Why did Tyler Hansbrough’s decide to stay in school for his senior year? The consensus is that he came back to win a national championship for North Carolina. And to atone for the ass-kicking that Kansas put on the Heels in the Final Four the year before. (You might recall, the Tar Heels fell behind by 40-12 to start the game.) That certainly was no way for a great player to end his career. While these reasons make a lot of sense, I believe the reason Tyler played his senior season at Carolina is because of a chance meeting with my Aunt Hallie.
Aunt Hallie and I were all smiles after the Tar Heels won it all in 2009.
Aunt Hallie is in her mid 70’s and has been a Carolina fan for as long as I can remember. She also is a big fan of her nieces and nephews, 3 of which graduated from UNC. She hates Duke, but I’m not sure if that is because of the university or because she was a nurse for 40 years at Durham County General Hospital. Duke Hospital was their rival. Whatever the reason, she watches the Tar Heels whenever they are on TV. If they’re winning, she’ll stay up “until midnight to see my boys.” But if they are having an off night, she’ll walk up to the TV, turn it off and say, “If that’s as good as you’re going to play, I’m going to bed.” I’m sure she was asleep by halftime of that Kansas game.
Aunt Hallie lives in Butner and does most of her grocery shopping at the local Food Lion. But when she has a doctor’s appointment she shops at the Harris-Teeter near University Mall in Chapel Hill. Why do I know this? Because in the spring of 2008, a few weeks after the basketball season, Aunt Hallie called and told me about her trip to the Harris-Teeter.
She said she was pushing her cart through the produce section and noticing how their tomatoes weren’t as red ripe as the ones she grew in her garden when she looked up and saw a very tall man. “This guy was the tallest person I had ever seen,” she enthusiastically said to me. “I knew he had to be a basketball player.”
So Aunt Hallie said she walked over to the man and looked up at him and said, “Do you play basketball?” He looked down at Aunt Hallie, who is about 5’2”, and said, “Yes, I do.”
“I knew it,” she replied. “I knew you were a basketball player. Now tell me, do you play for Duke or for Carolina?”
“I play for Carolina,” he patiently replied.
“Are you sure?”
“Ah, yeah, I’m sure.” Aunt Hallie said he looked at her like she was out of her frickin’ mind, like ‘how could you not instantly recognize me…I’m the frickin’ National Player of the Year.’
“I knew it.” She said again. “What’s your name?”
“Tyler. Tyler Hansbrough.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, Lord have mercy. I can’t believe I’m standing here talking to Tyler. My name’s Hallie.”
“Nice to meet you, Hallie,” he replied.
“I can’t wait to tell my niece and nephews about this. They went to Carolina too. You might know them. Do you know Lisa, Ken and David Oakley?”
“No, I can’t say that I do.”
“Well, I guess you wouldn’t know them. They graduated about 20 years ago.” She said she grabbed his hand and held it and said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here in the Harris-Teeter and I’m talking to Tyler.” She said she squeezed his hand really tightly, patted it and said, “Maybe next time I see you, I’ll know who you are. And who you play for.” She said she let out a loud laugh and said, “I can’t believe I’m talking to Tyler. Lordy, wait ‘til I tell my nieces and nephews who I met in the Harris-Teeter.” She said Tyler smiled again and just looked at her like she was crazy.
Aunt Hallie called me as soon as she got back to Butner. She didn’t call me quicker because she doesn’t believe in cell phones. Or cable TV, for that matter. That’s probably why she didn’t recognize Tyler. The reception on her TV is so bad it’s like watching a game through a Wisconsin blizzard.
The next day, there was a press conference at the Dean Dome where Hansbrough announced that he had decided to forgo the millions in NBA money to stay at Chapel Hill for his senior season. He said that he wanted to continue his college experience and he wanted a chance to win the national championship. He had some unfinished business to take care of. And it wasn’t to cut down the nets in Detroit.
Tyler Hansbrough stayed at Carolina for one reason: To prove to the little old lady at the Harris-Teeter that he didn’t play for Duke. And for that, fans of the 2009 NCAA Basketball Champion North Carolina Tar Heels owe a big batch of gratitude to my Aunt Hallie.
PS: Today is Aunt Hallie’s 76th birthday. She probably will love reading this story. But she’ll be totally pissed I just told everyone how old she was.