The Legend of Tyler Hansbrough
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Mark Simpson-Vos & Greg Barnes
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
hat’s your story?
Every Tar Heel fan of this generation will have one.
Maybe yours is the night you thought you were going to see an ordinary ACC matchup between Georgia Tech and Carolina. What you saw that February night was a 40-point explosion by a freshman forward with an uncanny knack for the old-fashioned three-point play and an unparalleled will to win.
Maybe it’s the afternoon you watched an away game from your couch, and you first saw him peering down at the hardwood, trying to find that misplaced contact lens. As he went to replace it, you realized just how enormous those blue orbs were. You’ve noticed them hundreds of times since and still can’t quite believe the fire behind them.
Was it that buzzer-beating three-pointer against Duke? The impossible dunk over UNC-Asheville’s 7-7 Kenny George? The moment he tossed away that protective mask in frustration on his way to 33 points over Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament? Or the one where he rose up over Louisville’s David Padgett to knock down that 16-foot jumper, and you saw he’d elevated his game yet again?
At some moment over the last four years, you realized it. You were watching history.
Now it’s over. The next time you see No. 50, it might be on a recording you made, or on a YouTube clip, or in a special photograph you’ve saved. You’ll see it again next winter as it’s lifted into the rafters of one of college basketball’s most sacred spaces. Then you’ll see it every time you enter that hallowed ground and remember.
He’s gone, but the stories remain. You’ll be retelling them the rest of your life …
We have a lot of warriors in college sports.
Football has been rife with military metaphors for years. But basketball, having long ago shed its pretense as a noncontact sport, has its share as well. On some nights in March, announcers searching for the right words might enshrine a dozen or more new members of the warrior class. Some achieve their status for clutch shots in pressure-filled moments, others for big rebounding numbers, and still others for defensive prowess.
Carolina has had more than its share of warriors over the years. Lennie Rosenbluth probably wasn’t the first, though as David prevailing memorably over Wilt Chamberlain’s Goliath in 1957’s triple-overtime thriller, he surely deserves mention. Larry Brown’s legendary fistfight with Duke’s Art Heyman qualifies him as well. Years later, Eric Montross battled through blood to earn his stripes. Antawn Jamison never bled on the court, but he left everything else there—even a parting kiss. And the Tar Heels’ 2005 team was a band of brothers who refused to see their do-or-die quest end without a title. Warriors, every one of them.
What word is left, then, for Tyler Hansbrough?
"There's really no word to describe him,” related Tyler Zeller, still awestruck after a season of watching Hansbrough each day. “It’s amazing playing out there and knowing you’ve got the guy who is going to outwork every other person on the court. He never takes a day or a play off.”
“He's our silent leader,” Ty Lawson added. “Everything he does on the court, everybody should follow. He's [been] our best player—he scores, he's our toughness, we follow him. If he wasn't our leader on the court, I don't know what we would do."
“I guess I’d say tenacity,” Wayne Ellington suggested. “The way he just keeps going and going and going, it’s like he always plays with a chip on his shoulder. I’ve never been around a guy who goes that hard on every single play.”
Indeed, Hansbrough’s place in Carolina basketball lore is secure not just because of the wins he and his teammates amassed, the records he broke, the accolades he earned. Hansbrough is beloved by Tar Heel fans and despised by so many others because every time he stepped on the court, he played as though his life depended on it. Never the most athletic, or the flashiest, he earned everything he received from the game of college basketball because he battled relentlessly.
It’s in his blood and his genes, an instinct nurtured in him since childhood. The middle child, Hansbrough sharpened his competitive urges by wrestling his younger brother Ben. Meanwhile, he took inspiration from the different battles of his elder brother Greg, who survived a childhood fight with cancer and then prevailed through diminished mobility on his body’s left side to compete as an athlete himself.
If you want to see a fighter, Hansbrough regularly reminded people, look at the guy who had the baseball-sized tumor cut out of his brain and went on to run marathons.
Hansbrough’s now-iconic No. 50 is a tribute to his brother, who wore the number first at Missouri’s Poplar Bluff High School. When Carolina honors its greatest battler by raising the middle Hansbrough’s jersey to the rafters next year, Greg will go up there as well.
But wherever Hansbrough’s drive originates, we’ll be struggling for years to adequately describe a work ethic so intense that Hansbrough’s teammates and trainers called him Psycho. How else to capture the passion in those impossibly wide eyes—never more aflame than when he put the back of his hand to a face streaking with blood, his nose crushed by the elbow of a defeated archrival?
By the time all was said and done, even Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged the specialness of what Hansbrough had accomplished, not just against his teams but against the entire college basketball world.
“He's one of the best that has played, not just here, but in the ACC,” Krzyzewski said. “When you think of Tyler, you're going to think of a warrior. You would never say that there was a possession that he did not play…. [It] puts him in a really elite class in the history of this conference. So he deserves all that he gets. He's earned it.”
The way he earned it was mapped on his body like an atlas of every opponent’s attempt to slow him—the angry gash on his arm, the massive contusion above his knee. Reporters would ask him to recall how he got a particular wound, and he’d just shrug. Another day, another battle scar. The way he endured it without snapping in retaliation was, well, crazy.
“I’ve never coached anybody who’s had to face as much on the court as he’s had to face,” Roy Williams recalled as Hansbrough’s senior season drew to a close. “To do the things he’s done with two and three guys hanging off him, and as physical as he’s played…. I find it hard to believe.”
“Somebody asked me if he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” Williams reflected. “No, Michael Jordan worked as hard. Kirk Hinrich on the court worked as hard. [But] Tyler is the most focused. Michael was the most driven to win. Tyler is the most focused to do everything he can to have his body in the best shape it can be and make himself the best player he can
possibly be…. He’s unique in his discipline.”
“Absolutely,” Bobby Frasor says, asked if reality lives up to the myth when it comes to Hansbrough’s steely concentration and will. It started from the first week of freshman practice. “We were running sprints, and everyone was going as hard as we could,” Frasor remembered. “We all start falling out. Danny [Green] fell first, then Marcus [Ginyard] and me. Tyler’s still going. And then he just starts yelling, still going. He wouldn’t quit.” Frasor lets out a low laugh as he recalls his roommate channeling Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in “Braveheart.” “Things like that, that’s where it comes from.”
It’s the very definition of a legend: something or someone so improbable that you’re excused for wondering what’s fact and what’s fiction. While another athlete might surpass Hansbrough’s records one day, the legend will remain, because night-in and night-out, Hansbrough gave us reason to believe that the impossible isn’t.
You say he can’t get that ridiculous leaning push shot of his or the ungainly half-hook to drop against ACC-caliber teams? Wrong. Say he can’t possibly become the first four-time All-American in college basketball history? Wrong again. Say he can’t live in the paint and survive the physical abuse to top a three-point gunner’s record as the all-time scorer in college basketball’s greatest conference?
Will you people ever learn? This is the ironman who literally dragged steel chains around in the summer heat of Chapel Hill, just looking for that extra edge.
Next season, Hansbrough will return during Carolina’s centennial season of basketball to see his jersey retired, his scoring marks secure for a generation and perhaps a lifetime. Though his status alongside fellow greats including Ford, Worthy, and Jordan may be debated for a time, can there be any debate about the unique passion, the unparalleled commitment, the relentless drive that propelled him to the top of the record books and into the pantheon of college basketball royalty?
So here is a modest proposal.
When they retire No. 50 and raise it to the front row of honored jerseys, let’s raise and retire the word “Warrior” as well. Because there will never be another like Tyler Hansbrough.
Shifting his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, for once the legend looked uneasy on the floor where he’d so often dominated. You could just see it in his eyes—he knew he wasn’t going to win this one. With head slightly bowed, he sucked in a shallow breath, swallowed hard, looked into the stands. And then the tears flowed.
Voice trembling, Hansbrough’s normally deep baritone could hardly manage the words. But with his gaze locked a few feet away at the second row of seats, he finally gave in. “Thank you,” he breathed, as his brothers, father, and mother stood to receive the words that ever-so-briefly made Psycho T vanish. In his place stood the student, the son, the sibling, the friend. And as his words were swallowed in the grateful cheers of thousands, with a final wave, he lowered the microphone and gave up the stage.
It took almost four years and 118 wins. But on March 8, 2009, standing near center court at the Smith Center, Tyler Hansbrough finally proved he was human.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting. Let’s be honest: history will not be filled with average fans’ tales of Hansbrough’s surprising off-court charisma, playful jesting with the media, or lively presence around campus and on Franklin Street. Yes, we learned he could bleed. But given the record number of times Hansbrough was knocked mercilessly to the floor, only to hoist his 6-9 frame back up, stride emotionlessly to the line, and knock down two coldly vengeful free throws, his game often seemed more machine than man.
But then there were those moments when the guard dropped. Who can forget the photo of Hansbrough leaping after Bobby Frasor from a frat house balcony into the pool below? Or the arm-flailing, high-stepping victory dance after dropping Virginia Tech with a buzzer-beater in the ACC Tournament? Was it a little goofy? Sure. But it was as real as it was rare, hinting at the underlying character that so many wish they could have seen up close.
Frasor, Hansbrough’s four-year roommate and closest friend on the team, recognizes how Hansbrough’s omnipresent game face might create a false impression. Frasor sums up Hansbrough’s personality as a blend of introversion and an emotional intensity that mirrors the determination with which he plays. Couple that with the fishbowl of living as a major college star, with fellow students and random fans eager to get close, and it can make for some awkward moments.
“Off the court, if you approach him and he doesn't know you, he doesn't like that,” Frasor recalled honestly. “It just kind of adds to his myth. People come up to us at dinner, and they leave saying, 'He wouldn't even talk to me when I approached him and asked for a picture. He wouldn't do this or that.' But it's hard. You have to get to know him, and that's hard too. He's pretty closed off until he sees someone over and over again. And then he'll open up and show more.”
Roy Williams, who knows something about intensity himself, is also quick to remind people that although his star may be guarded around the media, that’s hardly his only side.
“It takes him a little longer to get used to people. Some might call him shy. And when the game’s on the line, or when he’s practicing, or working to make himself better, there’s not much foo-foo at that point,” Williams acknowledged. “But he’s a whacko kid that’s really a lot of fun to be around. Off the court, he’s a wonderful kid. He’s got a great sense of humor. He loves playing tricks on people, [and] he doesn’t mind being the brunt of those jokes himself. ”
When you live with him day-to-day, Frasor explains, you also see the extent to which he’s just a normal college student. For a guy who once considered jumping straight from Poplar Bluff High School to the NBA, Hansbrough has never cultivated an attitude that he’s “big time.” Instead, he has worked hard—and with surprising success—to keep his life free of drama.
It helps, Frasor says, that Hansbrough genuinely loves the simple basics of life as a Carolina student.
“He eats in the cafeteria all the time,” Frasor recalled. “He likes to eat by himself over on the wall by the Library. He's just trying to find a minute to sit and read the DTH. He loves going to Sutton’s and eating there in the morning. He rides his bike around campus. He writes his papers on time, always gets to class on time, never tries to walk in late or big-time you with some excuse."
That doesn’t mean he’s always easy to live with.
“I call him bipolar sometimes,” Frasor said, “because he'll walk in the door and you don't know whether he's going to be laughing, joking around, or if he's going to be serious, downing his fish oil pills, and going to sleep. There’s no halfway. You’ll ask him what he did today, and he says, ‘Nothing,’ and just sits on the couch, not saying a word.”
The image of Hansbrough brooding in his apartment is probably not hard to imagine, but Frasor says he also has a giddy, enthusiastic side that can be downright infectious. “If you catch him at the right moment,” Frasor noted, “then he can motivate anyone. He can make anyone do what he wants to do because he’s that much fun.”
Need a picture? Imagine Hansbrough dragging Frasor and fellow roommate Marcus Ginyard out for a late-night Frosty at Wendy’s, on the stereo Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Hardly the stuff of basketball legend, but Frasor says it's every bit as real as the Hansbrough whose offseason training regime involved pushing cars around the parking lot behind the Smith Center.
“There are times he comes home, and he’ll be like, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go get some ice cream!’” Frasor laughed. “Normally that’s not something you expect to have someone get excited about. But he’s so excited, so adamant about it, you’re like, ‘Okay, let’s go do it.’ And you’ll end up going out and having a great time.”
So what was best about Frasor’s time with Hansbrough? Sure, he mentions the wins, the pleasure of going to battle knowing you’ve got the toughest guy in the fight. But that isn’t what he emphasizes. “It’s the simple stuff,” Frasor said instead. “Stuff like coming down to the gym together, riding in the car, going back to the house and being able to share stories about something funny that happened or something we saw on campus. All that, that’s what I’m going to miss.”
Listening to him, that’s when it hits you.
You may know Hansbrough as one of the greatest Tar Heels in decades—maybe one of the greatest ever. You know the phenomenal determination, the record-breaking statistics. You recall the championship trophies and the national honors. You remember the trainers covering the scrapes and scratches and wondering if they’re trying to hide the indestructible metal frame of the Terminator underneath. You play back in your mind time and again the victories that were only possible because the superhuman warrior willed it.
But this machine, this hero you’ve dreamed up?
He’s another college kid who hits the late-night drive-thru and jams to cheesy ‘80s music. He’s still just Tyler from Missouri, the guy who loves his truck, adores his family, will whip your tail in ping-pong, and can’t wait to go haul a catfish out of some lake somewhere.
Hard to believe? Sure. But that’s why you love him so much.
The media swarmed as usual. Hansbrough and his teammates had just dispatched North Carolina State in the kind of late-February contest that routinely gives fans heartburn on the way to conference titles and top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Though Carolina had prevailed, the 89-80 final score reflected the challenge—a trap game against a lesser but still proud opponent hell-bent on slowing the Tar Heels’ seemingly inevitable march to an ACC crown.
But Hansbrough had dominated again, refusing to be denied, pouring in 20 of his 27 points in the second half. On the way he’d scooted past the legendary “Pistol” Pete Maravich for second on the NCAA all-time list for career free throws made. (It would be two more games before he passed Wake Forest’s Dickie Hemric to become first on the list, grabbing hold of a record that had stood for nearly six decades.) Hansbrough had scored inside, outside, over, around, and yes, through. It was pure All-American, the stuff that leads your fans to call you a legend while the rest of the basketball world calls you four-letter words, holds its breath, and counts the days to graduation.
Having satisfied the reporters with the second or third round of quotes about the significance of showing his best against an in-state foe, Hansbrough looked relieved, ready to hit the ice bath, grab a protein shake, and head for some well-deserved rest. But a few writers lingered, hoping to squeeze a bit more insight from their famously terse subject. One asked whether it bothered Hansbrough in the least that, despite a fantastic run of games against some of the toughest competition in the country, he was at best a distant second behind Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin in discussions for National Player of the Year.
At first he shrugged it off. “He’s a good player. I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”
But the reporter persisted. 'Really, as competitive as you are, it doesn’t bother you when you’ve raised your average in every statistical category this year?'
Hansbrough shifted. His eyes lit, just for a moment. Then he locked them onto the reporter and replied with a dismissive shake of the head. “Come on, man,” he said firmly. “That’s not me. All I care about is winning basketball games.”
And win he did, from his first game against an upset-minded Gardner-Webb team to his last against Michigan State, earning the National Championship he had made his grail. In between, he and his classmates won 124 games, more than any other Tar Heel class in history.
Hansbrough wasn’t alone in winning, of course. But with a shifting supporting cast that at various times featured older upperclassmen, younger protégés, injured teammates, and one of the best backcourts in America, Hansbrough was the anchor. With his senior classmates, he won more games than any other class in UNC basketball history. During Dean Smith’s heyday, his teams were legendary for their 20-win seasons. But under Roy Williams, Hansbrough’s class set a new plateau, part of a group that was the first to notch three consecutive 30-win seasons. Along the way, Hansbrough helped lead Carolina to three straight ACC regular-season titles and back-to-back conference tournament titles in 2007 and 2008.
Among the defeated, few were more humbled than Carolina’s in-state ACC rivals. Hansbrough went 4-1 against Wake Forest, 8-1 against State, and, for the ultimate badge of honor, 6-2 against Duke. College basketball’s greatest rivalry has brought out the best in Tar Heel greats for generations, but few have embraced its passion and owned the opponent like Hansbrough, whose six wins included four at Cameron Indoor Stadium. His remarkable run against the Blue Devils started with taking down J.J. Redick on his senior night in 2006, and it finished in 2009 with a home win that left Hansbrough just shy of Redick’s ACC career scoring mark. Not since the days of Pete Gaudet have the Cameron Crazies suffered such futility on their home court against the Tar Heels.
Two weeks after Hansbrough’s final win against Duke, when he finally topped the sharpshooting Redick’s record, Hansbrough graciously accepted an equally gracious congratulatory call from Redick. But that didn’t mean he had to like it. “To just kind of push away the Duke-UNC thing, to try to get over that, it was a little difficult,” Hansbrough admitted to a reporter after the awkward conversation. “But it was something you have to grow up and do sometimes."
But it wasn’t just the teams against which Hansbrough won. It was the way he won. Though he showed emotion only rarely on the court, in victory there were those glorious times he just couldn’t contain himself. Remember the full throated victory roar after he willed Carolina to that double-overtime thriller against Clemson, stealing the ball and then diving headlong to secure it, ensuring the Tar Heels’ improbable home undefeated streak against the Tigers would endure? Or when he was so pumped he ran down the wrong tunnel after knocking off Virginia Tech for the second straight year in the ACC tournament, waving his arms in victory like a school kid?
“I was just so glad to be playing another day, I didn’t care,” he said afterward with a grin.
While the occasional outbursts of joy delighted those eager to see the big man loosen up a little, Hansbrough also earned respect by regularly refusing to let others make a big deal of his accomplishments. There is an epidemic of false modesty in sports. But Hansbrough is not a sufferer. Instead, his self-deprecating comments, his regular crediting of teammates and coaches first, and his graceful acceptance of the honors that came his way were all genuinely humble.
“He doesn’t realize how good he is, and that is a good characteristic to have,” said Roy Williams. “If we win and he scores eight, he’s going to be the happiest person in the gym. That’s the way he is. He’s interested in his team winning.”
To appreciate the depth of Hansbrough’s humility, you need to think again about what he’s accomplished. It’s dazzling enough to list the Carolina greats he surpassed in the record books, from Phil Ford’s scoring record to Sam Perkins’s career rebounding stats to Lennie Rosenbluth’s free-throw mark. (Remember the first time you saw Hansbrough steal the ball and take it coast-to-coast on a one-man fast break? He now ranks an astounding tenth all-time in career steals.) But think about all the greats who have played in the ACC since its inception. Then ponder for a moment that only Hansbrough has ever been a four-time first-team all-conference selection.
Now picture him wedged at a podium between Phil Ford and Roy Williams after Hansbrough topped Ford’s career scoring mark. As the two elder statesmen traded praise of their younger brother in the Tar Heel fraternity, you could see Hansbrough shrink before your very eyes, embarrassed at all the fuss. Yes, he was clearly honored. Yes, he said all the right things. But one quote from the night stood out. “We had a game and I was trying to do whatever I could to help the team,” he said. “Now I’m glad it’s over, and I’m ready to move on.”
Hansbrough’s steady dominance over four years made it hard to believe the backlash from some in the media as his senior season wound down. That Ty Lawson beat Hansbrough for conference player of the year honors was reasonable given all the speedy guard had done with his own dominant play. That Blake Griffin’s gaudy numbers and impressive athleticism put him at the top of most national Player of the Year ballots was fair as well. But in his senior year, Hansbrough was not selected once as ACC player of the week. And in an outbreak of lunacy, some national writers went so far to suggest that Hansbrough didn’t even belong on the All-America list.
Though Hansbrough seemed to shrug it off, Bobby Frasor didn’t hesitate to share his thoughts on the matter. “I think it’s comical,” he said bluntly. “Ridiculous.”
When award season arrived, however, most of the world had regained its senses, and Hansbrough did what he always seemed to do: rise above. Though some will dispute the comparisons to their grave, Hansbrough’s four years as a first-team All-American puts him in the stratosphere of NCAA legends, rivaling the accomplishments of greats like Maravich, Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor, and Bill Walton.
You won’t hear Hansbrough make those comparisons. But fortunately, his head coach isn’t afraid to sing his praises. What Williams sees—and what fans will remember for generations—is a team-first player of the utmost character, the kind of winner who will be remembered not only for the NCAA title or the individual accolades but for the way he played the game.
“He’s a unique young man. That is the best word that I can use to describe him,” Williams said. “I've said before, and I'll say many times, I've been awfully lucky. He is the most focused individual I have ever seen. The most driven to be the best player he can be, to try to get the most out of his potential, to listen to what his coaches say, and to
try to work on those things. He's just been an unbelievable joy to be with.”
How perfect, then, for player and coach to earn the storybook ending they’d both strived to achieve. As the closing moments ticked away in Hansbrough’s final and most memorable victory, he thrust both hands into the air, then enveloped Williams in an embrace that might have crushed the air from a less robust recipient. Together, they’d done it. And in that final, rapturous moment, there could be no mistake.
Tyler Hansbrough is a winner for the ages.
Tyler Hansbrough was adamant that he didn’t need a national title to legitimize his career, but seemingly everyone outside of the UNC program thought he did. And so as he’d done for four years, the sometimes awkward, always indomitable middle child from Poplar Bluff, Mo. delivered in the only way he knows how—by winning.
There are plenty of people that confront a challenge head-on, but very few that wrestle it to the ground for a quick three-count pin. Hansbrough rose to the occasion various times throughout his career. That’s what champions do—they raise the level of their game and they find a way to win.
And so when it was time for Hansbrough to do what he had to do for this program to cut down the nets in Detroit, he accomplished that mission by stepping out of the spotlight ever so slightly and letting Lawson beep-beep his way to the national title.
“Everybody put their individual goals to the side, and got something accomplished for the team, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said after scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the championship game.
So it’s only fitting that when Hansbrough first exploded with emotion in the title game against Michigan State, it was to congratulate Deon Thompson on a tough and-one shot in the paint that helped build the Tar Heels’ early lead. It was sacrificing for the ultimate goal. That’s what makes a champion, and that’s what Hansbrough did ever since he stepped foot on UNC’s campus in the summer of 2005.
Nearly four years later, those long hours in the gym, those late nights shooting free throws and the vicious physicality that followed him around during his career were met with a loud buzzer with 1:03 remaining in a national championship game that North Carolina would win 89-72. Hansbrough walked off the court in a Tar Heel uniform for the very last time—in victory as a champion.
“The sheer joy that I saw on his face as he came walking towards me to hug me is just indescribable,” Williams would say the morning after.
When Hansbrough accepted the Naismith Trophy in San Antonio last April, there were tears of disappointment and sadness rolling down his face. But when he strolled into UNC’s Ford Field locker room with a freshly-cut net hanging around his neck, pure elation shone through his eyes.
This author has had the opportunity to be in the room when Hansbrough accepted a handful of those national honors, to sit courtside to see him thank the Smith Center crowd and Phil Ford mid-game when he broke the UNC scoring record, and to stand before him as he discussed the awkwardness of taking a phone call from J.J. Redick after setting a new ACC scoring record three months and a day later against Radford.
And at none of those celebrated events was there that outpouring of happiness escaping his soul. Not a single one.
North Carolina’s basketball museum has benefited from Hansbrough’s career achievements as much as anyone, proudly displaying the plethora of hardware that four All-American seasons and a national player of the year award bestows on a young man and his program. But there’s one trophy that the Poplar Bluff, Mo. product will not deliver to the museum.
"This net—I'm not going to give them this net,'' he said, sitting at his locker in the concrete underbelly of Ford Field after winning the national championship, surrounded by a horde of sports reporters. For a split second, those intense, piercing eyes that have built the mystique of Psycho T returned, dissecting the question at hand. "I'll hide it."
Hansbrough may not have needed a national championship to validate his career, but he’s definitely not going to give it back. After a career of thanking his teammates while accepting individual awards, he finally got the opportunity to share his most-prized possession of all with his fellow Tar Heels.
"Who can say they're a national champion?” he asked. “I can."
Mark Simpson-Vos authors the cover story each month for the Inside Carolina Magazine. An editor at UNC Press, he can be reached at email@example.com. Greg Barnes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is InsideCarolina.com's full time beat writer and a monthly contributor to the Magazine.