The answer to Larry Bird's prayers for a white basketball savior might reside just off Highway 67 in Poplar Bluff

At age eighteen, Tyler Hansbrough stands a lithe six-foot-nine, with short golden-brown hair and a baby-faced complexion. He shaves infrequently, if ever, and speaks in an articulate, subdued manner that all but conceals the drawl peculiar to residents of Poplar Bluff, a blue-collar town of some 20,000 residents situated about a half-hour north of the Arkansas border in Southeast Missouri.

Ben, his little brother, two years and five inches behind Tyler, sports curlier reddish-brown hair and a mild case of acne that pocks his cheeks like the street patter that peppers his speech.

Tyler, who starts at center for the Poplar Bluff High School Mules, last year's Missouri state Class 5 champions, drives a big red GMC pickup truck with a giant sticker of a bucktoothed jackass on its rear window -- homage to the Poplar Bluff High mascot. Ben, a junior point guard, drives a white Chevy Tahoe with tinted windows and custom silver rims that spin even when he shuts off the engine. He would never, not even for a moment, contemplate affixing a cartoon mule to the rear of his rig.

The pride of Poplar Bluff: Brothers Tyler (left)  and Ben 
Jennifer Silverberg
The pride of Poplar Bluff: Brothers Tyler (left) and Ben Hansbrough
Tyler demonstrates the art of the 
breakaway dunk.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tyler demonstrates the art of the breakaway dunk.

"He's a big dork," Ben says of Tyler.

In their free time, Ben enjoys cavorting with friends while Tyler retreats to the solitude of one of the area's local fishing holes.

"That's the Bluff comin' out," Tyler concedes.

When the Mules are on the road or the boys are traveling with their Amateur Athletic Union summer team, the St. Louis Eagles, Tyler prefers to spend his downtime relaxing in his hotel room, while Ben stirs the cultural pot of whatever town they find themselves in.

"Tyler will have nothing to say," says Eagles assistant coach Rich Weaver, "and Ben will be walking around with his shirt off, asking for beer."

Ben's favorite basketball player is Michael Jordan. Tops for Tyler is Seattle SuperSonics shooting guard Ray Allen.

"I like how smooth he is, and his jumping ability," Tyler explains.

When it comes to girls, Tyler says he prefers to play the field. Ben says girlfriends are too much trouble and cracks wise like the adolescent he is.

"Palm, she's always been there for me," says he.

According to their mom, Tami Wheat, Palm isn't the only one. Ben's cell phone, she says, is chockablock with prospective dates to Anchorman, a cinematic favorite among the AAU Eagles.

Asked to compare the two teammates, Wheat says, "Night and day."

"Tyler is very reserved; Ben has more pizzazz," their father, Gene Hansbrough, elaborates. "You'd hardly tell they're brothers. But they play well together."

"He really is a golden child," Wheat says of Tyler. "He's such a good kid, so determined. Ben's a piece of work. But he's a good player in his own right."

Nowadays, if a toddler has a sweet shooting stroke from three feet out on a four-foot Nerf hoop, he'd better watch what he wears.

"I have a huge problem with Ben Hansbrough," an Internet message-board gadfly has posted on Tigerboard.com under the handle Diamond Dave. "A freakin' Broncos shirt? Yep, born to be traitors."

Tigerboard.com is a Web site for rabid fans of the University of Missouri's basketball team, which recently reached the Final Four. Not that Final Four; the one that comprises the lucky quartet of schools deemed worthy of campus visits from Ben's big brother, the top hoopster in the high school class of 2005, nationwide.

Diamond Dave had rooted for Mizzou, banking on family ties. Tyler's father, Gene, had been a high jumper in Columbia in the '70s. And Tyler's older brother, Greg, has just begun classes there, after finishing up at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff this past spring.

But when Diamond Dave posted his terse rant on August 23, word had just leaked out that Tyler would hold a press conference at his hometown high school that very evening to announce he'd selected the University of North Carolina over Kentucky, Kansas and, yes, Mizzou.

Oddly, Diamond Dave was directing his venom at Ben, who has begun to garner his own recognition among NCAA recruiters and Web pundits. Even weirder, he was basing his opinion on a family photo of the three Hansbrough boys taken at ages eight, six and four. Sure enough, little Ben is wearing a Denver Broncos sweatshirt in the snapshot, which Diamond Dave has helpfully linked to.

The link, in turn, pointed to tyler50.com, a Web site operated by a 32-year-old Poplar Bluff computer entrepreneur named Richard Browne. The Tyler-specific site, which Browne took live a month ago with the Hansbrough family's blessing, features several photos of a shirtless Tyler working out alone in the PBHS gymnasium, something he does for upward of two hours nearly every day.

"I have pictures of him that you wouldn't get outside of Poplar Bluff," Browne brags.

Sounds like the boastings of an Internet porn huckster.

In actuality, Browne's site, which he says garnered 11,000 hits in its debut month, has what's probably the most earnest intent of any of the dozens of Web pages that have been hanging on Tyler Hansbrough's every move since the pride of southeast Missouri registered on the national radar last summer. But tyler50.com (the 50 is a reference to Hansbrough's jersey number) feeds the beast, its photos and links circulating through a network of gossipy fan sites and message boards. Over the past several months, legions of borderline-unhealthy hoops aficionados have engaged in cyberspace speculation as to how precisely the Hansbrough family's trip to Cancun weighed in his decision process, spread false rumors that Tyler chose the Tar Heels because his dad and North Carolina coach Roy Williams swapped wives and compared the high-school senior's flirtation with other schools to John Kerry's record in the Senate. (Both are flip-floppers. Get it?)

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