CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - You love Tyler Hansbrough.
Even if he's likely to light up the home boys, as is the case tonight when he and No. 1 North Carolina visit Penn at the Palestra, you don't hold it against him.
You hated smooth Dukies J.J. Redick and Christian Laettner. You ignored UNC's lumbering Eric Montross and you yawned at Duke's Cherokee Parks.
But Hansbrough, a glaring, bruising junior forward who, somehow, scores and rebounds and hits free throws and doesn't foul out, has your attention - and, more intriguingly, your admiration. It is an unusual phenomenon.
It exists, says his coach, because people like overachievers.
"People identify with the work ethic. The fanaticism. The focus. That discipline," Roy Williams said. "They don't see a guy jumping over the moon and all that. Every play, he works so hard, people say, 'God, that guy - he's taking on three of our guys and he's still being successful.' "
Very successful: He averages 20.3 points and 9.6 rebounds for the 7-0 Heels this season; he is twice an All-America, twice a National Player of the Year finalist and this season's preseason favorite.
You love him probably because of your introduction to him: When, in the regular-season finale against Duke last season, Gerald Henderson broke Hansbrough's nose with a flying elbow or forearm after Hansbrough rebounded a shot and was going up for a layup. You love him because he wanted to fight Henderson with his face a bloody mess, and because he wanted to stay in the game, and because he scored 33 against Michigan State five games later . . . after removing the protective nose mask during the game.
You love him because, earlier in the Duke game, he got whacked in the tooth hard enough to require a postseason root canal - and played on, until the Henderson incident. You love him because he can't decide which hurt more: "The root canal. No, I'd go with the nose."
You love him because, when leaving for the ACC Tournament a few days later, he wore a Groucho Marx mask to hide the injury and to answer all the breathless mask questions: What kind of mask is Tyler going to wear?
You love him because he not only kept the two protective masks he was issued after the incident but, for Halloween this year, wore one of them as his costume.
You love him because he recently added pulling sport-utility vehicles to strengthen his legs as a part of his 6-hour offseason workout regimen, begun after his sophomore high school season. After arriving at Carolina he incorporated a stretching routine that he sometimes performs four times a day. His yelling and screaming during the workouts earned him the nickname "Psycho T"; his lack of flexibility as a freshman earned him the nickname, "Tin Man."
You love him because he likes Nelly Furtado and the video game, "Dance Dance Revolution."
You love him because he eats pounds of sushi for the protein and he gets pedicures. There's not a lot of sushi and the spa treatments in Poplar Bluff, Mo., population 17,000, self-proclaimed "The Gateway to the Ozarks," where tales of his newfound cosmopolitan habits make the hometown locals chuckle.
"They just laugh about it," he said. "Shoot, my bigger brother [Greg] goes with me sometimes to get pedicures. He's all about that now. If people saw my feet, they'd probably feel I'd need more pedicures."
You love him because, when he goes home he plays a game called "Texas-style pingpong with his buddies for hours. The rules: You win two straight points and the other guy lifts his shirt so you get a free spike shot at his gut. You can check it out at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m8AzP-S-ls.
Yes, it hurts: "Last time I came back with, like, 15 welts. When you get on a roll, you can light some people up."
You love him because Henderson's foul was the fifth excessive foul he drew last year. Opponents know when they face Hansbrough - a chiseled 6-9 and 250 pounds - they're in for a long night of dirty dancing under the boards, and he has a target on his back.
"There's more physical involvement when there's two guys who know there's going to be a lot of physical contact," Hansbrough said. "Sometimes, I think some people before the game say the best way to stop him is to bang him up. I'm not sure that works but people say, 'Let's hammer him.' "
Actually, it often works. Hansbrough got clobbered against athletic and physical Ohio State and Kentucky and managed a combined 27 points on 8-for-27 shooting. Athletic and physical - you know, like the NBA players Hansbrough, a projected late first-round pick, has twice declined to join.
You love him because he shrugs his shoulders about his expected struggles at the next level. Williams notes that, over the past two seasons, Hansbrough improved his defensive techniques and shooting skills, but Hansbrough knows his limitations - and how to overcome them.
You love that, too.
"A lot of that stuff - I don't shoot threes, I'm not athletic - hey, I work as hard as anybody," Hansbrough said. "If a guy's going to be more athletic than me, I'm probably going to outwork him or do something to bust him. I'm confident in what I do."
You love him because Williams, who was an assistant at UNC when Michael Jordan played, says: "Michael Jordan - nobody ever worked harder than Michael. The smallest drill, he'd try to kill you. Well, Tyler wants to win every drill."
You love him because he does what he says. He vowed to be a vocal leader this season, and, after a series of botched assignments threatened to lengthen a practice 8 days ago, Hansbrough went nuts on his inattentive teammates after the first punitive sprint.
"He was yelling at everybody. There was no doubt: You'd better get in line or he was going to half-kill you himself," Williams said. "Sometimes, fear motivates you."
You love him because he seems sincere about staying at UNC until he wins an NCAA championship.
"I would [consider leaving], but that's after the title," he said. "Yeah, I think, I feel I want to win a championship before I leave here. The campus grows on me more and more each year. I keep liking the place better and better."
All around the country, the feeling is mutual. *