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

That Tyler might end up skipping college altogether to enter the pros is the least salacious topic of conversation.

"If I'm a lottery pick, I'm going," Tyler says flatly, in reference to the top fourteen selections in each June's National Basketball Association draft.

Should he decide to make the leap, Hansbrough may well find himself thrust into a spotlight recently created by Larry Bird when the former Celtics star averred that the NBA could use a few more white superstars.

"Ben's a piece of work," his mother says. "But he's a good player in his own right."
Jennifer Silverberg
"Ben's a piece of work," his mother says. "But he's a good player in his own right."
Orthopedic surgeon Gene Hansbrough built his sons a basement fitness room.
Jennifer Silverberg
Orthopedic surgeon Gene Hansbrough built his sons a basement fitness room.

"You know, when I played, you had me and Kevin [McHale] and some others throughout the league," Bird, now an Indiana Pacers executive, asserted in a mid-June interview with ESPN that burned up the wire services. "I think it's good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever."

Poplar Bluff High School is located a mere five blocks from the Hansbrough boys' home, but each drives there separately, with Ben shuttling his workout partner, Phillip Brown, in the Tahoe.

As the boys emerge from their cars in the school parking lot, Gene explains that he allotted each son a fixed sum of money to purchase a vehicle only after he achieved a certain grade-point average. For Tyler this was no sweat, Gene recounts -- the golden child was always sufficiently studious. Ben was more of a clutch performer, if you will.

"When gettin' a car was on the line, Ben was a heck of a student," Gene reports.

Having laced up, the foursome splits into pairs: Ben and Phillip, Tyler and Gene. Ben's workout commences with a slew of jumpers from beyond the three-point circle. Where it will go from there is anyone's guess.

"You're welcome to ask Ben what he's doing today," quips Gene. "Because every day is different."

Not so with Tyler, who begins his regimen without a ball, performing footwork and agility drills. When college coaches saw this routine before an Eagles game at the Nike-sponsored AAU Peach Jam tourney in Augusta in mid-July, they were clearly befuddled. Just what is this kid doing, especially in this flashy day and age?

After an exhaustive set of off-ball maneuvers, Tyler launches into what he calls "five-dribble moves" from half-court, such drives being a liability in his game that he's bent on correcting. He then spends five minutes on a "Mikan Drill" -- a rapid-fire series of layups from alternating sides of the bucket, named for Minneapolis Lakers big man George Mikan.

Next Tyler positions himself on the right block in the key and has Gene throw him 30 passes, followed by 30 more to the left block. Upon receiving each pass, Tyler executes a drop-step move to the hoop, sometimes dunking, sometimes fading away and launching a soft jumper. Following a brief break for a swig of water, Tyler shoots a long set of elbow jumpers, permitting himself to launch three-pointers only after he has made five consecutive midrange shots from six pre-designated points on the floor.

The routine is the same every single time, reminiscent of another rural Missouri schoolboy hero, Crystal City and New York Knicks luminary Bill Bradley.

Meantime, Ben and his workout partner simulate fast breaks along the length of the floor. The younger Hansbrough wraps up a bit sooner than his big brother.

"I'm going to go buy some fireworks," he confides. "Don't tell my dad."

An orthopedic surgeon, Gene Hansbrough spent his entire undergraduate years, med school and residency in Columbia. Part of him wishes he'd settled down in mid-Missouri, but he cites an overriding factor for choosing to raise his boys in Poplar Bluff: "In Columbia, high-school ball is always second fiddle. In Poplar Bluff, high school is the number-one thing."

The Hansbrough homestead is on Autumn Road, a few blocks off Highway 67. Which isn't saying much -- just about every house in Poplar Bluff sits a little way off Highway 67. Perhaps best known as a hotbed for methamphetamine production, Poplar Bluff is more South than Midwest, as evidenced by the proliferation of Waffle and Huddle House franchises that dot its landscape, and by Dr. Hansbrough's self-avowed "SEMO twang."

On approach, it would be easy to mistake the Hansbroughs' capacious driveway for a used-truck lot, what with Ben's Tahoe, Tyler's pickup, Gene's monstrous black Yukon and the family conversion van competing for space.

To the left of the garage is a sport court containing not one but two basketball hoops (one for dunking, the other for shooting). Here the boys can often be found playing a highlight-reel dunk game they call "help side" with their oldest brother, Greg, a twenty-year-old marathon runner who played varsity for the Mules in his day. One difference between Greg's performance and his brothers': Greg is partially paralyzed on his left side, the remnant of a life-threatening brain tumor removed at age six.

"He just used his right hand," Gene says of his eldest son's on-court strategy. "He'd still score. He was very effective."

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