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

Sep 1, 2004 at 4:00 am
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.

"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?)

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.

"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."

"He has a big heart," Ben says of Greg. "He had to learn to walk again."

Tami Wheat refers to the Hansbrough home as "quite the bachelor pad" -- one that has withstood numerous offers on her part to come over and tidy it up. She and Gene divorced in 1995, after twenty years of marriage. A head-turning former Miss Missouri, Wheat has since remarried. Dr. Hansbrough, the boys' primary custodian, is married to his sons.

"I think the fact that both parents want to do what's best for their sons is the biggest thing," offers PBHS head basketball coach John David Pattillo, who lives across the street from Wheat. "Tami comes from an athletic family and Doc has always played basketball. They're willing to do what it takes for their boys to be successful."

Tami's dad, Roger Fister, spent ten years in the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system. Her grandfather played in the Detroit Tigers' system. Her brother, Sean "The Beast" Fister, is a long-drive world champion who can hit a golf ball 444 yards. (Perhaps not by coincidence, Tyler slugs his driver 360 yards.) And Gene Hansbrough rises at 6 a.m. daily to play pickup hoops with the likes of Webmaster Richard Browne at Three Rivers C.C., the same place where a raw young swingman named Latrell Sprewell began his circuitous route to NBA stardom.

Notwithstanding the empty quick-and-easy-meal boxes that dot his kitchen countertops, with company staying for supper Gene takes great pains to barbecue steaks and cook red beans and rice from scratch. Meanwhile, the boys do what boys do: ogle Jessica Simpson on cable from leather-recliner perches in the family room. As the brothers voice their approval of the pop star's lofty position on VH1's "Hot 100" countdown of celebrity foxes, buddy Phillip Brown sits in the adjacent den, surfing the Internet.

But Brown isn't in search of hot nude shots of Jessica Simpson. He's perusing the Hansbroughs' conveniently bookmarked recruiting Web sites -- Rivals.com, TheInsidersHoops.com, HoopScooponline.com -- and calling out the current status of Tyler's position in the ever-fluctuating nationwide rankings of the class of '05.

As with smut, the obsessive-compulsive lightning of the roundball-recruiting milieu has been bottled by Internet entrepreneurs. Just as a quick Google search can yield scores of options for sating one's craving for porn, hundreds of sites are dedicated to the NCAA niche. Yearn to learn the latest speculation surrounding which dormitory Tyler Hansbrough will occupy in Chapel Hill? You can Google the guy, no problem. Along the way you'll discover that his dream date is Christina Aguilera, that he palled around with Michael Jordan in Chapel Hill and that the coaching staff at Mizzou staged a cheesy jersey retirement ceremony in an attempt to butter him up.

"The trip to Cancun cinched it for the Tar Heels," writes a Tigerboard.com poster who claims to be an insider and operates under the moniker VoiceOfReason. "It gave Tyler time to analyze the whole situation. Tyler really enjoyed his time with Roy Williams, and Gene didn't mind hanging out with Roy and Michael Jordan. I've seen places where people are saying Gene is the one who made the decision. That's incorrect. Tyler made the decision with some guidance from Gene. I can't place any blame on Gene because he was only looking out for his son. Tyler is a Tarheel [sic]. Let's accept that and move on!"

On this day earlier in the summer, Phillip Brown finds Tyler ranked anywhere from second to eighth in the country. Only a few weeks later, after dominating Alabama schoolboy Richard Hendrix on the trip to the AAU Peach Jam, he'll be a near-consensus number one among prep players nationwide.

With the steaks nearly done, Brown and the brothers Hansbrough figure they can sneak in a quick game of Flyer's Up with a miniature football before it's time to eat. Out on sleepy Autumn Road, Ben and Greg needle Tyler for his inability to throw a football as far as Peyton Manning. This is one area where Ben outstrips his more famous brother. Compelled to choose basketball over football in grade eight, he still has a cannon for a right arm, thrusting the tiny ball well beyond his competing receivers' reach near a fence in the neighbor's front yard. Then it's off to the dinner table.

"Nice work, Dad," Ben teases as he tries to figure out which screening of Spider-Man 2 to take in at the multiplex after dinner. "This is way better than Hot Pockets."

Tyler wonders if his father wouldn't mind grilling some hot dogs for dessert.

The good doctor obliges.

When Larry Bird opined that the NBA is a black man's game that needs more white stars to cultivate a fan base, the statement created a hardy initial media buzz, but his words were perhaps more notable for the lack of negative reaction they generated. Magic Johnson and other black stars quickly defended the legendary Celtic's remarks (including his assertion that he took offense when guarded by white players) as a bold statement of fact.

Tyler Hansbrough concurs, as does his St. Louis Eagles head coach, Erwin Claggett (who is black).

"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.

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.

"Every day you play, you risk getting injured," says Gene Hansbrough, who has purchased a sizable insurance policy on his middle son. "If you can secure three generations of family at age twenty, you have to consider that."

The St. Louis Eagles were founded in 1988 to garner attention for St. Louis-area basketball players. The ploy has worked, evidently: 94 percent of all Eagles go on to earn college scholarships, and the club counts current NBA players Larry Hughes and Jahidi White among a long list of alumni that includes current Eagles head coach Claggett, a member of the 1991 team that finished third in the AAU nationals.

An all-conference point guard at Saint Louis University who played professionally overseas, Claggett commands respect because his kids know he can ball. His lone Caucasian assistant, the portly, mercurial Eric Long, receives no such benefit of the doubt.

"He ever play basketball?" asks Eagle guard Arthur Sargent on the walk from the gym to the team bus after an early Peach Jam loss to a team from Memphis.

"No, but I think he got second in a hot-dog-eating contest once," replies Ben Hansbrough. His teammates crack up.

What keeps Long in the Eagles' brain trust is his eye for downstate talent. Along with longtime Eagles assistant Ron "Mr. G" Golden, Long combs the bi-state region for prospects like the Hansbrough boys and Ashton Farmer, a strapping six-foot-six power forward from Charleston High School near Cape Girardeau who is Tyler's toughest intra-conference foe during the regular season.

"It's heated," Tami Wheat says of the Farmer-Hansbrough rivalry.

But on this midsummer day, as the Eagles return to the Peach Jam venue in Augusta for a hotly anticipated contest versus the undefeated Illinois Warriors, Farmer and the Hansbroughs are joshing as if basketball were the furthest things from their minds.

"Throw it up!" hollers Ben, to which Tyler and Farmer, who is black, respond by flashing a scissor-handed faux gang sign meant to signify their Boot Heel allegiance.

Rivals acting chummy is a hallmark of any all-star team. But these Eagles aren't a one-off assortment of schoolboy studs. Playing a half-dozen or more tournaments from March through July, the AAU squad's economical, two-a-day game schedule enables them to squeeze in anywhere from 30 to 40 contests in that four-month stretch, forcing players who are go-to guys on their high school teams to adjust to roles they'll likely have to play in college.

It has taken a few games for Tyler and his teammates to click in Augusta, and the Eagles have opened Peach Jam play with three consecutive losses. The first half of game four against the Warriors gives the impression that the team is about ready to roll over and die. With her sons down 41-26 at halftime, Tami Wheat, resplendent in Capri pants, a stylish denim jacket and pink rhinestone sandals, is being chatted up by an NCAA official. Seated on the opposite sideline, University of Kentucky coach Tubby Smith -- rumored to have been first runner-up in the Tyler Hansbrough pageant -- nods at Wheat, who smiles back. She knows Smith, and likes him, but the two are forbidden by NCAA rules from talking to one another. This, after all, is July, an NCAA "quiet period" during which coaches are prohibited from consulting with recruits or their coaches or parents.

Awkward as it may be, Smith believes the rules are an improvement over the vigilante olden days.

"You used to have coaches waiting in line to talk to a kid," the coach recounts. "We're not prostituting ourselves, so it's better now. But it is unnatural."

In Smith's immediate vicinity are Carolina's Roy Williams, University of Florida coach Billy Donovan, Texas coach Rick Barnes, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Arizona's Lute Olson, the last of whom has been dubbed "Midnight Lute" for his ability to persuade recruits to renege on oral commitments to rival universities hours before signing their official letters of intent. (Mizzou's coach Quin Snyder was barred from attending all but the first day of Peach Jam action, owing to the university's self-imposed sanctions for rules violations involving former Tiger Ricky Clemons.) Ready with a wink and a nod should a boy they're wooing shoot a glance their way, Smith's assessment is correct in that these silent types would never be mistaken for stiletto-heeled denizens of a red-light district. But in their own middle-aged come-hither way, they're still adjunct practitioners of the oldest profession.

The Warriors-Eagles second half starts with two more Illinois buckets, pushing the margin to nineteen points. Ben, who was an end-of-the-bench afterthought in his team's first three games, is in at point guard and appears to have decided that if the Eagles are going to chip away at the lead, he and his big brother are going to be the ones who do the chipping. On consecutive possessions he rotates the ball to Tyler, who had tallied a modest ten points by halftime. Tyler converts both layups, touching off a 22-0 St. Louis run that puts the Eagles up by three with eight minutes to play.

An Illinois jumper finally stops the bleeding. Moments after Ben is removed in favor of sharpshooter Landon Shipley of Lafayette High, Tyler steals a Warrior pass and goes coast to coast for a dunk. On the Eagles' next possession, Farmer receives the ball in the high post and swiftly dishes to Tyler, who uses the rim to shield himself from his defender on an up-and-under stuff. The Eagles lead 54-47 and Tyler heads to the bench for a breather with six minutes left.

By the 1:38 mark, the Illinois team -- which will eventually claim the Peach Jam championship -- has clawed back to even at 59-59. All three of the Boot Heel boys are in the game. Tyler quickly grabs a defensive rebound and outlets to Ben. Steadying the tempo as his big men to assume their positions in the paint, Ben feeds Farmer, who hits Tyler down low for another up and under, this one abetted by a timely pump fake. Fouled on the play, Tyler converts the bonus shot.

Another Illinois miss begets a rebound by Farmer, who feeds Ben for a floater in the lane that salts the game away with 45 seconds to play. With six seconds remaining, Tyler hits two free throws to give him 33 points on the day to go along with 12 rebounds. Farmer finishes the 69-63 contest with a solid eleven points, nine rebounds and two critical assists. And after struggling through his team's first three games, today Ben has tallied four points, three rebounds, two assists and a hard-earned measure of respect from his teammates for captaining the second-half comeback.

The next morning, before the team's final Peach Jam game against the Alabama Lasers, Coach Claggett assembles his thirteen Eagles in a small room in the bowels of North Augusta's Riverview athletic complex.

"There's nothing better than a bus ride home after a win," the coach intones. "Besides, we owe them one," he adds, in reference to a loss at the hands of the Lasers earlier in the year.

Before the team takes to the court, assistant coach Long launches into a soliloquy regarding the type of interior tenacity it'll take to get off clean shots against Alabama's Richard Hendrix, a six-foot-eight, 260-pound man-child whom the pundits had ranked ahead of Tyler at power forward heading into Peach Jam. "You've got to go up strong against Hendrix -- otherwise he will put your stuff on the glass," Long stresses.

As the team prepares to break for pregame warm-up drills, Tyler raises his voice.

His teammates cut the chatter, anticipating a Gipper-esque speech from their stoic star.

"Eric!" he says, fixing his gaze on Webster Groves swingman Eric Jones. "You got that CD?"

Despite the relaxed mood heading in, by halftime the Eagles have dug themselves a ten-point hole and trail 34-24. Tyler, however, is playing a level game and has outscored Hendrix 13-10. More crucial, he has managed to coax two fouls out of his counterpart, putting the Alabama star in a precarious position entering the second half, which commences with Eagles guard Arthur Sargent sticking a long jumper and Tyler dunking in Hendrix's face.

With the Eagles down by six, Tyler draws a third foul from Hendrix. After a few fast breaks stretch the Lasers' lead to twelve, Tyler coaxes yet another Hendrix foul. The Laser luminary is forced to take a seat on the bench, cueing a furious Eagles run that results in a tie score at the end of regulation -- and, ultimately, a 68-63 Eagles victory. And as his players will proceed to prove on a raucous trip home, their coach knows what he's talking about:

There is nothing better than a bus ride home after a win.