By Lee Jenkins
In Room 1245 of the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, Roy Hibbert lies on a bed where he won’t actually sleep. There is nothing wrong with the bed — king-sized with a 13½-inch mattress, nine-inch box spring, down blanket and enough pillows to soundproof a recording studio — 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 that a Pacers trainer lugs from city to city. He sleeps on the ground, alongside his cellphone, which broadcasts the tranquil tones of an app called Pzizz. Hibbert credits the app for helping cure his insomnia and diminish his postgame dependence on Ambien. He pushes a button and lets a soothing male voice fill the room.
Hibbert is the lone Pacer on the 12th floor, by choice, an only child who still relishes rare moments of solitude. He stood in the rear of the elevator on the ride up, bidding goodbye to teammates David West and Chris Copeland, until he was left with a middle-aged woman who appeared about 5′ 3″ and wore a towel over a swimsuit. She stood in front of him. “Did you enjoy your massage at the spa?” Hibbert asked. His booming baritone emanated from above. The woman turned slowly, cautiously, and tilted back her head. She took stock of the giant in her midst, black-rimmed glasses over his eyes, wide smile across his face. She looked as alarmed as a point guard tiptoeing into the lane. “I was at the pool,” she replied quietly. “It was nice.”
The NBA is populated by exceptionally tall men, but the tallest among them are often the most uncomfortable with their height. “You see a lot of seven-footers,” says Pacers assistant coach and former NBA power forward Popeye Jones, “who only play because they’re seven feet.” They walk with their shoulders hunched, staring at sneakers that resemble galoshes, while general managers scour the globe and wonder why they can’t find any serviceable centers. 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 22½ inches at birth. He dunked in sixth grade, reached 6′ 9″ in eighth, 6′ 10″ in ninth, 7 feet in 10th and 7′ 2″ in 11th. 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, who enrolled him in prestigious private schools, pushed him toward tennis and golf, piano and clarinet. “They thought basketball was for dumb jocks,” Hibbert says. But he enjoyed everything associated with his stature — other than repeatedly banging his head against doorways — and hoops was an obvious extension. He joined a CYO team in 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.” Still, he delighted in the participation trophies. He memorized the intro music to NBA Inside Stuff. He collected basketball cards. “I have Brian Shaw’s rookie,” he claims, “in mint condition.” He was uncoordinated and underdeveloped, but towering and passionate.
Hibbert’s mother, Paddy, was a Human Resources associate for the Boys & Girls Club and knew when NBA players were making appearances near the family’s home in Adelphi, Md. As a boy, Hibbert met Shaquille O’Neal and Juwan Howard, 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, and he struggled to concentrate in class, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. His length was his gift and his identity. When strangers asked if he played basketball, he replied with a straight face, “No, I’m a jockey.” When they asked if he feared anything, he quipped, “Yes, heights.” He is endlessly amused by his own cartoonish dimensions, posing for pictures in which the camera cuts off his head and snapping selfies in which he’s attempting to squeeze into airplane bathrooms. When he attended a UFC fight last summer he tweeted a picture of the unfortunate fan sitting behind him with the message: “Hate to be this guy. … Because I get up to cheer A LOT! #SorryBro.” Shaking hands with Hibbert is a near impossibility. You just hope to grab some fingers.
Indiana boasts the best record in the NBA this season, due mainly to the continued ascent of MVP candidate Paul George, the emergence of triple-double dynamo Lance Stephenson and the evolution of a tightfisted defense that recalls the ’85 Bears. The Pacers’ relentless pursuit of the top seed in the Eastern Conference is inspired by a belief that they will capsize Miami if they just get Game 7 at home. But George and Stephenson, regardless of what the February standings say, won’t outduel LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on their own. Hibbert is the one who scares the Heat into teardrops, simply by doing what always came naturally: stretching as high as he can and embracing every inch.
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