Throughout his life, just the thought of giving up was rejected by Ben Hansbrough’s body like a bad clam, disallowed to poison the system. The former Notre Dame point guard and 2010-11 Big East Player of the Year was notorious for his drive, work ethic and perfectionist tendencies that at times rubbed his Fighting Irish teammates raw.
Ben Hansbrough returns to South Bend as a member of the Indiana Pacers, which take on Chicago at 7 p.m. in their preseason finale
Little was perfect about Hansbrough’s life after Notre Dame, though, which included a broken ankle less than two weeks before the 2011 NBA Combine, being snubbed in last year’s draft, having to settle for playing in Germany and coming within a hair of quitting the game altogether.
But that’s not his style.
“I’m thrilled about the opportunity to come back and play at Notre Dame, said a humbled but confident-as-ever Hansbrough, who recently made Indianapolis’ 15-man roster and will enjoy a South Bend homecoming Friday when the Pacers take on the Chicago Bulls in both clubs’ final preseason tune-up. “It will be a heckuva atmosphere to be back at Purcell Pavilion. I’m thrilled about coming back there and playing in front of the fans, seeing some of my old teammates and kind of relive some old memories on that court.”
The Pacers have until Jan. 6 to offer Hansbrough a contract. Until then, he’ll earn the league minimum while trying to play his way onto the court at point guard. With his brother and former North Carolina star, Tyler Hansbrough, a reserve for Indy, the two have an opportunity to become just the fourth pair of siblings to play together in the NBA.
“I talked to him [when he made] the 15-man roster,” Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “I’m so thrilled and so proud of him. This summer he went from retiring, to wanting to go to grad school, to coaching high school basketball … maybe he was going to start a rock band, I don’t know, to coming back and playing basketball again. That’s our boy.”
It required navigating plenty of adversity and doubt, as well as a chance meeting with a trainer just as tenacious as Hansbrough, over the past 19 months to make it all happen. The journey from South Bend to Indianapolis was over 10,000 miles.
“It was really tough,” said the 6-3 Hansbrough, who averaged 18.4 points per game and shot 43.5 percent from 3-point range as a senior with the Fighting Irish, about the chipped bone and ligament damage he experienced in his ankle while working out before the combine. “I was out for about four weeks. I rushed it — tried to do a really quick rehab — and I went and worked out with teams with kind of a flat tire, I guess you could say.
“It was frustrating because I wanted to prove that I was good enough to be at this level. You work so hard, and it’s your dream to do this as a career and set yourself up for the rest of your life, it was definitely frustrating. By the time I felt I could run and jump a little bit and work out for some teams, there was only like a week and a half until the actual draft.”
His name was never called, which prompted him to take the biggest paycheck his agent could procure in the form of a contract with FC Bayern Muenchen in Munich. Hansbrough, with a bum foot, got on a plane without really knowing what he was getting himself into.
“The situation I went to in Germany probably wasn’t ideal for me,” he now admits. “I think I bit on an offer for the most money without necessarily thinking it was the best fit for me. I went over there nursing an ankle, injured and it kind of bugged me all throughout the year.
“The game is a little different and it takes time to adjust. The way the coach wanted me to play specifically — nothing against the coach — but it was just a little different than the way I’m used to playing.”
A different perspective did open his eyes to the Europeans’ reliance on the pick-and-roll and reading defenses. He combined that knowledge with the lessons he learned from Brey, specifically the art of moving without the ball. What Hansbrough, a sweat junkie who spent hours before and after Irish practices working on his game and conditioning, didn’t get in Germany was a proper workout.
“In Europe the practices are different,” he said. “You never lift weights over there … at least my team didn’t. I didn’t have time to work on my game individually and I wasn’t in the best shape of my life.”
Upon his return to the United States, Hansbrough, who was about to audition for the Brooklyn Nets at a May minicamp, visited his father in Bowling Green, Ky. At an open gym at nearby Western Kentucky University, he met Hilltoppers strength and conditioning coach Brandon Kuhn, who challenged Hansbrough.
“He was like, ‘Come in tomorrow and do one of my workouts and see how you like it,’” Hansbrough recalled. “He ended up destroying me and I really liked it. I was originally going to stay there for like three days and just visit my dad, but I ended up staying there for almost seven weeks and working out with [Kuhn]. I was at about 210 [pounds] when I started summer league [with Indianapolis]. When I got to training camp, I had lost 17 pounds, so I was in really good shape. I got in the top shape of my life.
“I didn’t have a really good experience in Europe, so when I came back I was questioning what I wanted to do. I was able to get back to Kentucky and work out with that trainer and really get my mind back to chasing my dream of the NBA. It has been fun and it has been challenging.”
The Hansbrough brothers last competed together in 2005, when the two propelled Poplar Bluff High in Missouri to a state title over Vashon, the nation’s top-ranked squad. Tyler Hansbrough, a power forward that earned 2008 National Player of the Year honors after finishing as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading scorer, is behind David West on the depth chart. Ben is the Pacers’ third option at point guard for now, averaging three assists and just over four points per game through four preseason contests.
He knows the next step is to climb into the top 12 that dress on a nightly basis.
“I just wanted to come in and prove what I could do,” he said of accomplishing his first goal of making the roster. “You can’t worry about things you can’t control. You can’t get satisfied with where you’re at, especially in the NBA. You can never get complacent. As soon as I feel like I am satisfied, that’s the day I don’t show up with the same edge and I don’t show up with the same chip on my shoulder. I want to have an effect here.
“I’m a rookie in the NBA right now; I am on a team. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to celebrate the small victories, but keep your eyes on the goals you have. I am on the roster, but you haven’t necessarily proven [you should be] out on the court. I think I’m on my way there.”