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Grant Wahl
April 15, 2009
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April 15, 2009

A True Blue Blood


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ON THE OFFICE DESK OF HIS CHAPEL Hill home, next to the portraits of his wife and children, North Carolina coach Roy Williams keeps a framed 8-by-10 picture of a young man drenched in his own blood. No, Ol' Roy doesn't harbor a soft spot for slasher films. But he does for Tar Heels senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, and to Williams the photograph—taken a half hour after Duke's Gerald Henderson broke Hansbrough's nose with a flagrant foul in March 2007—symbolizes the epic toughness of college basketball's fiercest gladiator. "He has two cotton swabs up his nose and blood all over his arms and jersey, and he says, 'How do I look, Coach' " says Williams, who can't help but giggle at the memory. "What a goofball."

Mention the photograph to Hansbrough, and he'll flash the maniacal grin of his hoops alter ego, Psycho-T. "I was like, Get a picture of this so people will believe how bloody it really was," he says, during a rare moment of repose in the house he shares with teammates Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard. "It was gushing. It was crazy."

No player in memory has absorbed, initiated and (let's be honest) enjoyed more bumper-car moments in the lane than the 6' 9", 250-pound Hansbrough. Yet even though Hansbrough has banged his way to as many free throws as any NCAA player in the past 54 years (he has converted more than any player in history), that hardly means he's lacking in finesse. "He finishes with a soft touch, but he can do that after being beaten to death by three people in a matter of two seconds," says Williams. "It's like sumo wrestling followed by George Gervin's finger roll."

Hansbrough's individual numbers are good enough (he is the leading scorer in ACC history), but what most impresses rival coaches is that he plays every second as if it were his last. "When we were getting ready to play Carolina [in November 2006]," says Gonzaga's Mark Few, "we'd show clips of him to our guys and say, 'See, this is what we mean when we talk about playing hard.' He's putting out more effort for longer stretches than most college players can even begin to understand."

Hansbrough's credentials are impressive, too, and it's hard not to give him bonus points for squeezing out every bit of his potential, for never coasting, for giving four All-America seasons to the college game during an era in which nobody expects more than one. "Tyler is not even the most gifted player on my team, much less the most gifted player in college basketball," says Williams. "But no one has a bigger heart. No one has more desire than Tyler Hansbrough."

WHERE DOES HANSBROUGH'S COMPETITIVE DRIVE come from? Look at his family. His father, Gene, can still recall the details of the afternoon doubleheader 10 years ago when his two youngest sons went head-to-head despite not playing in the same game. "We had a sixth-grade game, and Tyler scored 46 points," says Gene, an orthopedic surgeon in Poplar Bluff, Mo. "Then we had a fifth-grade game after that, and Ben scored 46 points. And afterward Ben said, 'Tyler doesn't have anything on me now, does he?' "

Competition is everywhere in the Hansbrough chromosomes. Gene was a high jumper at Missouri. Tyler's mother, Tami Wheat, a medical sales rep, is a former Miss Missouri. Ben, as a sophomore, helped Mississippi State advance to the second round of the 2008 NCAA tournament. (He sat out this year after transferring to Notre Dame.)

In many ways the Hansbroughs are college basketball's version of the Manning brothers. Just as Peyton and Eli Manning have an older brother, Cooper, whose pro football prospects were ruined by a debilitating health condition (spinal stenosis), the Hansbroughs say their older sibling—24-year-old Greg—might have become an even better athlete than Tyler and Ben had he not suffered partial paralysis in the left side of his body after undergoing surgery at age seven to remove a life-threatening brain tumor. "It's the fight in Greg that a lot of times has driven me," says Tyler. "I just play basketball games. He fought for his life, and his toughness was incredible."

Greg's parents had taken him to the hospital for a CT scan after noticing that he was struggling to make lefthanded layups that used to come easily. "That tumor was as big as a tennis ball," says Gene, who could find only one U.S. neurosurgeon, at the Mayo Clinic, who was willing to operate. Tyler, who was five at the time, remembers watching Greg learn how to walk again, and later seeing him try to run but fall down and break his arm instead. "I was so young, I didn't realize how tough it was going to be," says Greg. "My main goal was to come back and play Tyler one-on-one." And, in time, he did.

"When Greg came home, the doctors said he'd never ride a bike again," says Gene. "Well, one of the first things we did was get a bicycle and go down to the baseball field. He'd fall off and pick himself up, but eventually he rode that bike. You couldn't tell Greg he couldn't do something. He even played high school basketball. He wasn't a star, but he'd get in a game and, boy, you talk about an ovation." No one cheered louder than Tyler, who later took Greg's number 50 and still wears it in honor of his brother.

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