Hansbrough broke UNC's career scoring record the Carolina way
Tyler Hansbrough broke Phil Ford's career scoring record against Evansville
While the two couldn't have more different playing styles, they both embody UNC
During the spring of 1977, North Carolina coach Dean Smith invited his star guard Phil Ford, who had just completed his junior season, into his office. Smith told Ford that he had done some research on where Ford would be selected in the upcoming NBA draft. Based on that information, he recommended to Ford that he leave school.
Ford didn't even have to think about it. He told Smith right away that he wasn't interested. "At the time, a lot of people weren't doing that, so going pro wasn't something I had even considered at all," Ford says. "The financial situation was different back then as well. At the time, my parents were teachers, so getting my degree was very important to me. The opportunity wasn't worth me not getting my degree."
Last April, Tyler Hansbrough faced a similar decision, but under much different circumstances. Hansbrough plays in an era when not only is it common for undergraduates to turn pro, but in some circles a player is considered a failure if he stays past his junior year. Needless to say, he faced a financial opportunity much greater than the one Ford confronted three decades ago. Hansbrough spent two full weeks torturing himself over the impending decision.
When Hansbrough finally told Roy Williams he wanted to return for his senior year, he felt like the weight of the world was off his shoulders. He was so relieved that he didn't even leave the weight room when Williams asked him to come to his office so they could craft a press release. "It was a stressful process," Hansbrough said in mid-October. "You're thinking about what you're going to do with the rest of your life. Every time I thought about leaving, I thought about how much I'd miss coming home, living with my teammates and doing a lot of the fun things we do. I just felt like coming back would be the best situation for me."
In considering that life decision, it's doubtful Hansbrough gave much thought to the chance he would have to become North Carolina's alltime scoring leader if he returned. Still, given the century's worth of tradition that has reigned in Chapel Hill, it was no small feat that Hansbrough accomplished Thursday night, when he broke Ford's school career scoring mark with less than eight minutes to play in the first half of North Carolina's game against Evansville (RECAP | BOX SCORE). North Carolina has established itself as the gold standard of college basketball, and in the soft-spoken, hard-charging, 6-foot-9 power forward from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, this proud program has a worthy standard bearer.
Ford is correct when he says that people aren't appreciative enough of Hansbrough's skills, but there is no doubt that what sets this young man apart is the intensity with which he plays. If Ford was a classical symphony, Hansbrough is a heavy metal rock concert, powering, jostling, banging, and always, always out-hustling his opponent en route to the basket. It is instructive that while Hansbrough remains ninth on the ACC's alltime scoring list, he is already the league's career leader in free throws attempted. If he stays healthy, he will likely leave North Carolina as the school's alltime rebounds king.
More than anything, though, Tyler Hansbrough deserves this record because he came back to school. This is not to disparage players like Michael Jordan, Antawn Jamison and Rashad McCants who might have had a shot at Ford's mark had they stayed. But at a place like North Carolina, which embodies team play, the scoring record should belong to a four-year player. Hansbrough would probably not have been a top-five draft pick had he left, but it's unlikely he will signifcantly improve his draft status by playing another year. Also, at the time Hansbrough made his decision he was assuming that at least one of his fellow undergraduates, and as many as three of them, would be turning pro, diminishing the Tar Heels' chances of winning a championship. Hansbrough came back anyway, and for all the right reasons.
Ford also points out that because freshmen were not eligible to play varsity ball from 1954-73, a huge swath of mega talents who suited up for UNC didn't have the chance to hold onto this record -- including the man Ford passed, Lenny Rosenbluth, who still holds the school's record for career scoring average (26.9) and is fourth in points scored. Hansbrough is sixth on the school's career scoring average list at 20.2. Still, it takes a special individual to eclipse a record that has stood at a place like North Carolina for 30 years.
Ford remembers little about the night he passed Rosenbluth. He believes he broke the record late in the first half, the game was not interrupted, and neither he nor Rosenbluth had much to say about it. In fact, Rosenbluth wasn't even there that night. When I asked Ford if he still has the game ball, he said he thought he might, but he has moved so much in recent years (he worked as an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks before joining the Charlotte Bobcats last year) that he thinks the ball may be packed away somewhere. "To be honest, I was just happy to get it over with," Ford says. "I didn't want anything distracting from the team."
If the circumstances were different than they were in 1978, the central tenets of the Carolina Way have endured, from Rosenbluth to Ford to Hansbrough. While offering his congratulations to Hansbrough, Ford is quick to add that the career scoring record is the least important mark at North Carolina. "We never cared who scored the ball," he says, "as long as someone with the Carolina jersey got the ball in the basket." Tyler Hansbrough would be the first to agree, even as he jostles and bangs his way towards history.
Seth Davis' book, When March Went Mad: Magic, Bird and the Game That Transformed Basketball, will be published by Times Books in March, 2009.