that missing trophy. For all of the awards that sit in the office of media relations director Steve Kirschner (Hansbrough doesn't have room in his apartment), nothing there represents a national championship. Far from smug, the overwhelmingly favored Tar Heels are unsatisfied and still taste that bitter 84-66 pill, and its 40-12 beginning, that came from Kansas in last year's Final Four.
"I've watched [the Kansas game] twice," point guard Ty Lawson said. "It's hard, just to see how badly we all played, but it's also motivation. That's easy motivation right there."
For Hansbrough, there's also the unfinished business of a college career. He's already recording his lasts. When he finished his preseason conditioning test, he was thrilled when he realized he'd never have to do one again at Carolina.
Until he realized he'd never do one again at Carolina.
Hansbrough is carefully logging his final moments, pushing aside the pressures and expectations so he can find a spot to simply enjoy himself.
Before the season began, Kirschner organized a senior trip, taking the players to a nearby amusement park for a mini-Olympiad. They hit baseballs, drove golf balls and even played a mean game of putt-putt.
New Yorker Danny Green inadvertently provided the comic relief.
"The sports weren't good for me," he said. "I did OK in the minigolf, but toward the end I got a little mentally tired and lost my focus. I hadn't eaten all day. I was hungry."
Frasor and Hansbrough, who already are YouTube legends with their games of Texas-style pingpong, turned the fun and games into a grudge match.
Frasor won and insists he should be referred to as "Supreme Champion."
"I'm not calling him that," Hansbrough said. "I was mad that I lost. I still am. When the season is over, I want a rematch."
And maybe just a little more time as a kid.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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