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Roy Hibbert vs. Roy Hibbert

Roy Hibbert is sweating, the beads gathering along his brow. After a one-hour workout, Hibbert has dressed in a royal blue suit with a gray flower on his lapel to sit before a bank of cameras and about a dozen reporters at the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility. To Hibbert's left are fellow Lakers acquisitions Lou Williams and Brandon Bass. To his right, retired jersey numbers of Lakers centers grace the wall: Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, O'Neal.

Just 18 months prior, Hibbert appeared on course to finish his career in the same rarefied air. He was arguably the MVP of the NBA's best team, the closest thing to a LeBron James stopper, the reason the Miami Heat had to reconfigure an offense that later won titles. He turned "rim protector" and "verticality" into catchphrases. The NBA even chose him to solo star in an "NBA Cares" commercial.

"It's tough to find guys like that, 28 years old, 7-2, that have had that kind of success," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak says proudly.

Yet the Lakers got him for essentially nothing. Reporters lob question after question about what went wrong in Indiana for the two-time All-Star and 2013-14 runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. The Pacers gave Hibbert away in a salary dump for just a second-round draft pick, marking one of the steepest downturns for a player in recent memory.

"The Pacers were pretty up front in saying, 'I have to go in a different direction,'" Hibbert would later tell ESPN.com. He said they told him that if he opted into the final year of his contract, which he did, they couldn't promise him minutes.

The team that rose to prominence in a flash with Hibbert locking down the middle soured on him almost as quickly.

The question is why.


Those that know Hibbert well say that he can be his own biggest obstacle:

  • "He gets on himself a little too hard, too much. We've had conversations about that." -- Jeff Green, Hibbert's teammate at Georgetown.

  • "He gets down on himself and worries about a lot of things that have nothing to do with the way he plays. If he just goes out there and plays, he's a lot better." -- Pacers president Larry Bird in April 2015.

  • "He's harder on himself than anybody will ever be." -- Dwayne Bryant, Hibbert's coach at Georgetown Prep from 2000-04.

  • "There's nobody that can stop Roy Hibbert but Roy Hibbert." -- Justin Zormelo, who has worked as Hibbert's personal statistician and was a basketball manager for Georgetown when Hibbert played there.

Hibbert agrees with all of them. And in more than a dozen interviews with those around the Pacers and Hibbert, every theory of what went wrong has something do with his mood or mentality.

"I feel like I haven't done the best in environments that aren't conducive to me doing well, and I have to do that," Hibbert says. "Because times are going to get tough, and I'm going to have to let things slide off my back. I'm not going to make every shot. I'm not going to get every block. I can't let one play affect me the next two or three times down the court. I have had that happen before."

Former Pacers coach Jim O'Brien, who coached Hibbert from 2007-11, recalls such instances well.

"He went through some really big droughts and lost his confidence at times," O'Brien says. "He lost it one year with me and he really struggled after I left, especially when they were making a run deep into the playoffs. He ran into a brick wall and was never really able to get his mojo back offensively."

Hibbert says he's so hard on himself because he wants to be the best. He wants to be able to look himself in the mirror at the end and say that, no matter what others wanted, he worked hard to make the most of it. It's a message he relays to children -- work hard, results will come.

He can speak from experience. Early in his career, Hibbert had size and little else. When the rail-thin center first came to Georgetown, he was known as "Big Stiff." Legendary Hoyas coach John Thompson told him he'd be the tallest mailman ever.

"Roy had zero rhythm. He was the guy who definitely wasn't dancing at a party."

Mike Hill, Georgetown strength and conditioning coach

When he first arrived on campus, he couldn't complete a single push-up. "He might have been the weakest individual that ever walked the planet when he walked in the door at Georgetown," says Augie Maurelli, former director of strength and conditioning for the Hoyas, now an associate athletics director at Delaware.

He had grown so fast -- from 6-8 in eighth grade to 7-2 as a high school senior, he says -- that Hibbert lacked not only core strength but coordination.

"Roy had zero rhythm," says Mike Hill, the Hoyas' head strength and conditioning coach. "He was the guy who definitely wasn't dancing at a party."

They gave him a hula hoop to increase hip movement and mobility, and taught him to juggle with three tennis balls for hand-eye coordination. Traditional lifting became a top priority, too, and at 7 a.m. every day, Hibbert arrived at the weight room, hungry for more.

But Hibbert struggled at first and would constantly question and critique himself: Why am I doing this? What do I need to be doing? Hibbert would call, text and ask so many questions that Hill finally said, "Just shut up and do it. This is why we're doing it -- because I said so."

"He just wanted to know why," Maurelli says. "As long as we could give him explanations about why we were doing something, he would attack it."

"He definitely asks a lot of questions," says Rob McClanaghan, who has trained some of the NBA's biggest stars and is putting Hibbert through one-hour sessions five days a week this summer. "He's a very cerebral player."

That endless curiosity also led to the moment that changed his career.


The inspiration came during the 2009 NBA Finals, when Hibbert saw a Lakers player drive into center Dwight Howard. Howard jumped straight up, and while there was contact, no foul was called.

Hibbert was intrigued. Frank Vogel, then a Pacers assistant and now their head coach, explained to him the NBA's principle of verticality: A defender can leap straight up to absorb contact from a ball-handler so long as he establishes a legal defensive position before leaving the ground and remains vertical in the air.

Vogel designed a drill in which Hibbert was stationed at the hoop and players at the top of the key and in the corner would attack the rim. His goal was to get three consecutive stops without fouling. It taught him to always jump straight up.

Soon Hibbert would take advantage of this rule like no player the league had ever seen. Just ask James.

In the 2012-13 Eastern Conference finals, when the Pacers took the Heat to seven games, the then-reigning MVP shot 48.4 percent from the field when Hibbert was on the court and 63.6 percent when Hibbert was off it. James also shot just 33.3 percent when contested by Hibbert and 75.6 percent when he wasn't.

James wasn't alone. According to NBA.com SportVU tracking, driving to the hoop against Hibbert the past two seasons was one of the worst decisions that an offensive player could make.

"I'm not going to name names," a prideful Hibbert says with a smirk, "but there were some prominent coaches who were saying, 'You need to get rid of this.'"

Now he sees other centers -- or "disciples," as he calls them -- employing the same tactic.

"I kind of feel like, that was my thing," he says. "I'm the Godfather of that."

Hibbert was the anchor of the NBA's best defense, a cornerstone for a rising contender in the East. But his play and place in the Pacers' system began to slip.

In 2013-14, Hibbert averaged 11.8 points on 46.4 percent shooting before the All-Star break, but just 8.9 points on 39 percent shooting after it. He had four scoreless games in the postseason, leading to torrents of criticism.

Former NBA guard Gilbert Arenas compared Hibbert to a trashcan after a poor game. Former star Tracy McGrady joined in, tweeting, "Me and Roy Hibbert had the same amount of points tonight."

With his confidence shaken, Hibbert used the summer to practice yoga, meditation and Pilates, and was mentored by Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But the following season wasn't much better.

"I can't figure it out because he's a talented guy, he works hard, he's athletic," Abdul-Jabbar would later say. "I don't know what's going on. I'm hoping he turns it around because he's a good person and he's a gifted athlete."

Bird made it clear that the team was going to change directions, telling local media in April that he wanted the Pacers to switch a perimeter-focused, up-tempo game.

"[Bird] changed my life, and I hope people know that," Hibbert says. "I have nothing bad to say about him or the Pacers. I had some great years there."

Says David Falk, Hibbert's agent: "We have a great relationship with Larry Bird. Indiana was great for Roy for most of the first six years. They go in a different direction; we felt we had to go in a different direction. We both came to the same conclusion."


A year after opening his eyes to a new path on the court, the NBA Finals again marked a watershed moment for Hibbert.

Ron Artest walked into his postgame news conference after Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center, where his Lakers had beaten the rival Boston Celtics, with someone special to immediately thank: his sports psychologist, Santhi Periasamy.

"She helped me relax," said Artest, who now goes by Metta World Peace.

He had been a scorer in Indiana and Houston, but World Peace had to take a backseat to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and others in L.A. He was, as he says now, "going through depression because I wasn't in the spotlight as much." He needed help.

"She connected me with my team and gave me a way to understand who I was with and the personalities and to be understanding with who I was with," he said of Periasamy.

After it all paid off, he wanted to thank her publicly -- and send a message to others.

"There's people that need help and I can't reach them privately," World Peace says. "So I thought the best way to do it is publicly and they can take it for what they want and hopefully it could help people. Because I needed that help, and I got the help."

Hibbert was among those watching.

"I felt that when he did that, it kind of opened the doors to make it somewhat OK," Hibbert says. "I think it was great that he actually did that."

Mental health is a subject Hibbert doesn't seem to enjoy discussing. His words come slowly, each carefully chosen. At times, it seems like there's more he wants to say, but he doesn't. He has his reasons, which he declines to share. But Hibbert is interested in the field. He says he first visited a psychologist when he boarded at Georgetown Prep, where he was one of the top high-school prospects in the nation.

"I was a black kid in an all-white school, so I had to deal with some of that stress and pressure," Hibbert told ESPN.com in November 2014. "If I didn't do that back in high school, I probably wouldn't be open to it later on."

He was also an only child, sheltered by two parents who each worked multiple jobs, and admittedly socially awkward, spending much of his time playing video games.

The visits helped Hibbert shed any fear of being labeled as "having a couple of screws loose," a stubborn perception that persists in the world of sports, in which "mental strength" -- however abstract the definition -- is fetishized.

"Stigma is an issue [in the NBA]," Hibbert said then. "But sometimes you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, 'You know, I need help. I may need to look at [therapy and mental exercises] in a different light.' That's how I go about it."

Hibbert saw mental health counselors and a team performance psychologist throughout his career with the Pacers, in large part to discuss the stress that accompanies life in the NBA as a high-profile young player -- the acquisition of wealth, the strain of a career on personal relationship, the pressures to perform.

He says he doesn't have a mental health condition or diagnosis and characterized himself as merely someone who believes in the value of sharing with a professional and engaging in mental exercises whose goals are not unlike physical training. He praised the Pacers' approach, which he says excelled at not making players feel defensive.

During the second half of last season, Hibbert says he experienced "a lot of mental stuff." He started using an app called "Headspace," which guided him through meditative exercises. "You count your breaths," Hibbert says. "You focus on certain things. Even if the mind wanders, that's OK. You just bring it back to that space where you feel positive."

He also picked up a trick from the BBC series "Sherlock," in which the protagonist accesses his "mind palace" -- a mnemonic technique in which the subject transports his thoughts to a place where he stores memories and impressions. These days, he uses the singing of the national anthem prior to tipoff as an opportunity to count his breaths and enter his mind palace.

After learning that some "elite" NBA players have hired their own full-time sports psychologists, Hibbert "decided to put my money where my mouth is" and hire one on a part-time basis.

Hearing that others were seeking assistance gave him confidence that the discussion about mental health in the NBA is moving in the right direction, but he's still unsure if the taboo has been lifted.

"I mean, I don't know if we'll ever get to that point because people just think you're mentally weak," Hibbert says. "And when I'm secure about using it and talking about it, I feel like I'll be OK, but I'm not sure we'll get to that point. ... I'm not sure when we'll get there."

Says Clark Kellogg, a basketball broadcaster and former Pacers vice president of player relations: "It's about finding ways to be at your best and perform at your highest level and all of us have different elements of that that we have to get better at or correct or recalibrate. I don't think there's any shame in that. I think Roy is a very conscientious guy. I think he recognizes what he is and who he is and what he can be. He's working at trying to be his best.

"That's the thing that I've always admired about him -- he's not afraid to work on things he knows he needs to work on."


As a lieutenant in a Maryland prison, Roy Hibbert Sr. has seen his share of grisly situations. He especially recalls seeing youths locked up at the county jail.

"We've got kids there looking at murder," he says.

It left an impression, one he made sure to pass on to his son.

"I used to come home and tell him, 'Please, son, if you get in a fight, just run.' Because I see too many young kids locked up there, looking at life," he says.

Despite his massive size, Hibbert comes across as the gentle sort. By all accounts, he is far tougher on himself than he is on others.

But the center who stresses mindfulness will now be paired with Kobe Bryant, a player notorious for his killer mentality and demandingness of others. In November 2014, Bryant acknowledged how important it is for his teammates to assert themselves, "Because I don't want chumps. I don't want pushovers. And if you're a chump and a pushover, I will run over you." He said this June that he has made his own teammates cry, plural.

Hibbert has already witnessed Bryant's brashness first-hand. The center broke his nose while fouling Bryant in an early 2012 game. Not long after, Hibbert said on a podcast that he talked to Bryant "expecting a little sympathy, and I got none from Kobe."

"Times are going to get tough, and I'm going to have to let things slide off my back."

Roy Hibbert

But Hibbert says he and Bryant have since cleared the air, and that he's "excited" to play alongside him.

"Just being able to play with a great [and] being pushed by somebody that has done it and won five championships. I'm up for a challenge," Hibbert says. "People tell me a lot of different things, how he'll respect me, and I feel like if I go about my business, I can get it done."

"So," Hibbert says before taking a long pause, "it'll be a challenge. But I'm up for it. I'm not going to speculate on other people and how they interacted with him and their relationships, but I feel like if I put my best foot forward in practices and in games, I don't feel like there will be any tension. And I'm the type of person that will be like, 'Hey, if I did something, let's talk it out,' as opposed to just going back and forth every day."

An Eastern Conference executive was optimistic about the pairing. "I could actually see Kobe getting the best out of Roy," the executive said. "I don't think he's ever been pushed before like he will be this next year. And it's a contract year."

When asked what the Lakers can do to create an environment that will help Hibbert be at his very best, Kupchak said their best approach is to keep it simple, with one focus: defense.

It's an approach that Abdul-Jabbar believes is best for his former pupil.

"What works best with Roy is having a clear idea of what is expected of him in specific situations," Abdul-Jabbar says. "Once he's clear on that he can execute flawlessly."

Hibbert says he's comfortable being a one-way player because he believes that the Lakers have enough offensive firepower without him.

Given all that he's encountered over the past two years, all that's led him here to Los Angeles, he feels keeping things simple is in his best interest.

"I feel like when you're in this position, and the money that I do make, and obviously being in the NBA, people are going to look at you, and they're going to have opinions, and the only way to fix that is with what you do on the court," Hibbert says.

"And I've had a year and a half of a down year, so the only person that can change that is me, on the court. That's what my whole goal is -- to change people's perspective by going out there and playing well. I haven't done that in the past."

ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz contributed to this story.