Commentary

Hard work pays off for Ben Hansbrough

Originally Published: March 14, 2011
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

Ben Hansbrough's daily ritual began one afternoon toward the end of last season.

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Matt Cashore/US PresswireBen Hansbrough, honored at Notre Dame's senior night, led the Irish to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and earned Big East Player of the Year honors.

Now a fifth-year senior, the chiseled 6-foot-3 Hansbrough -- known for his ironclad intensity -- called up Notre Dame student volunteer manager Pat Holmes Jr. and asked him to meet at the gym.

Hansbrough shot as Holmes Jr. rebounded, passing the ball back to the guard as he made his way around the key. They began meeting most mornings; occasionally, in the afternoon before team practices.

"I was a little hesitant at first because sometimes he'd want to meet at 8 a.m. and I didn't have class until 11 a.m.," Holmes Jr. says. "I didn't always want to wake up early, but eventually I got used to it."

Working out in South Bend, Ind., this past summer, the pair incorporated a football pad into the self-designed workouts. The 6-foot-6 Holmes Jr., who played basketball in high school, pounded Hansbrough with the pad, simulating game contact as the guard drove to the basket.

Hansbrough scattered chairs around the key to represent defenders. He'd fake left before going right and pulling up for a jumper while Holmes Jr. pushed him. Rappers Kid Cudi, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. blasted through speakers, a playlist that Hansbrough created specifically for the workouts.

Following Hansbrough's instruction, Holmes Jr. added his own soundtrack, as well. "I'm supposed to yell at him to keep his follow-through, or if he's not keeping his eyes on the hoop I yell, 'Eyes!'" Holmes Jr. says. "Sometimes he'll get on me if I'm not hitting him hard enough or yelling at him enough."

The twosome have met at least four or five times a week this season, depending on the team's travel schedule. Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey is aware of the added sessions and "lets Ben do his own thing," Holmes Jr. says, likely because of the demonstrable results.

Hansbrough's enhanced arc on his shot has led to 48.6 percent field goal shooting, 44.1 percent from behind the arc (third in the Big East, tied for 24th nationwide). His endurance and speed have improved due in part to the ladder drills he designed, allowing him to average over 35 minutes of playing time per game. He isn't afraid to drive the lane and has improved his midrange shooting, also a focal point of the sessions.

Last week, Hansbrough, who led the Irish to a school record for victories in the regular season (25), was voted to the All-Big East first team, the only unanimous choice. He was named the Big East Player of the Year on the same day his coach was awarded Big East Coach of the Year for the third time in five seasons.

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Courtesy of the Hansbrough familyAs the youngest of three brothers, Ben had to "be the toughest," says his father, Gene.

Perhaps least surprising to those who know Hansbrough is his manifestation of steadfast self-discipline in his final collegiate season. "Ben has always been a warrior," his father Gene says. "He's the youngest, so he's got to be the toughest."

Hansbrough is the youngest of three athletic brothers, each 25 months apart in age. The trio grew up in Poplar Bluff, Mo., the sons of Gene and Tami Hansbrough (they are now divorced). To describe the Hansbrough house as competitive, oldest brother Greg laughs, is an understatement. Backyard hoop battles to '21' often turned into bloody and bruised brawls. "You never know who won those backyard games," says middle brother Tyler (nicknamed Psycho T for his intensity), a former first team All-American and national player of the year at North Carolina, and a current Indiana Pacers forward.

As a child, Greg, now 27, was very gifted athletically, particularly in track. But when Ben was 4, 8-year-old Greg was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Though Ben was too young to comprehend the effects of the treatments, he says that watching his oldest brother relearn how to use his hands and legs inspired him. (Greg is still a runner today, a veteran of several marathons and numerous road races.) And while Michael Jordan was Ben's hoops role model in his younger years, he says that title shifted to Tyler when they were teenagers.

Inspiration aside, the brothers also provided constant competition for one another. "Ben doesn't like to lose at anything," Tyler says. "It's a good thing, but it also kind of pisses you off sometimes because he can't ever go out and play a friendly little golf game." He pauses, perhaps realizing the pot might be calling the kettle black, before adding, "That's the life we live together."

Before basketball, Ben was a successful roller hockey player. "Ben would watch 'The Mighty Ducks' and then go out on the basketball court and put up hockey goals," Gene remembers. "He'd put on his helmet and skates and play. He got so good at roller hockey that he averaged 20-something goals against all the adults."

But, as Gene and Ben both point out, there wasn't much of a sporting future in roller hockey. So the naturally adept athlete turned his attention to football (he was a QB) and basketball, eventually focusing solely on hoops.

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Courtesy of the Hansbrough familyHansbrough dabbled in roller hockey and football growing up, but he eventually decided to focus on basketball.

"I don't know where that competitiveness comes from, but I know he loves a challenge," Tami says of her youngest son. "He loves setting goals and achieving them, knowing what it's like to feel good about working hard. He knows that when you prepare yourself and meet the opportunity, success is coming."

Tyler and Ben found success as high school teammates, leading their Poplar Bluff High School basketball team to consecutive state championships. Tyler says that it was in those games that he glimpsed the scope of his brother's talent.

"When we were playing in one of the state championship big games, Ben came down and hit three 3s in a row, and you could see the confidence in him," Tyler says. "That's what I love when I watch him play: how much confidence he has in himself. He loves to make those big-time plays."

Coming out of high school, Ben says that Mississippi State was the only competitive Division I school to offer him an athletic scholarship. While Tyler enjoyed the national spotlight at UNC, leading the Tar Heels to the 2009 national championship, Ben played through his first two years at Mississippi State, starting 30 games as a sophomore and helping lead the Bulldogs to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008.

"The thing that stood out from day one was that he had a different edge about him -- his toughness and energy -- than most players," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury says. "Toughness is sometimes a quality that's hard to evaluate. But [Ben] had so much of it, it dripped off of him."

Stansbury also noticed what Hansbrough admits he initially struggled with -- quelling his intensity. "He was so intense that he'd have trouble relaxing and carrying on conversations," Stansbury says.

Following his freshman season, Hansbrough considered transferring. "But I realized that sometimes you have to fight through things and I did that," Hansbrough says of his sophomore season. "It was just that my style of play wasn't the best fit for that system."

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Joe Robbins/US PresswireHansbrough spent two seasons at Mississippi State playing for head coach Rick Stansbury before transferring to Notre Dame.

When he announced his intention to transfer, Purdue, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame responded. Gene suggested that he and Ben go to Notre Dame first. It was the only visit they'd make.

"I knew it right away," Ben says. "When I came here, Coach Brey told me, 'I want my guards to be able to make good decisions.' I told him I wanted to think about it, but two days afterward, it still felt so right. So I called him and said, 'Coach, let's go win some championships.'"

Sitting out during his redshirt season, Hansbrough learned from the leadership examples of Kyle McAlarney, Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson while adapting to Coach Brey's system. Teammates learned of Hansbrough's extreme competitiveness during practice.

"Right off the bat, in that first pickup game, you could tell he's a fiery personality," says teammate Tim Abromaitis, the team's second-leading scorer behind Hansbrough and the Big East Scholar-Athlete of the Year. "That first summer and fall, he and I had a few arguments. But he increased the intensity of the games and it was definitely good for the team in the long run."

Senior Scott Martin, Hansbrough's roommate, says that passion carried over in their apartment. "We started playing video games and I got a taste of his competitive streak," Martin says. "He did not like to lose."

Case in point: their bathroom wall. Martin and sophomore teammate Joey Brooks laugh over a story from earlier this season, when Hansbrough and Martin were playing NBA 2K on Xbox. After Hansbrough lost six games in a row, the guard stood up, walked over and punched a hole in the wall. "He ended up punching three holes in the door too," Brooks says, laughing. "Even when it comes to a video game, Ben is very competitive."

That ferocity has provided an essential spark for Notre Dame this season, leading the Irish to a 26-6 record and a second-place regular-season finish in the Big East. The Fighting Irish lost in overtime to Louisville in the Big East tournament semifinals this past weekend.

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Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireHansbrough credits Notre Dame coach Mike Brey for transforming his game and making him a more complete player.

In conference play, Hansbrough has averaged over 20 points per game and 4.3 assists per game. After his 30-point, 10-assist and five-steal performance in Notre Dame's senior night victory over Villanova, Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said, "We've seen a lot of great players this year so far. After that performance, I'd say he's the best I've seen now."

Hansbrough is problematic for defenders because of his versatility. "He's the triple threat," Gene says. "He can jump up and shoot the 3, he can take you off the dribble and pull up for the midrange jumper or he can take you to the basket." Hansbrough is also an excellent passer, reading defenses and finding the open man on a team in which all five starters have maintained at least 40 percent field goal shooting. He is constantly attacking; being called for an offensive foul on one play doesn't stop him from driving to the basket on the next.

Hansbrough also exudes a visceral intensity. He shares Tyler's wide-eyed expression, which makes it look like he's engaged in a perpetual staring contest, never wanting to blink first.

Last summer, Hansbrough spent several weeks in Chapel Hill, N.C., with Tyler, working out alongside current and former NBA players, including Denver Nuggets point guard Raymond Felton and Shammond Williams.

"He is a guy who puts in the time and works extremely hard, and I've seen that pay off for him this year, especially in shooting the ball extremely well and taking it to the basket," Felton says.

"I was a student of Raymond's, watching how he plays, how he talks to his guys, his dedication and focus," Ben says. "I wanted to put that into my game. It helped better my understanding of leadership and how to get the best out of your team."

In Notre Dame's final regular-season game against Connecticut, Hansbrough fouled out with 8½ minutes remaining. The Huskies subsequently went on a 13-0 run. Instead of venting his frustration, Hansbrough supported his teammates from the bench, offering pointers and encouraging them toward an eventual three-point win.

Tami meets Ben after each game she attends. After the Connecticut win, "he came out and the first thing he said was, 'I'm so proud of my teammates, they really came through,'" Tami says. "He was a leader on the bench just as he would've been on the court. I think that was really important for the team. They proved they can do it with Ben on the bench."

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Matt Cashore/US PresswireHansbrough leads a balanced Notre Dame attack in which four Irish players average more than nine points a game.

"He's had as good a year as any guard in the league," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says of Hansbrough. "He's much more consistent and seems like he's in much better shape this year … he's been really efficient at both ends. He's unafraid, he takes big shots and he controls the game."

While many cite Hansbrough's offensive capabilities and defensive prowess as his biggest assets, Brooks sees another quality.

"His leadership has definitely evolved and his mentality is the reason we're where we're at right now," Brooks says. "He's obviously a good shooter, scorer and passer, but it's his will to win that sets him apart. Some guys have great stats and put up a lot of points; Ben has great stats, but his impact goes far beyond that. He's a flat-out winner. When you're being led by someone who has a will like that, it's very contagious."

Despite his own self-driven devotion to the game, Hansbrough directs much of the credit toward his head coach.

"Coach Brey kind of molded me into the player I am," Ben says. "I don't know if I've ever had a coach change my game as much as he has. When I got here, everything was as hard as I could go: I didn't change speeds or tempos. Now, I've learned how to go 20 mph and then 90 mph; 10 mph, then 40 mph. He's been great at molding me into a leader and a true point guard."

For all his on-court intensity, off the court, Hansbrough is a "total goofball," Brooks says, which Hansbrough showed glimpses of during his recent appearances on ESPN's "PTI" and the Dan Patrick radio show. Brooks and Hansbrough often take trips to the mall, filming spoof videos and doing "what most college kids do," Brooks says.

Though his video-game talents are still developing, Hansbrough defends his rookie record. "I just started getting into video games, so I can't beat guys like Joey who've been playing their whole lives," Ben says. "I'm not going to practice on video games; you will not find me alone working on NBA 2K11."

Instead, he enjoys going to the movies, listening to music and spending time with his friends and brothers. "We love to hang out and reminisce together," Greg says. "If we're eating lunch and the waitress is cute, we'll talk about her together. If she's not as cute, my brothers will say, 'Greg, that looks like your kind of girl.'"

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AP Photo/Joe RaymondBen joked that older brother Tyler would don a Notre Dame T-shirt if the Irish were to face North Carolina, where Tyler won the 2009 national championship.

Ben is also a well-known prankster. When asked to pick a favorite, both Ben and Greg described one of Ben's epic pranks. "When I was a sophomore or junior in high school, my friends and I got paintball guns," Ben says. "It was midnight and Greg was sleeping. We got a strobe light, kicked in his door, and started flashing the light and dry-firing the paintball guns. He was so scared, he looked like he was literally trying to run in his sheets, screaming at the top of his lungs. I scared him for about 10 seconds and then I took off sprinting."

Ben says that these days, he can best his older brother in one-on-one competitions (Tyler's answer wasn't quite the same). When asked which team Tyler would support if Carolina and Notre Dame met in the tournament, Ben laughs before predicting, "I'm going to say Tyler would have on a Notre Dame T-shirt if we play UNC."

Ben's favorite class at Notre Dame has been a public opinion course. If he weren't playing basketball, Gene imagines his youngest son would make an excellent lawyer. Tami says that Ben has entertained the idea of graduate school. But for now, the Big Dance -- and possibly the NBA -- await.

Ironically, Hansbrough's earliest basketball memory may soon provide a bit of foreshadowing. He says he "somewhat" recalls being a part of the Sacred Heart basketball team, recruited at a very young age because Tyler was a team member and Gene was the coach.

"It was a little Catholic school; my kids aren't Catholic but they went there for the smaller class sizes and for basketball," Gene says. Most teams in the league were comprised of fifth- and sixth-graders; in order to field a full roster, Sacred Heart had to recruit first-, second- and third-graders. Tyler, a second-grader, wanted to play on the team, so Ben, 25 months younger, also joined.

"We were the underdogs and no one expected us to go out and do what we did," Hansbrough says. "Here we were, this smaller, private Catholic school, and we won the championship."

An outcome he hopes to repeat very soon.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.