9:00 am, April 23, 2012
Thousands of miles separated Ben Hansbrough from his comfort zone when the former Notre Dame guard embarked last summer on a professional basketball career overseas.
That distance seemingly grew with each passing week after frustrating week as he felt his career drifting from his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA.
So after two stops that included five months in Germany and one in Slovenia didn’t work out, Hansbrough decided he needed to get back to the place where he felt best about his game, a place where it first soared into a different stratosphere. To best chase his hoops dreams, Hansbrough returned to South Bend, signed a lease on an apartment downtown and has become a daily fixture working out at Purcell Pavilion.
“My nature and my personality are that I’m a creature of habit,” said the 2011 Big East player of the year and second team Associated Press All-American. “You don’t realize it when you go through it every day, but when you leave (Notre Dame), you realize what this place meant to you.
“It’s a great atmosphere to be in and not just because of basketball. At the end of the day, I’m back to (chase) my opportunity.”
Hansbrough chases it with a relentless workout routine that expanded after his two seasons with the Irish ended in the spring of 2011. During his college days it was common for him to run through 45 minutes of demanding drills, participate in practice and return that night for even more work.
He’s now in the gym every day — once in the morning and again in the afternoon, usually close to two hours each session. His routine remains much the same but since there’s no reason to save his legs, it’s more intense. As he was during the 2010-11 season, former Irish volunteer student manager Pat Holmes, Jr. is Hansbrough’s workout companion. He drives him through drills and is there as a sounding board if Hansbrough (as he often does) vents any frustration.
“I like to do things my way and there’s a guy who I feel like I worked with when I was at the peak of my game in Pat,” Hansbrough said. “I feel the best when he’s pushing me through workouts.”
Another constant is Hansbrough’s boom box that belts out beats at high-energy, mind-numbing levels and cuts though the offseason quiet of the building. If there’s music bouncing around the arena halls, odds are Hansbrough’s somewhere nearby working up a serious sweat.
It also serves as his not-so-subtle “Do Not Disturb” sign.
“You’ve gotta have the music,” Hansbrough said. “You’ve gotta have the music to go in and get completely lost and get in the zone.”
A difficult journey
Undrafted out of college and unable to give the NBA a good look at his game for myriad reasons — an injury, the league’s lockout, no summer league because of the work stoppage — Hansbrough signed a one-year contract last June to play for Bayern Muenchen, one of the top-level teams in Germany.
The experience slipped south almost immediately.
Training camp that was demanding for even the fittest of players became a daily struggle. Hansbrough tried to prove his value to his new team and to his new coach on a crippled left ankle. He suffered a severe sprain last summer while preparing for the NBA pre-draft camp. The injury forced him to skip the camp and likely led to him going undrafted. Bayern Muenchen also had limited access to its gym, which meant Hansbrough had little time to dive deep into his workout routine outside the grueling practices.
When he was able to go, he felt far from himself. Even now, the ankle remains noticeably larger than the healthy one.
“Trying to play with a bad ankle is like trying to drive with a flat tire,” he said. “You don’t have 100 percent confidence in anything you do.
“It still bothers me.”
Playing a fullcourt game of “21” after a workout last summer in Indianapolis, Hansbrough stepped on the foot of another player and rolled his left ankle. He took three weeks off when three months might have been better.
When his NBA plans fell apart, he grabbed the offer in Germany and went right back to work, no matter the physical cost.
“I never really allowed it to recover,” he said.
Hansbrough appeared in 10 games and averaged 5.5 points, 1.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 13.4 minutes with Bayern. Released on Dec. 23, he caught on a week later with KRKA Novo Mesto in Slovenia’s highest-level league. KRKA offered a fresh start. But after averaging 11.5 points, 2.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 26.0 minutes over four games, Hansbrough, who watched Notre Dame beat Syracuse on his computer from Belgrade, Serbia at 3 in the morning, asked to be released in late January.
The ankle remained such an issue that he thought staying in Europe would cost him another chance this summer at an NBA opportunity.
After six months overseas, his heart still was at home and seldom in Europe. He considered giving up the game altogether, maybe even going to graduate school. In the end, he knew he had to get back to South Bend and get healthy.
“I had to go pursue a dream of mine,” he said. “But if I was going to do it, my ankle also had to be 100 percent.”
Prior to the injury Hansbrough was a likely late-second round NBA draft pick based on his senior season. He averaged 18.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 35.4 minutes per game. He helped drive Notre Dame to a school-record 27 wins. He was a key reason Notre Dame went 14-4 in the Big East and finished in second place, one win shy of a share of its first regular-season championship.
As the Irish sailed as high as fourth in the national rankings and earned a No. 2 seed in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Hansbrough became the face of the program. He was the guy to go to, win or lose, for the hows and whys of what happened.
Going undrafted and the time spent in Europe didn’t weaken Hansbrough’s belief that he belongs in the NBA. During down times this spring, he’ll visit former teammates Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin, who live in the same apartment complex. When they’re not playing video games — Hansbrough is the Mario Kart champion — they’re watching NBA games, albeit a little uncomfortably.
“I’ll be like, ‘Is that Jimmy Butler out there? Remember me ripping through (with a dribble) baseline and dunking on him?’” Hansbrough said of the former Marquette swingman drafted in the first round last summer by the Chicago Bulls. “It’s definitely tough to watch.”
The chase continues
Hansbrough returned to campus in mid-March. There were times when coach Mike Brey would be walking down an arena hallway on his way from practice as the Irish prepared for the NCAA tournament, and he would hear Hansbrough’s workout music blasting from the basement basketball court. Brey would peer in at the familiar scene and remind himself that his former guard, whose drive and demeanor was unlike any player he has coached at Notre Dame, had exhausted his eligibility.
“I love the fact that he wants to make a run at (the NBA),” Brey said. “When people tell him he can’t do something, he’s a killer. He’s got that attitude again. He’s got that look in his eye.
“When he wants to do it, you better get the (heck) out of the way.”
Motivation seldom has been a problem for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Hansbrough. As a sophomore in high school in his hometown of Poplar Bluff, Mo., he was told he’d be nothing more than a good low-major Division I prospect. At his first college stop (Mississippi State), he was told that his game was best as a spot-up shooter.
Even when he became eligible at Notre Dame, Hansbrough was a mystery. Could he be a consistent big-time scorer? Could he lead? He scored 1,044 career points in only two seasons in South Bend (good for 48th all-time) and drove the Irish to their success in 2010-11.
Pigeon-hole him into a specific something, and Hansbrough likely will prove people wrong. He insists that drive comes not from what others say about him or his game, but from within.
“I have no problems with people telling me that I can’t do things,” he said. “But I do this for my own beliefs and my own expectations and what I think I’m capable of.”
Hansbrough believes that he’s good enough and talented enough and driven enough to finish his 12-week rehabilitation program and fight his way onto an NBA team’s roster in time for the summer league, then win a roster spot in the fall. His agent, Jeff Schwartz, has fielded calls from NBA teams interested in signing him to a free-agent contract.
“I’m going to get back above my peak,” Hansbrough said. “There’s no doubt.”