The Debate That Won’t Go Away

By Greg Stoda
Updated: April 5, 2008

SAN ANTONIO — He’s white. He’s a great player, but he wouldn’t be getting all this attention and lavish praise were he black.

So goes the argument in newspaper and Internet columns and in the blogosphere and in chat rooms and in television discussions and in talk-radio debates. The race issue most certainly is out there — barely camouflaged in the familiar he’s-a-hustler code — when it comes to North Carolina 6-foot-9 junior forward Tyler Hansbrough, who’s collecting college basketball Player of the Year honors by the trophy-case full. Friday he was named The Associated Press’ top player.

Hansbrough is a prodigious enough talent to have been recognized as one of the greatest players in the storied history of Tar Heels hoops, which means there’s a whole bunch more to him than his much-lauded work ethic.

But because Hansbrough’s excellence does happen to be rooted in his maniacal approach to competition, his accomplishments should be somehow diminished? And recognition of Hansbrough’s relentlessness on the court should be somehow interpreted as an insult to the game’s great black players?

Well, here’s who North Carolina coach Roy Williams compared Hansbrough to in terms of competitive zeal Friday afternoon: Michael Jordan.

“Michael wanted to beat you in practice, and tell you about it in the locker room,” said Williams, who was a North Carolina assistant during Jordan’s college glory years. “Tyler just wants to beat you.”

Quite a compliment.

So why has his feistiness come to sound like damning Hansbrough with faint praise? Is he a better player than, for best example, Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley?

Depends on point of view, of course, and there wouldn’t/shouldn’t be any legitimate cause for outrage no matter which player happens to pick up which award. That’s true despite most assumptions that Beasley will have a better professional career than will Hansbrough, and by an appreciable margin.

Because those are basketballs made of apples and oranges.

Hansbrough almost certainly benefits from class status (junior to freshman) more than race when it comes to comparisons with Beasley, and he probably benefits, too, from leading a great North Carolina team rather than leading a merely good Kansas State team as Beasley did.

“There shouldn’t be anything racial about it,” said Kansas’ Darnell Jackson, who’ll faced Hansbrough and the Tar Heels Saturday and who played in the Big 12 Conference against Beasley and Kansas State. “They’re both great players.”

Jackson, who’s black, has watched a lot of North Carolina film in preparation for tonight’s game and added this about Hansbrough: “I haven’t seen anybody play harder than him. He’s a totally different machine out there, and I like that. If he hits you, you just have to get up and move on.”

Again, quite a compliment … and with absolutely no slight toward Beasley inferred.

Hansbrough has done his best to let the issue slide, but he’s getting more than a little tired of hearing about it.

“I just ignore that,” Hansbrough said. “It doesn’t have any effect on me whatsoever. I couldn’t care less.”

Seated at his stall in the North Carolina locker room, Hansbrough was turning to listen to another question when he suddenly turned back to finish addressing the notion he’s getting more attention than he would were he black.

“I don’t know how to react to that,” he said. “It’s a ludicrous statement.”

Tar Heels senior guard Quentin Thomas was more outspoken.

“I take offense to it,” Thomas said. “Tyler always makes plays that make us better. It’s insulting to him to say he’s as good as he is just because he plays hard.”

North Carolina assistant coach Steve Robinson, once the head coach at Florida State, knows all about the buzzwords applied to “tenacious” players who almost always are white, not black. The truth regarding Hansbrough, though, is that the description of his fierceness really does fit so well.

“He never takes a day off,” said Robinson, who’s black. “He never takes a possession off. But at the end of the day, Tyler is a player. It’s unfair and inaccurate for anybody to suggest otherwise. I’d be saying the same thing about him if he were black or green or blue or yellow or pink or any other color. Anyone who doesn’t believe that just wants to continue to give the issue legs.”

Is the same thing going to be mentioned next season if Hansbrough returns for a senior year and continues what has been an outstanding college career?

Or might the same thing be said about UCLA freshman center Kevin Love, who’s white and is a very aggressive player and has helped lead the Bruins to a Final Four berth?

Memphis coach John Calipari, who’s white, hopes not.

“Shouldn’t we be past all that in this day and age?” Calipari said. “I’d think the color of the uniform should mean more than the color of someone’s skin. Tyler Hansbrough deserves every accolade he gets. He deserves every appreciation he has received.

“If we’re lucky enough to win our game (against UCLA) and North Carolina wins the other one, we’ll understand we’ll have to deal with somebody in Tyler who does a lot more than just plays hard.”

A certain Tar Heel legend — one with his own zest for confrontation and taste for a fight — probably couldn’t have said it any better.