Whenever he dropped by his son's practices at Georgetown, John Thompson Sr. would often take to calling the freshman center, partly in jest, a "stiff." Sometimes Thompson called him by his first name. Sometimes by his last name. And sometimes "stiff."
What came off as cruel was actually tough love and motivation by Big John, especially given the assembly line of regal big men that passed through the school. Therefore, the raw, clumsy and sensitive kid had to take the abuse and grow up rapidly in order to get the respect of the man who coached Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo.
Sure enough, two years later, when the big kid stopped tripping over his yacht-sized sneakers and learned how to impact a game and made himself into a first-round pick in the NBA, he pulled Thompson aside and declared, "a stiff no more" to which Thompson replied, "I know."
Well. Guess what? Here in his sixth season, when he should be an established and solid NBA center, if only by default, Roy Hibbert is playing like a stiff again.
A big, pouty, moaning, complaining, finger-pointing, soft, unmotivated, confidence-lacking stiff who, if he keeps this up, will cost the Pacers any chance of going deep into the post-season.
They've lost 13 of their last 23 games and after doing some soul-searching prior to the playoffs, delivered a clunker in Game 1 against the Hawks, raising serious and further doubt about their status as contenders. Their coach has tried everything: getting mad, being sympathetic, driving them hard, giving them breaks, and nothing's working. They've held every meeting possible. Right now they're a shaky 1-seed coming off a half-dozen wipeouts in the last month and is scaring absolutely no one in the East, except maybe their fans.
"We'll find out what we're made of," said Hibbert.
He's not the team's best player and therefore doesn't carry most of the burden in turning this around, yet nobody on the roster defines the fractured state of the Pacers more than Hibbert. He should be destroying what passes for big men in the East, especially on the Hawks, who aren't even suiting up a prototypical center in this first-round series. The Hawks don't even have Al Horford, a power forward pretending to be a center, out with a bum shoulder. And yet Horford almost has as many rebounds as Hibbert. Through one game of this series, and over the last few months actually, Hibbert has stiffed up the joint. He isn't rebounding, or scoring, or being a disrupting menace defensively as before. At times he's a liability on the floor, something the Pacers can ill afford, not since their season began going up in flames right after the All-Star break.
It's hard to imagine that, just a year ago this time, Hibbert was one of the true breakout players in the entire playoffs, a big man on the verge of stardom. Teams were game planning for him, worrying about him as much as Paul George. Not only was the Big Fella roaming the paint like a human air traffic controller -- who could forget his epic block of Carmelo Anthony at the rim? - but he settled into an offensive groove, too, proof that his off-season workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon weren't wasted.
Hibbert averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks last year in the playoffs. He had to be respected on both ends. He forced the Heat last summer to roll the dice on Greg Oden in order to find someone to slow Hibbert down this season. Remember that? Hibbert had Pat Riley rummaging through the bargain bin looking desperately for a Hibbert Stopper. As we've seen lately, however, the player stopping Hibbert is Hibbert.
His player efficiency rating, if you're into that sort of thing, is 13.54. There are 47 centers with higher ratings. Who knew there were even that many centers in the league? The Bucks have two centers with higher ratings. The Bucks!
Since February he's been benched twice and lost the trust of his teammates offensively. They don't even look for him anymore unless he's standing alone under the basket and flapping his arms, and even then, excuse them if there's a hesitation. Hibbert shot 44 percent on the year, astonishing for someone 7-foot-2. His shot was blocked not once, but twice in Game 1 by Kyle Korver. He may never be efficient with the ball because his reflexes and footwork are sluggish. Still, Hibbert showed a somewhat trusty baby hook shot last season and a desire to get deep position in the post. That's all disappeared and Hibbert too often is caught out of his comfort zone.
His scoring issues are hurting a team that struggles to score and too often must lean on defense to bail itself out. That said, the Pacers could live with his 44 percent if Hibbert could rebound, which he isn't. One of the fallacies of any campaign to give Hibbert the defensive player of the year award is his inability to grab defensive rebounds. He's yanking just four a game, again, unacceptable for a seven-footer who plays 30 minutes a night and close to the rim.
Hibbert doesn't naturally or aggressively fetch rebounds. Too often, he's beaten to the ball by smaller, quicker, hungrier players. And perhaps Hibbert is guilty of leaving the rebounding work to David West, Paul George and Lance Stephenson. But if he isn't scoring or rebounding, is Hibbert really worth being on the floor to block and alter a handful of shots per game?
That's something coach Frank Vogel must think long and hard about this series, because the Hawks are using Pero Antic at center and he plays the high post, using his three-point range to pull Hibbert away from the basket. Hibbert can't guard anyone else on the floor, certainly not Paul Millsap, the only inside threat for the Hawks, someone who also brings a perimeter game.
"In the playoffs, you've got to contemplate everything," Vogel said.
What really must have the Pacers worried his Hibbert's confidence. His body language is gloomier than Seattle in winter. Head hanging and shoulder-dropping, Hibbert is a psychiatrist's dream while sitting on the bench, and do the Pacers really want to drive him into a deeper funk by punishing him? Already, there's a feeling by some around the league that the Pacers rubbed the sensitive Hibbert the wrong way when they signed Andrew Bynum, as if the gimpy Bynum would somehow threaten Hibbert's spot in the rotation.
Fun-loving and goofy by nature, Hibbert hasn't looked or sounded right in a while now. The last time he loomed large in a game of importance was a month ago at home when the Pacers beat Miami and Hibbert was terrific in the first half. Hibbert also took an elbow to the chops from LeBron James in that game and just by coincidence, hasn't been the same since.
What he needs is another wakeup call, maybe not as violent as that one, but a splash to the face nonetheless. The Pacers, still woozy from a late-season swoon, can't afford for Hibbert to remain caught in a trance and walk around so … stiffly.