One-of-a-kind Hansbrough quiets the haters

DETROIT – When it was all over, when one of the greatest careers in college basketball history was complete, Tyler Hansbrough marched into the North Carolina locker room and told everyone to shove it.

He didn’t use those exact words, of course. Still, as Hansbrough stood there with the net dangling from his neck, the newly crowned national champion hinted that the rewards from Monday’s 89-72 thumping of Michigan State were twofold.

The Tar Heels won a trophy.

And Hansbrough gagged his critics.

Forever.

“I silenced a lot of people today,” said Hansbrough, smirking. “There are still going to be a lot of people that hate me. But you know what? I’m a national champion. When they prank call me, I’ll just leave it at that.”

Mild statements for some, but that’s trash talk for Hansbrough, who for four years pursed his lips when fans and columnists criticized his game. And they criticized it a lot.

Overhyped. Overrated. A future NBA bust. “He flops, he whines, he travels every time,” Duke fans chanted. People poked fun at his facial expressions and said he looked like Beaker from “The Muppets.”

All of it became rather ridiculous. We complain about athletes being prima donnas and using college as a pit stop to the NBA. Yet when a player comes along, works hard, stays four years and does it the right way, we rip him for it. It makes no sense.

“Once you’ve been around for a while, people start trying to find flaws in your game,” said Hansbrough’s father, Gene. “They did the same thing with [Florida quarterback] Tim Tebow. He doesn’t care about that. All he wanted to do was to be a part of a winning team.”

And win Hansbrough did, as the school’s all-time leading scorer helped North Carolina advance to consecutive Final Fours.

No victory, though, was as gratifying as Monday’s. Hansbrough finished with 18 points and seven boards in a 17-point victory that felt more like a 40-point blowout.

Coach Roy Williams shared a long embrace with Hansbrough when he removed him from the game with about one minute remaining. Then the two looked each other, did a little shimmy on the sideline and hugged again.

It was the kind of moment Hansbrough envisioned a year ago when he returned for his senior season with the goal of winning a national title.

“I desperately wanted the championship for that young man,” Williams said. “I know that’s corny, but that’s who I am.”

Streamers and confetti danced through the air as Hansbrough climbed the ladder for the celebratory snip of the net. Hansbrough pumped his fist toward the crowd before descending and walking toward the stands, where he pointed at his brothers and his father, who had tears in his eyes.

“It’s amazing to see your son realize his dream,” Gene said from his first-row seat. “This is what he’s wanted ever since he was able to get the ball to the rim.”

Hansbrough actually had a chance to win a national title last year, too, but he and the Tar Heels let it slip away in a loss to Kansas in the national semifinals.

This time he wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.

“Before the game and at halftime, Tyler spoke a lot more than usual – probably more than he had all year combined,” senior Marcus Ginyard said. “He just wanted to make sure this team stayed focused.”

Tar Heels trainer Jonas Sahratian noticed something different in Hansbrough, too, saying that the normally relaxed forward was a little more “edgy” than usual. Sahratian, who was also on Williams’ staff at Kansas, has worked with players such as Nick Collison, Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams.

“He’s as driven as any of them,” said Sahratian, who said he fought back tears while stretching out Hansbrough before Monday’s game. He said he’ll never forget embracing Hansbrough on the court afterward.

“People just see him jump into my arms and think we’re just two guys celebrating, but they have no idea what he’s done to get to that point. He spent so many hours working out and eating correctly. All through the tournament I kept thinking, ‘Don’t let this be Tyler’s last game. Don’t let this be his last game.’

“This is the only way he deserved to go out.”

Hansbrough’s teammates agreed.

“You can easily say he’s one of the best players – if not the best player – in North Carolina basketball history,” guard Bobby Frasor said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see a player like this again. He’s pretty special.

“To stay four years in college and to pass up the opportunity he had to make all of that money, plus everything he does on the court, the way he scores so many ways … everything about him is unique.

“It’s a safe bet you’ll never see another Tyler Hansbrough.”

If that’s the case, then at least the final image of Hansbrough – the one of him at his locker – will be a memorable one. As the paparazzi circled around him, snapping pictures and hanging on his every word, it was hard not to sense the weight falling off his shoulders as he got in the last word against his detractors.

“There have been a lot of good players that have never been part of a national championship team,” Hansbrough said. “I’m part of something special. Say what you want. I’m a national champion.

“I’m validated right now.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 7, 2009