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

"Larry Bird is Larry Bird," says Claggett, who coaches the McCluer High School boys' team during the school year. "I understood exactly where he was coming from."

"I feel the same way," says Tyler. "But if you've got game, you've got game."

Tyler Hansbrough's got game, though there are deficiencies in his arsenal. (In fact, he goes so far as to jot down his shortcomings after each tournament.) Still in need of improvement are his perimeter moves, outside shooting, on-ball defense and a nagging habit of dribbling unnecessarily before shooting from close range, which often allows opponents to foul him before he can convert an easy two.

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.

One critique trumpeted by Web pundits rings false: that Tyler lacks athleticism. Any kid who can execute a between-the-legs-in-midair helicopter slam to win his state tournament's dunk contest does not want for raw athletic ability. The critique is lazy, an age-old stereotype of the white basketball player that's as stale as calling black football quarterbacks dumb.

If anything, says Eagles assistant Eric Long, Tyler should maybe open himself up to the prospect of playing more pickup games (according to Gene Hansbrough, Tyler loathes them, in contrast to Ben). Doing so when there's nothing on the line would allow him to experiment and to improve the instinctive nature of his game.

"Tyler's not a fluid athlete," Long elaborates. "He's more of a mechanical athlete. He needs a go-to move in the post, but he'll run through a wall to get better."

That's what makes Hansbrough the number-one player in his class -- and what makes that ranking so peculiar. Most top-ranked prep stars -- like, say, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, the NBA draft's last two number-one picks -- are jaw-dropping athletic specimens who will improve via maturity and refinement of their raw talent.

The NBA has never plucked a player like Tyler Hansbrough directly from the high-school ranks.

In fact, only once did a white American prep player go straight to the pros: seven-foot-one Southern California schoolboy Robert Swift, whom Seattle selected twelfth overall in this past June's NBA draft.

But pure centers, recruiting expert Bob Gibbons points out, have always made pro scouts salivate. Not so white power-forward prospects.

"The thing Robert Swift has is he's a true back-to-the-basket player," says Gibbons, a North Carolina-based scout. "That's a vanishing species. With Tyler, I could see him being a late-first-round pick. But to me, he would benefit from going to college first. He gets a lot of bonus points on sheer determination. Every time he gets the ball inside, he's either going to make the basket or get fouled. His thing is getting offensive rebounds. He's a blue-collar worker who needs to polish his game."

"Of all the elite players I've ever seen, [Tyler] is the hardest worker," observes local broadcaster Frank Cusumano, who played on the undefeated 1979 state champion DeSmet High School team alongside future Mizzou and NBA great Steve Stipanovich. "Rarely do you get white-collar ability with that blue-collar work ethic. You expect that kind of work ethic out of some six-three fringe player who plays offensive line in football and then comes out for the basketball team. You don't expect it from a six-nine gazelle."

In sum, the experts profile Tyler as a dominant hustle player. Best-case scenario: He adds a few inches (his father, who operated on Tyler's ankles after an injury last year, says that's more than likely) and a half-dozen post moves and develops into the next Kevin McHale. Worst-case scenario: He keeps hustling and becomes the next Brian Cardinal. Which really isn't all that bad. Cardinal, a former Purdue University star, recently signed a six-year, $39 million contract with Jerry West's Memphis Grizzlies, based largely on his willingness to crash the backboards and hit the deck in search of loose balls for his previous employer, the Golden State Warriors.

"Right now [Tyler] can always run to the block and score on you or get to the free-throw line," says PBHS coach Pattillo. "He hasn't had the chance to develop the rest of his game. The one thing about Tyler, wherever he goes, is that he's gonna pick up on a lot of things you don't see him do right now, and he's gonna be good at 'em."

If Hansbrough opts to declare himself eligible for the draft next summer, he'll be basing an irrevocable decision on the hyperbolic advice of pro scouts, agents and pundits.

"If you're not guaranteed mid- to high first round, you're really playing roulette," says Randy Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting.

Tyler's situation is far different from that of, say, Darius Miles, the former East St. Louis High phenom and lottery pick whose jump from high school to the NBA was motivated in large part by his family's financial situation combined with his poor academic record. Tyler is a B-plus student who'd be likely to gain admission to a four-year university even without his basketball prowess, and he was born into a financially secure family.

Of course, as his dad points out, there's financial security, and then there's the fiscal Fort Knox showered upon NBA first-rounders.

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