COLUMBIA — Tyler Hansbrough will turn into his madcap alter ego for No. 1 North Carolina tonight in its NCAA Tournament opener.
“Psycho T” will trample the court, rampage down the lane and swarm loose balls.
Who would dare stand up to the 6-foot-9, 250-pound likely national player of the year?
His older brother, Greg, a student at Columbia College.
“Still today when I go home, Greg’s trying to roughhouse me,” said Tyler Hansbrough, the UNC star. “But the tables have turned for him.”
Their little brother, Ben, just watches them fight. “Greg will be the first one to pull a punch,” said Ben Hansbrough, a starting sophomore guard for Mississippi State. “Now after he throws that punch, it’s not too pretty. But he’ll still fight. He may be in a headlock and get beat every half a second, but he’s still trying to fight.”
That relentless attitude has carried Greg Hansbrough, 24, since a malignant brain tumor threatened his life 17 years ago. Although the surgery was successful, doctors thought he might never walk again.
But with love and resolve driving him, he has gone farther than anyone thought possible. And inspired witnesses — his younger brothers — are following his persistent path.
Sports were effortless for Greg Hansbrough when he was a young boy running around Poplar Bluff, 150 miles south of St. Louis. Layups dropped through the net from his left or right hand. With his long, spider-like legs, he won races by yards and the long jump by feet at track meets.
Those left-handed layups started to clang off the rim when he was 7. One night at dinner he couldn’t use his fork with his left hand. His father, Gene Hansbrough, was concerned. He was an orthopedic surgeon and took his son to the hospital to get a CT scan. The results were shocking.
“I saw this big tumor in his head. It was very devastating,” his father said.
They rushed to a hospital in St. Louis the following day. The doctor’s prognosis was dire: The tumor is in an inoperable part of the brain. Enjoy him while he’s here. It’s only a matter of time — six months to a year.
His father could not accept that. He tracked down and phoned neurosurgeons across the country while his son came home from school and collapsed on his bed, complaining about the unbearable pain in his head. After making calls for two weeks, he realized his options were limited. Two neurosurgeons could help him — Dr. Patrick Kelly at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and a doctor in Russia.
Gene Hansbrough got in touch with Kelly, who looked at his son’s records. The doctor thought his new technique could extract the tumor. But since it was located perilously close to the brain’s on-off switch — the reticular activating system — it would be a delicate, potentially fatal operation.
The condition didn’t seem so serious to Greg Hansbrough, however. He thought it was just a prolonged case of the flu. But that perception changed moments before he was wheeled into surgery. Peering up from his gurney, he saw his parents crying in each other’s arms. They paced around, waiting for the news, while doctors operated for more than five hours.
The surgery was successful. But when Greg Hansbrough woke up, he could only hop on his right foot. The doctors weren’t optimistic about his recovery.
He might be able to walk again, they said. But he wouldn’t be able to ride a bicycle, play contact sports or run. His left side was too weak and clumsy.
It took Greg Hansbrough only about one month to learn how to walk again. But the rehabilitation did not pain him the most. He wanted to return home and play with his beloved brothers, Tyler and Ben. They sent him a picture while he was stuck by himself in Minnesota. “When I saw it, I just started crying because I missed them so bad,” he said.
After one month, Greg Hansbrough returned home. He continued to work hard to regain control of his body’s left side. He lifted weights and threw medicine balls in the basement. He got black eyes and a few broken arms. He got a bicycle, went to a baseball field with his father and strapped on a helmet, elbow pads and knee pads. He fell often but soon he was able to smile and say, “Look, Father, I’m riding a bike.”
More medical work was necessary for him after the initial operation. But after getting a shunt in his head, he was playing Tyler Hansbrough one-on-one. “My head was all bandaged up and really tender, but I beat his ass,” he said.
Greg Hansbrough took every opportunity to beat up his younger brothers. One day, Tyler Hansbrough could take the bruising no longer. “Greg, stop hitting me. Stop,” he said.
“Why?” his older brother asked.
“Because my teacher thinks I’m suffering from child abuse,” he replied.
“So I just blasted him again,” Greg Hansbrough now recalls.
The brothers wrestled and boxed and shot paintball and BB guns in the woods. They battled while playing basketball in the backyard.
But some pain arose when Greg Hansbrough was in junior high. Students teased him because he still had trouble performing fine motor skills with his left arm. He cried when he came home. His father set up a punching bag in the basement. “When you feel bad, you go down and punch that bag really hard, really hard, until you don’t feel so bad anymore,” he told his son. Once Greg Hansbrough started to grow into his 6-foot-5 frame, he made sure the ridicule stopped and laid out one of the bullies.
Continuing to defy all the doctors’ proclamations, Greg Hansbrough joined the high school basketball team. But he admits he was “roly-poly” when he was a sophomore and needed to get in shape. So he decided to run.
Gene Hansbrough was surprised. He thought his son would last only two or three weeks on the cross-country team. He was running alongside boys who weren’t as big as one of his legs, his father joked.
Greg Hansbrough dreaded the pain and constant soreness. But during the last meet of the season, the hatred vanished. “I took pride in knowing that what I was doing was really hard and tough,” he said. That spring, he joined the track and field team.
The giant runner was an inspiration at Poplar Bluff High School. Whenever Greg Hansbrough checked into basketball games, the fans stood for an ovation. When he sank one of his right-handed hook shots, they rose again.
Greg Hansbrough had already surpassed doctors’ hopes, but he was determined to reach another remarkable goal. After finishing his first track season, he asked himself, “Why can’t I complete a marathon?”
Hansbrough discovered his passion after completing his first marathon in St. Louis in 2003. He didn’t stop, logging more than 150 long-distance miles by finishing two more marathons and six half-marathons.
He’s planning to make a career out of the distances he has covered. He is studying at Columbia College to be a physical education teacher and track and field coach. He already has experience after spending three years as a student assistant for the University of Missouri track and field team. “They helped make me who I am today,” he said.
But Greg Hansbrough has also influenced others, especially his brothers. They watched him struggle daily to overcome his physical limitations and fight back when they feebly tried to beat him up. Once when Tyler Hansbrough hit his older brother in the leg with a broomstick, Greg Hansbrough retaliated by throwing a bat. When Tyler Hansbrough broke a chair over his older brother’s leg, Greg Hansbrough destroyed the rest of chair over his younger brother’s leg.
That toughness hasn’t worn off. Tyler Hansbrough displayed it during his famous altercation against Duke last season. His nose started to gush blood after Gerald Henderson’s vicious elbow. The incident incensed his older brother. “I wanted to go punch Gerald in the face right then,” Greg Hansbrough said.
When he saw his younger brother in the locker room after the game 10 minutes later, Tyler Hansbrough greeted him by saying, “Dude, did you see me go after him?”
The UNC star has dedicated his career to his older brother. He wears No. 50 in honor of Greg Hansbrough, who had that number in high school.
When “Psycho T” takes the floor for the Tar Heels, he realizes the relative importance of putting a ball through a hoop.
“He comes back and does all these things to prove everybody wrong,” Tyler Hansbrough said. “It just kind of puts in perspective what I do. I’m just trying to win a basketball game.”