Sports » Sports + Recreation

Roy Hibbert: The Pacers' center of balance


Illustration of Roy Hibbert by Ryan Alvis.
  • Illustration of Roy Hibbert by Ryan Alvis.

It was June 2011, and I was in a Kroger parking lot, dressed head to toe in Pacers gear, including my Roy Hibbert jersey and customary Pacers hat. And I was yelling, screaming, like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

But I was alone. Well, at least no one was yelling along with me. Shopping carts, soccer moms, a puzzled passerby and a camera looking on. And Hibbert himself staring at me blankly.

"Am I doing this right?" I thought to myself.

If I was, Hibbert gave no indication. I ranted about fair weather fans in fair weather towns. About the special bond between the Pacers, their city and, well, myself. And Hibbert just stared. Impossible to judge. Like he was watching his 999th insane fan scream unintelligibly about the glory of basketball.

But I trudged on. For those 30 seconds of adrenaline and unadulterated fanhood, I was focused. I was going to make Roy like me.

You see, being a superfan of Roy Hibbert has its perks. I was vying for a space in Hibbert's Area 55. Each year, Hibbert gives out 55 season tickets - that's his jersey number - to a select number for fans. These fans try out via a sort of American Idol competition for those just brave or uninhibited or desperate enough to dress up in full Pacers regalia and scream without an obvious external cause. Hibbert was the arbiter of the competition; only he could decide who was the most passionate; who most deserved a free seat in the Fieldhouse.

And, yes, you guessed it: I emerged triumphant. Only a week after my tryout, the 7-foot-2 center called to tell me that my buffoonery was successful, and that I would be in Area 55 in the upcoming season. For the remainder of the summer, I was a walking orb of joy.

Establishing one's own fan section may seem narcissistic, but for Hibbert, it's a way of giving back to a fan base that has supported and stuck behind the big man.

Hibbert, 25 and in his fourth year as starting center for the Indiana Pacers, embodies the team's new philosophy. The Pacers have succeeded this year by relying on each other rather than a single superstar or group of egos. Like a team coached by a John Wooden or Bobby Knight, the Pacers are a selfless bunch; no prima donnas welcomed, and leave your self-indulgence at the door.

The team's current slogan, "Indiana's Game. Indiana's Team," is more than just a marketing ploy; a Hoosiers-like spirit informs the team, which is made up of righteous underdogs, and not the overpaid, dare I say it, hooligans of years past, whose off-court (in the stands?) exploits overshadowed the games themselves.

Hibbert's one of those underdogs: A cumbersome and clunky player turned All-Star, Hibbert has improved in key statistical categories, including points scored, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. He's developed into a consistent low-post scorer and anchor for a defense now ranked at No. 9 in the NBA. His team is likewise on the rise: Having been meticulously restructured by team president Larry Bird, the Pacers, at press time, hold the third best record in the Eastern Conference with a mark of 42-23.

Throughout high school and college, Hibbert's detractors thought he was too clumsy, slow and hefty to compete in the professional ranks. When the Pacers traded All-Star veteran Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for the rights to select Hibbert during the 2008 draft, the team was taking a risk on an unproven player.

"He was a seven foot stiff," said Mike Wells, Pacers beat writer for The Indianapolis Star, regarding Hibbert's first season with the team. "He was fundamentally sound, but he wasn't very quick, not athletic, foul prone and emotionally up and down — which is not good if you're a rookie trying to get playing time."

While Hibbert, his teammates and coaches will say his rise as one of the NBA's best centers was achieved through hard work and dedication, such clichés do a disservice to Hibbert, given the complexity of the struggles he's overcome. After a recent practice, I exercised one of my NUVO internship perks and asked Hibbert for an hour of his time to sit down with me, albeit in a much more subdued environment compared to my Area 55 tryout.

We talked about how he overcame the short learning curve of his rookie year. How he survived through working with a coach who underused his skill set. How he learned to use his stocky body to his advantage. How he wrestled with emotions which made it difficult for Hibbert to get over tough games.

And he seemed to open up about his struggles: "At the time I would just keep to myself and let everything boil up inside. I wondered if I really could play in this league."

The Big Stiff

Hibbert's journey in basketball began out of utter boredom and with a little help from his pituitary gland, in his boyhood home of Adelphi, Md., a suburb of D.C. Without entertainment luxuries like cable in his home, his Jamaican father and Trinidadian mother sought ways to keep their only child occupied.

"I was always at home by myself, so my parents had me do soccer or tennis to keep me occupied," Hibbert said. "They wanted me to be really active."

Thanks to Hibbert's rapidly escalating height, basketball seemed a natural choice. In third grade he tried out for a team through the Catholic Youth Organization. He was placed on the fifth grade squad.

He says he made his first dunk as a 6-foot-8 sixth grader. Who knows if that height is exaggerated, but he certainly towered over his teammates. The refs called a technical foul, Hibbert recalled, because they thought his radical height advantage unfair to the undersized opposition. His first years of playing were defined by unfocused fun; he once scored a basket in the wrong goal.

It wasn't until his time at Georgetown Preparatory School, a private academy which prepares many of its students for the rigors of Georgetown University, which Hibbert later attended, that he fully grasped what it would take to polish his game. He began to take practices and workouts more seriously.

"After school, instead of working out with my high school teammate, I'd go work out at Georgetown and get my ass kicked with those guys," Hibbert said.

In high school, Hibbert's height advantage allowed him to score and defend with ease. But, by his senior year, he had ballooned to a sluggish 290 lbs. which made simple tasks, even running, burdensome.

After becoming a Hoya, in the footsteps of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo (all centers with illustrious NBA careers), Hibbert spent six days a week conditioning, slimming down and adding muscle to his wiry frame. But the added muscle wasn't enough for Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, who wanted Hibbert to improve his footwork.

So while the rest of the team was scrimmaging, Hibbert learned dance steps and hula-hooped. Hibbert was so awkward that Thompson's father, a former head coach for the Hoyas who was attending practices at the time, dubbed him the "Big Stiff."

"They didn't think I was gonna be anything," Hibbert said. "I wasn't really producing and they were looking for other guys to take my spot."

But after seeing Hibbert's soft hands and ability to pass the ball, coveted assets for Thompson's offense, he took a chance and added Hibbert to the roster. Hibbert was starting for the Hoyas halfway through his freshman year, when he would average five points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He would improve in all those categories the following season.

But it wasn't until his junior year that Hibbert truly blossomed. That year, the Hoyas won their first Big East Conference Championship in 20 years and went on an impressive run to the Final Four, beating a University of North Carolina team many considered to be the favorite to win it all.

"We were so connected as a team," Hibbert said. "It was all bliss."

While the Hoyas run at a title ended after falling short to Ohio State, Hibbert's stock as a prospective NBA draft pick has never been higher. He averaged close to 13 points and seven rebounds on the season, while shooting a remarkable 67 percent from the field.

But Hibbert was hesitant to leave school early and jump to the NBA.

"I didn't think I was physically or mentally ready," Hibbert said. "People ridiculed me for that. They said I lost millions and that I fell in the draft."

He returned for his senior year and, aside from posting solid numbers on the court, graduated with a degree in government studies, a testament to his family's commitment to education as the cornerstone of success.

But as Hibbert's skills developed, the Indiana Pacers were caught in a downward spiral.

Out of control

Once a 61-win team and serious contender for an NBA title, the Pacers had exploded and imploded simultaneously, thanks to a concoction of bad, but sometimes necessary, decisions.

The infamous Pistons v. Pacers brawl of 2004 in Detroit, plus other off-the-court incidents involving alcohol, guns and strip clubs, eroded the team's reputation, and negatively impacted their player's on-court performance. The retirement of Reggie Miller in 2005 had left the team without a real leader.

So when Ron Artest, a talented but inconsistent player, demanded to be traded the following year, then-president Donnie Walsh (who left the team in 2008) and Larry Bird pressed the "Self-Destruct" button, trading away several players and firing then-coach Rick Carlisle.

The arduous task of rebuilding began, and the selection of Hibbert in the 2008 draft kicked off the team's restoration.

Hibbert says he was aware of Reggie Miller's legacy when he joined the team. But the NBA had changed: Miller was three years removed from his retirement, and the NBA landscape increasingly favored short, quick-footed point guards to dominant big men.

"It's a point guard's league," Wells said. "The way the game is [officiated] now, you can't get up and touch guys, so the defender is at the mercy of the point guard."

Hibbert now has a simple motto for players like Chicago's Derrick Rose who attack the basket: "Don't come in my paint." But during his rookie season, that confidence wasn't there. His few minutes of playing time under Jim O'Brien, head coach from 2007-2011, were marred by fouls and poor shooting. To make his struggles even worse, O'Brien's offense revolved around three-pointers and made poor use of Hibbert's interior presence.

"He was in a difficult circumstance because he was playing for a coach that didn't really have much use for his skill set," said Mark Boyle, who has called over 2,000 games as play-by-play announcer for the Pacers Radio Network. "He is a low-post guy, and O'Brien wanted him to be a facilitator from the top [of the court]."

"There were times I'd be standing around the three-point line thinking, 'What am I doing out here?'" Hibbert said.
The young center got his first start 23 games into the season.

"It surprised me," Hibbert said. "I brought a suit and tie and everything. I didn't think I was going to play."

But in the end, O'Brien's teaching methods didn't help develop his young talent.

"The players were walking on eggshells," Wells said. "They were always worried about the next time O'Brien was going to lash out at them. They were afraid to make mistakes, which is something young players make a lot of."
"Tumultous," Hibbert said when describing his rookie season. "I hit the rookie wall three or four times."

The Pacers went 36-46 in Hibbert's first season, and duplicated that record the following year. Despite improvement from Danny Granger, who, in 2009, became an All-Star the same year he was named the league's Most Improved Player, the team remained inconsistent.


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