By embracing his size, Indiana's 7′2″ center Roy Hibbert has the Pacers soaring to new heights
by Lee Jenkins
In Room 1245 of the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, Roy Hibbert lies on a king-sized bed where he won't actually sleep. There is nothing wrong with it—unless the guest happens to be a 7′2″ center with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. Instead of smashing his scalp into the headboard, Hibbert strips the sheets and tosses them atop an air mattress next to the bed. When his team, the Indiana Pacers, is on the road, he always sleeps on the floor.
The NBA is full of tall men, but the tallest among them are often the most uncomfortable with their height. "You see a lot of 7-footers who only play because they're 7 feet," says Pacers assistant coach and former NBA power forward Popeye Jones. They walk with their shoulders hunched, staring at sneakers that resemble galoshes.
Hibbert is a different breed of big. He savors his size. Born to a mother from Trinidad who is 6′ 1″ and a father from Jamaica who is 6′ 2″, he was nearly two feet long at birth. He dunked in the sixth grade and was 7 feet tall in the 10th. He measured himself daily, adding pencil marks to his bedroom wall. "I learned that when you sleep, air fills in between your vertebrae, so you're taller in the morning than the afternoon," Hibbert says. "I always measured in the morning."
His parents pushed him toward tennis and golf, piano and clarinet. "They thought basketball was for dumb jocks," Hibbert says. But he enjoyed everything about his height — other than banging his head against doorways — and hoops was an obvious fit. He joined a team in the third grade, but because of his extraordinary elevation was forced to match up against much more talented fifth-graders. "Everyone had to play at least one quarter," Hibbert remembers. "So they used me the first quarter and made me sit on the bench the rest of the game."
Hibbert's mother, Paddy, worked for the Boys & Girls Club and knew when NBA players were making appearances near the family's home in Adelphi, Maryland. As a boy, Hibbert got to meet stars like Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, and Dikembe Mutombo, mainly because he stood out in every crowd. He didn't have many friends since most of his classmates lived in different towns. He struggled to concentrate in class and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. His length was his gift and his identity. When strangers asked if he played basketball, he joked, "No, I'm a jockey." When they asked if he feared anything, he quipped, "Yes, heights." He is still endlessly amused by his cartoonish size, posing for pictures in which the camera cuts off his head and snapping selfies in which he's attempting to squeeze into airplane bathrooms. Shaking hands with Hibbert is a near impossibility. You just hope to grab some fingers.
The Pacers have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference this year, and if they are going to knock off the Miami Heat in the playoffs, Hibbert—and his height—will be a key. His size makes it hard for opposing players to score near the basket, and thanks to his play Indiana allows the fewest points in the league. But Hibbert doesn't block a lot of shots. Instead, he jumps in the air with his arms straight up. Under the NBA rules, if he is in this position and makes contact with the shooter, it's not a foul. Not many defenders use the trick, and none use it as well as Hibbert.
"A lot of times I'll go body-to-body with a big guy, and I can either get the foul or get to the rim," says Isaiah Thomas, the Sacramento Kings' point guard. "But because he goes straight up, you can't get the foul, and it's really hard to shoot the ball over him." Thomas is 5′ 9″. Next to Hibbert he looks like he's standing at the base of the Grand Canyon. "You either have to pull up [and shoot a jump shot]," Thomas says, "or you have to go with the floater."
The floater is a shot that is launched high into the air when the shooter is on the move. It's not an easy shot to make, but against Hibbert most players don't have any other choice. "LeBron James never shoots floaters," says one NBA scout. "But against Roy he shoots them all the time. He gets frazzled around him."
Hibbert fears that James will master that little floater, which may be why he asks his teammates to challenge him with the shot in practice. Second-year guard Orlando Johnson always obliges, which leads to a lot of contact. "It's like slamming into a brick wall," Johnson says. "I feel it the next morning. I'm sure he feels it too." So maybe there's a reason that so few other centers have mastered the straight-up defensive technique: Not everyone is willing to accept the pain.
As a child Hibbert's love for basketball never wavered, but his dedication did. He grew up in a row of town houses with a shared backyard, which could be dangerous. Hibbert's father, Roy Sr., drove him to Blockbuster every Friday night and let him rent a video game for the weekend. He was safer inside, with his Sega Genesis and his favorite TV comedies like Seinfeld and The Office. "Then the season would come around and I'd play," Hibbert says. "But when it was done, I'd be sitting right back in my room eating Doritos and watching TV. I wasn't motivated. Things came too easily." Hibbert barely fit in the weight room. He heard about workout facilities but didn't go. He quit AAU.
He committed to play at Georgetown when he was a high school sophomore. The school has a long history of talented big men, and Hibbert heard that one of them had said, "If Roy Hibbert is going to be the Hoyas' center, it will be a long four years."
The stories of Hibbert's freshman year at Georgetown are hard to believe. He could not do a push-up. He could not jump rope. He could not run on the balls of his feet. He could not stand up from a chair without using both hands or complete a back squat without falling down. "His body strength was nonexistent," says Augie Maurelli, who was his strength coach. "Roy was just a very quiet, unassuming kid." A former Hoyas coach referred to him as "Big Stiff" and told Hibbert he'd be the tallest mailman ever.
"Oh, I heard worse than that," Hibbert says. "I remember it all. But I keep it inside." Some in the program wondered if the staff wanted him to transfer. "They said he was slow, goofy, couldn't run and chew gum at the same time," recalls Hibbert's dad. "As a parent that was tough to hear." After one game in which Hibbert went scoreless, the troubled freshman called home from the team bus. "What are my options?" he asked. He thought about transferring. "Mommy and Daddy," he finally said, "I'm going to prove them wrong."
A New Home
Hibbert went to work in the weight room with Maurelli, who counted reps while another coach held the back of Hibbert's jersey to stabilize him. Once they made him spin a hula hoop to improve his coordination, and sometimes they turned up the music and asked him to dance. "Roy was not a good basketball player when he got here," says his coach at Georgetown, John Thompson III. "He could barely move. But he had a caring that was uncanny."
Slowly but surely, Hibbert got stronger and better. He led the Hoyas to the Final Four as a junior and averaged 13.4 points per game as a senior. After he graduated in 2008, the Pacers drafted him in the first round. Indiana has turned out to be the perfect place for him. Not only has he fit in well with his teammates and become a two-time All-Star, but the state is also the setting of one of Hibbert's favorite television shows, Parks and Recreation. He has been a guest on the sitcom three times.
Big men are often funny, rarely fiery, but Hibbert is both. He doesn't back down from opposing players, and if he doesn't think his teammates are playing well, he'll let them know. Last year he called the Pacers "awful" and "soft" after a game they won. He writes messages on post-it notes that he sticks to his bathroom mirror, including one that reads, I'M THE BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER.
Whether the fuel flows from his freshman year at Georgetown or his early days in Indiana, he is finished taking punishment. The time has come to give it out.
Photos: JEFFERY A. SALTER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, RON HOSKINS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES, ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES