Exclusive: UNC legend Tyler Hansbrough on great wins, cheap shots and taking NIT bids

Tyler Hansbrough, the all-time leading scorer at UNC and a national champion with the 2009 Tar Heels, is a lot more vocal than he used to be.

Now 37, Hansbrough was a four-time All-American at UNC. Although he’s more or less finished playing basketball professionally, he has found a new passion in pickleball. Hansbrough lives in Chapel Hill and also dabbles in sports media with his own podcast while he figures out what life after basketball looks like.

For our “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” interview, Hansbrough and I sat in the UNC practice gym adjacent to the Smith Center and discussed his favorite win in a Tar Heels uniform, Gerald Henderson, John Wall, why his NBA career didn’t go as well as he’d hoped and whether this past season’s Tar Heels should have taken that NIT bid they declined. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Scott Fowler: You worked out inside the Smith Center for years after your UNC career ended in 2009. Do you still do that now, and what else are you doing these days?

Tyler Hansbrough: I’ve tried to stay in shape. I love to work out, and I always loved the Smith Center when no one is here. It’s very peaceful.

I still find myself waking up in the morning early to try to get some work done. But I’m just now kind of getting out of basketball. I’ve dealt with some knee injuries lately. My main focus is trying to get healthy and be able to live a life where my knee is not bothering me constantly.

I also do a lot of analyst work. I cover the Tar Heels on my podcast, called “Sleephawk Worldwide.” I’ve enjoyed that. I’m just trying to make the transition out of basketball being my everyday grind.

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Q: Do you consider yourself retired from basketball?

A: I wouldn’t say I’ve made an official statement. But the odds are kind of against me, the way my knee is. I’m not sure my body will allow me to play anymore. I love the game, and it’s been hard to be away from it.

I love the feeling that I would get on game day waking up knowing I’d put a lot of work in, and still not knowing if that is gonna pay off. I love walking into the arena. The crowd, the atmosphere — it was always somewhat euphoric. I will definitely miss all of that.

Q: How are you going to fulfill those competitive urges?

A: I don’t feel like I’m trying to fulfill it. I think I’ve kind of let that go. Right now I might be looking for more balance and having a whole life, because basketball has taken up so much of my life. Finding balance is super important.

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Q: Since you analyze basketball now, what is your opinion on what went wrong with UNC this season? How did a team that went to the NCAA Tournament final in 2022 not even make the field in 2023?

A: There were a couple of factors. I think Brady Manek was a big piece. I thought that he brought a lot of leadership and character to the team last year. He made a huge impact. ... But it’s also a different mentality when you’re ranked (preseason) No. 1.

At times, it seems like they didn’t handle the spotlight or the outside noise well. I just felt like they were putting too much pressure on themselves, instead of just playing hard and having fun as a team.

Q: Should the Tar Heels have accepted an NIT bid?

A: I’m always under the impression that if you can have practices and you can have games — good quality games — you should take that. I’m not knocking their decision. This is just my own opinion about the NIT bid, and I respect what they wanted to do.

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But, you know, if it was me?

I would have played.

They didn’t want to play in it because their goal was to win a national championship. I get that. I understand it. But I think blocking out the outside expectations and the negativity surrounding this team and still being able to play and have practices? That says something. I think it builds character and makes a team stronger.

Now 37, former UNC basketball star Tyler Hansbrough often analyzes the game on his podcast. Of UNC’s decision not to play in the NIT, Hansbrough said: “I respect what they wanted to do. But you know, if it was me? I would have played.”
Now 37, former UNC basketball star Tyler Hansbrough often analyzes the game on his podcast. Of UNC’s decision not to play in the NIT, Hansbrough said: “I respect what they wanted to do. But you know, if it was me? I would have played.”

Q: What was your favorite win of your entire UNC career?

A: My freshman year at Duke (on Senior Night at Duke, in 2006). And it’s not even close. The reason I say that is because that team — there weren’t a lot of expectations. There wasn’t a lot of hype. We had a lot of guys who played hard. Our chemistry was great.

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And to go into Cameron and beat Duke, which was probably the top team in the country? Duke had Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick. J.J. was dominant, one of the greatest college players of all time. And Coach K, too.

That was amazing. I loved college basketball. You see the Cameron Crazies and then you get to go in that atmosphere — I had goosebumps. It was special.

UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough (50) walks through a sea of fans as he enters the court for practice on Wednesday March 18, 2009 in the Greensboro Coliseum. The Tar Heels will face Radford tomorrow in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough (50) walks through a sea of fans as he enters the court for practice on Wednesday March 18, 2009 in the Greensboro Coliseum. The Tar Heels will face Radford tomorrow in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Q: More special than winning the national championship in 2009?

A: For me winning the national championship — it was more like a big, deep sigh. That year was a little bit rocky for me. I was dealing with some injuries. I had a stress fracture in my shin to start the season. It was always trying to get healthy. Coach (Roy) Williams probably pushed me the hardest my senior year. I think that was because he really wanted that team to go out with the national championship. That was definitely the most talented team during my four years.

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Q: In 2007, Gerald Henderson broke your nose on a hard foul with 14.5 seconds left in a game in which UNC was leading Duke by 12 points. Describe the play.

A: We had a pretty good lead going late and I was fouled and went to the free throw line. I missed the second one and was able to get my own rebound. I gathered, pump-faked, went up and was hammered.

I went on the ground and had no clue what happened. And then I reached for my nose and realized I was bloody, and somebody had just hit me in my nose. So my first instinct was to try to go after somebody. ... I didn’t realize how bad it was until (medical staff) told me I broke my nose. There was a ton of blood. I watched the replay, and I thought it was a cheap shot.

UNC fans react after a flagrant foul by Duke’s Gerald Henderson (not pictured) knocked down UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough late during UNC’s 86-72 win over Duke on March 4, 2007.
UNC fans react after a flagrant foul by Duke’s Gerald Henderson (not pictured) knocked down UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough late during UNC’s 86-72 win over Duke on March 4, 2007.

Gerald’s a great guy. I’m over it.

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But that was a cheap shot, and it’s hard to deny that.

It just fueled me even more and I had this vendetta where I was going to get Gerald at some point. NBA or whatever — the next time I saw him.

But that never really panned out. We’re past that. Gerald’s a great dude and we kind of laugh about it now, how many people mention it to him, and to me.

Q: How and when did you get your “Psycho T” nickname?

A: In my freshman year. Jonas Sahratian, our strength coach here at UNC, was a big piece of (my success) and is still one of my best friends.

But my freshman year, coming into UNC I was a very shy, quiet kid. And some of the workouts Jonas will put you through — they’re tough. One day in the workout, to get through it I started motivating myself by yelling and screaming at myself. And so he called me “Psycho T,” as in: “You’re psycho! You don’t say anything and then you come in here and start yelling!”

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And the nickname got so popular that he doesn’t even call me Psycho T anymore. He says it’s too mainstream. He calls me T-Bone now, which was my original nickname from my hometown.

UNC4.SP.031508.RTW--Charlotte, N.C.--UNC Tyler Hansbrough (50) celebrates his game winning shot to give UNC a 68-66 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday March 15, 2008 in the in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament in Charlotte Bobcats Arena. Staff photo by Robert Willett/The News & Observer
UNC4.SP.031508.RTW--Charlotte, N.C.--UNC Tyler Hansbrough (50) celebrates his game winning shot to give UNC a 68-66 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday March 15, 2008 in the in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament in Charlotte Bobcats Arena. Staff photo by Robert Willett/The News & Observer

Q: You grew up as the middle of three brothers in that hometown — Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Tell me about your relationship with your brothers.

A: We’re actually all three different personalities. Both my brothers are my best friends. My older brother Greg — you can’t get him to stop talking. He will talk to anybody. He went through (treatment for a brain tumor) while I was growing up and I saw him overcome that, and that was super important.

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My younger brother Ben, is very competitive. He knows how to get on me. I played basketball with both of my brothers in high school (one was two years older, one was two years younger).

Tar Heel great Phil Ford, congratulates Tyler Hansbrough (50) after he broke Ford’s record for the most points scored in his career, after Hansbrough scored 20 points to lead the Tar Heels to a 91-73 victory over Evansvilleon Thursday on December 18, 2008 in the Smith Center. Staff photo by Robert Willett/The News & Observer
Tar Heel great Phil Ford, congratulates Tyler Hansbrough (50) after he broke Ford’s record for the most points scored in his career, after Hansbrough scored 20 points to lead the Tar Heels to a 91-73 victory over Evansvilleon Thursday on December 18, 2008 in the Smith Center. Staff photo by Robert Willett/The News & Observer

Ben would let me know if I wasn’t playing up to my ability, and it wasn’t really nice. But that’s always been our relationship. He was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, and we even played one year with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers together, which was one of the highlights of my professional career.

Q: You and Ben are both big into pickleball now, right?

A: Yeah. We can’t get Greg to play. If he came out right now, he’s gonna get smacked, because he hasn’t been playing. Ben and I won a doubles tournament over the weekend. It was a big one for us. Our biggest opponent is ourselves. If we lose, 90% of the time it’s an internal meltdown.

Q: Does Ben also get after you on the pickleball court?

A: He gets on me worse. I’ve never gotten nervous before many (basketball) games, but I get nervous before I ever step onto the pickleball court. Ben’s standards for me on the pickleball court are probably close to perfection (laughs).

Former UNC star Tyler Hansbrough said he sees shades of himself in one current Tar Heel.
Former UNC star Tyler Hansbrough said he sees shades of himself in one current Tar Heel.

Q: Was there a close second in your recruitment behind Carolina?

A: Probably Florida or Kentucky. It really wasn’t close, but Tubby Smith was at Kentucky and Billy Donovan was at Florida. I really liked those two coaches, and still do.

Q: How do you look back on your seven-year NBA career now?

A: I wouldn’t say I was satisfied with my career as a whole. I had more expectations. In Indiana, my rookie year got off to a rocky start (due to a worsening of the shin injury he had all season as a senior at UNC). Then my second year I felt like I really had a really good year, but those Indiana teams were pretty good.

I was backing up David West, and you can make an argument that David West at the time was one of the best power forwards in the NBA. In my fourth year, we went to Game 7 with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then I went to Toronto, and that wasn’t a good fit.

Tyler Hansbrough gets a hug from head coach Roy Williams as he leaves the game against Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan Monday April 6, 2009.
Tyler Hansbrough gets a hug from head coach Roy Williams as he leaves the game against Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan Monday April 6, 2009.

Small ball wasn’t something that I fit, and the NBA (began to) really embrace small ball. I wasn’t a 3-point shooter. And physically I’m not 7-foot-1 and jumping off the backboard, and that’s what the NBA wanted. They wanted four wing players that shot the three and then a seven-foot center. I didn’t really fit that mold.

So I wish I would have done better. But I really enjoyed my time in Charlotte (in 2015-16, his final year in the NBA). I loved playing with Kemba (Walker) — he was special. And Steve Clifford was one of my favorite NBA coaches.

Q: You played three years in China after that. Were you there at the beginning of COVID?

A: Yes. And I would have been there longer, if not for COVID. China was a great thing for me. I became a focal point of a team again, which I really enjoyed. I had so many expectations of having a big NBA career. I let the outside expectations bother me a little bit. Then going into China, it didn’t matter because I couldn’t understand what anybody said to me.

As for COVID, I thought it was media hype at first, and then it just seemed like it blew up overnight. The cases kept piling up. And one day I got on a plane and got out (in early 2020), and I’ve never been back.

Tyler Hansbrough says his favorite win all-time at UNC wasn’t the national championship game in 2009 but instead his first game at Duke in 2006, when a Tar Heel team spoiled the Senior Night of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams.
Tyler Hansbrough says his favorite win all-time at UNC wasn’t the national championship game in 2009 but instead his first game at Duke in 2006, when a Tar Heel team spoiled the Senior Night of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams.

Q: John Wall said recently on a podcast that you big-timed him when he took a recruiting trip to UNC and that’s why he went to Kentucky instead of Carolina. Is that true?

A: No. I don’t remember John Wall ever being on a visit here. And I’ve also talked to all my teammates and none of them really even remember him coming around. That’s not a disrespect to John Wall.

But I wouldn’t do that. I don’t believe it happened. I mean the whole story — sitting with my homeboys? Anybody that knows me well knows that would have been my teammates. I don’t know who my homeboys are.

Q: You later tweeted regarding Wall’s decision: “I’m sure the Bank of Calipari had nothing to do with him going to Kentucky.”

A: (Laughs) Now that was something I couldn’t resist. But there’s nothing to that. That was just kind of a joke.

For much more from this interview as well as other “Sports Legends” guests like Steph Curry, Roy Williams, Greg Olsen and Dawn Staley, check out the “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” podcast. The “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” coffee table book comes out in Fall 2023 and is now available to pre-order at a 20% discount at SportsLegendsBook.com.

“Sports Legends of the Carolinas” is a series of extraordinary conversations with extraordinary sports icons who made their mark in North and South Carolina. Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler hosts the interviews for the multimedia project, which includes a podcast, a series of online stories and video and photo components.
“Sports Legends of the Carolinas” is a series of extraordinary conversations with extraordinary sports icons who made their mark in North and South Carolina. Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler hosts the interviews for the multimedia project, which includes a podcast, a series of online stories and video and photo components.