That being said, there are limits. Certain things are expected of Duke fans, and one of them is that we're supposed to hate this man:
And I just can't do it. In fact, I'm starting to think he's one of my favorite athletes.
Carolina #50 is Tyler Hansbrough. For four years, he's filled the UNC power forward position, and tonight he'll play in his first national title game. It's been an amazingly distinguished career, and I'll get more into that later, but his skill and success aren't the foundations of my respect. In fact, they only make him a target for the stewing resentment constantly brewing in the core of my brain.
No, I'm a Tyler Hansbrough fan because he's a character.
That's an overused word, and one that's usually attributed to undeserving frauds with 'eccentric' habits like wearing a purple top hat in public. So let me explain my definition, and let me do it in the usual roundabout manner.
When most of us modern folk are kids, there's a point when we try to fashion ourselves into someone cool. Junior High seems to be the common proving ground. The transition is entirely understandable; we're faced with a horrible litany of social measuring sticks, and we think the only way to pass muster is by shifting our image into something more generic and hip. Some people are more successful than others, but either way it's a change from the true, natural personality we were born with. In a nutshell, that's why middle school and high school always disappoint.
If we're lucky and have a sense of humor about life, there comes a time when we stop caring about being cool. We revert to our true character, and life becomes a lot better. (Note: if you never had that moment, you're probably still a jerk.)
And when that stage arrives, when all the stupid baggage from your cool period is finally cast aside, it's packaged with a stunning revelation: some people never changed! When the rest of the idiots (and believe me, I was one of the idiots) were cloaking themselves in fake apathy or weird fashion or whatever, these few individuals stayed as constant as the tide. Everyone probably thought they were nerdy or weird, and the meanest of the bunch let them know it. But unlike the overwhelming majority, it never seemed to affect their behavior.
They didn't have a choice. With people like that, their personalities are so firmly implanted, so totally ingrained, that becoming someone different is unthinkable. They're forces of nature, in their own strange way, and asking them to change is as ridiculous as 'saying to a rainbow: hey! Stop being a rainbow for a second.' (Such is Mango)
In my book, that's a character. And Tyler Hansbrough fits (and breaks) the mold.
The first things you notice about "Psycho T" are his eyes. They're like two beaming flashlights, always wide, half-intense and half-startled. In fact, I think his eyes are the real reason people call him Psycho T. Over his career, I've seen at least ten incidents where referees rush up to him after a hard foul as though he's about to start a melee. And I don't blame them; the minute Hansbrough turns, you notice his glaring, white orbs. It's the look most of us reserve for that split second before we start throwing punches. The refs always put their hands out in a gesture of calm, brace for the explosion, and then realize, 'oh, yeah. He just looks crazy.'
The second thing you notice about Hansbrough is that he carries himself with incredible awkwardness. There has surely never been a better athlete who was so completely devoid of grace. His shoulders are always hunched forward like the tall kid at a school dance who isn't comfortable with his body. He takes long loping strides that make him look like an ostrich. In Division 1 basketball, most of the athletes have a smoothness arising from superior body control. Psycho T, on the other hand, always finds himself in poses like this:
And for all his achievements, he's still the only top-tier player who could possibly conjure this shot, from the elite 8 game against Oklahoma last weekend:
And this sequence is pure comedy:
His emotions, too, are always uniquely raw. There was a famous incident against Duke in 2007 when Gerald Henderson landed a vicious elbow that knocked Hansbrough to the floor and drew blood. It was a dirty maneuver, borne of frustration (Carolina was 14 seconds from victory), and Henderson should have been ejected and possibly suspended. In the video below, watch Hansbrough's reaction. It's a fascinating combination of child-like hurt, surprise, and the kind of anger where it seems like he might cry. There's none of the macho posturing so common to similar incidents in professional sports. There's an innocence about him that seems completely incapable of comprehending Henderson's motivation:
The best part of that, though, comes from a story I read about his brother. In it, there's a brief but revealing section about the two meeting up after that infamous game.
When he saw his younger brother in the locker room after the game 10 minutes later, Tyler Hansbrough greeted him by saying, “Dude, did you see me go after him?”
That wasn't quite my take, but damned if I can't relate. Who among us isn't intimately familiar with that awful post-crisis regret, when you want to believe you reacted better than you did? Pyscho T feels it too, and it's part of why I like him so much; he was constantly being humanized before our eyes.
He always wears his heart on his sleeve. Who else would let this kind of hurt show in a press conference?
On the flip side, his celebrations are as fantastic and hilarious as anything you'll ever see. Without question, the best of the bunch is this bizarre streaking 'dance' (?) after hitting a game-winning shot against Virginia Tech in the ACC semifinals last year.
There's really nothing quite like watching Seth Greenberg's quiet disbelief while Psycho T goes stork-stomping past.
There's a lot to like about Hansbrough. He wears #50 in honor of his older brother, who suffered a brain tumor as a kid. Which, by the way, didn't keep them from kicking each other's asses.
Greg Hansbrough took every opportunity to beat up his younger brothers. One day, Tyler Hansbrough could take the bruising no longer. “Greg, stop hitting me. Stop,” he said.
“Why?” his older brother asked.
“Because my teacher thinks I’m suffering from child abuse,” he replied.
“So I just blasted him again,” Greg Hansbrough now recalls.
He also jumped off a fraternity house last year, which sent the talking heads into an absurd (but all too predictable) frenzy.
And Psycho T freestyle raps, too. (Of course he does.) In this wonderfully awkward interview conducted with his roommate, Bobby Frasor, he lets the rhythm flow at the 4-minute mark.
Basically, Tyler Hansbrough is a loveable dork. And there aren't enough of those in sports. The reason? Unlike us regular folk, most athletes never stopped being cool. It came naturally to them, and now they make their living playing a game. They're idolized by little kids and an unhealthy number of adults. They're rich. Also, the media overanalyzes every tiny thing they do, so it doesn't behoove them to show anything of their true character. It'll just get misconstrued and wind up hurting them.
Look at Derek Jeter. He keeps a squeaky clean image with the media, alternates betweeen dating celebrities and college girls, and never says anything interesting. He's venerated, but not very compelling.
Then there's A-Rod. He also tries to keep up a certain image, but he's an idiot, so he ends up looking ridiculous. Still, his insecurity ensures that he'll never stop chasing that elusive 'cool.'
The preponderance of athletes are like A-Rod or Jeter. Someone like Hansbrough, someone real and completely himself (however odd), is a gift. So without further ado, my toast to a great player and a greater character:
Psycho T, you're a goofball. You're also the ACC's all-time leading scorer, and you've made more foul shots than any other player in NCAA history. You'll finish your career averaging around 20 points per game. And in 4 years, you never once lost at Cameron Indoor Stadium. You owned us.
And even though I'm supposed to hate you, I can't help but think you're great- great for sports, and great for fans. I hope you win your first title tonight. As a Dukie, that's not easy for me to say. But you deserve it, and you will be missed.