By DANA HUNSINGER BENBOW
THE INDIANAPOLIS STAR
Tyler Hansbrough remembers the backyard brawls with his two brothers.
He remembers setting up a trampoline — much to the dismay of his orthopedic surgeon father — next to a basketball goal so the three could slam dunk.
He remembers something else: His older brother, Greg, being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor at age 7. The family was told to enjoy him while they could. He didn’t have much time to live.
“When Greg first got diagnosed, he wasn’t given much of a chance,” said Tyler, 27, as he sat on the Pacers practice court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday. “It wasn’t good at all.”
Most people know Indiana Pacers players Tyler and youngest brother Ben, 25. But it’s their rarely mentioned older brother they say is the real standout.
Greg, 29, was their inspiration growing up, and he still is today.
“I watched him overcome obstacles that most people never see in their lifetime,” Tyler told The Indianapolis Star .
“What he’s been through, he’s a fighter. He’s a warrior,” said Ben. “He’s been a fighter his whole life.”
Fighter for sure. Although surgery to remove the tumor was successful, doctors thought Greg would never walk again. He not only walked, but he ran.
He played basketball for four years at his high school in Poplar Bluff, Mo. He ran track. He’s played soccer and run marathons as an adult even though the surgery had long-term effects on the left side of his body. He can’t move his left hand or the toes on his left feet.
And while Greg is his brothers’ inspiration, he says they are very much his.
“As I was training for marathons, I fed off of them more than they will ever know,” said Greg, who is finishing his communications degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where Tyler was a star for the Tarheels. “I pictured Tyler in the gym shooting. I pictured Ben lifting weights and playing pickup with anybody in town who would play with him.”
While the two younger Hansbroughs are the standout athletes now, it was Greg people watched before he got cancer. If parents found out Greg was in one race, they would put their child in a different one.
He always got the blue ribbon.
He could swish baskets again and again. He would drain layups right or left handed.
But then one day, the left-handed layups stopped falling. One night at dinner, he couldn’t get his left hand to use the fork.
Greg’s dad, Gene Hansbrough, knew something was wrong. He took Greg to the hospital where he was given a CT scan.
“I saw this big tumor in his head,” Gene told the Columbia Missourian in 2008. “It was very devastating.”
The doctor’s prognosis was dire: The tumor was inoperable, located dangerously close to the brain’s on-off switch — the reticular activating system. He had a couple months to live.
Greg was never told that, only that he had a tumor.
“I remember them telling me, but I didn’t realize the magnitude of it,” Greg said. “I thought it was cool I was getting out of school.”
Gene had connections in the medical world. He was researching what could be done. He found one of the best neurosurgeons at the Mayo Clinic who was willing to do the operation. What could have been a fatal operation was a success.
But when he woke up, Greg realized success had a different feeling for him. He couldn’t walk. His vision was blurry. The left side of his body was clumsy and weak.
“That’s when it first hit me,” Greg said. ‘Wow. This isn’t just getting out of school.’ “
Still, all three Hansbrough brothers realize Greg was lucky.
Not everybody with brain cancer has the opportunities that Greg had, Tyler said.
So, he and Ben have come out as celebrity spokesmen for Voices Against Brain Cancer to raise awareness and, more importantly, money.
The two hosted a fundraiser Thursday in honor of Greg benefiting the organization at the Fieldhouse. Called Hoops with the Hansbroughs, guests will get to eat, drink and shoot around with the brothers and, maybe, a few other Pacers players.
While other celebrities, like Tony Danza and Marc Anthony, have come out to support the brain cancer cause, the Hansbroughs will be the first professional athletes.
“What (they’re) doing, it’s the first in the NBA. It’s the first of its kind in all of sports,” said Mario Lichtenstein, who founded Voices Against Brain Cancer nine years ago after his son died of the disease.
“It’s the first time a sports celebrity has come out to be a voice against brain cancer.”
Lichtenstein is thrilled to have them.
“Especially with basketball because it reaches all ages,” he said. “Celebrity awareness, when done for the right reason and the right things, it stops people and it makes them listen.”
He wants people to listen to his organization’s message.
He calls brain cancer the orphan disease. It has little support. Few people even think about it when it comes to giving money. But it is a devastating cancer, especially for children.
Each year, more than 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a brain tumor and it is among the leading cause of death for people 20 and younger.
Effective treatment is difficult, because there are more than 120 types of brain tumors. Depending on the location, a noncancerous one can be just as life threatening as a cancerous one.
And long-term side effects can change a survivor’s life forever.
But Greg didn’t let it. Just ask Ben.
As the youngest brother, he was often the target of some punches. Greg could throw them artfully. He would tackle both his younger brothers.
“I had a little bit of a rougher time getting beat up and getting picked on,” Ben said. “It kind of makes up who I am.”
Greg shaped Ben in other ways. Even though he was just three when Greg was diagnosed, Ben remembers it all.
He and Tyler stayed with their grandparents, who didn’t talk much about the situation. But the brothers knew. They felt the void.
Greg remembers missing them, too. He just wanted to get back and play with them.
The three, after all, are a tight group, and Greg has been the epitome of that older brother to look up to.
When asked to describe each other, Tyler said Greg is outgoing and ambitious. Ben is unique. He calls himself laid back and easygoing.
Turn the tables on Ben, and he calls Greg unique and Tyler serious.
“Me? You can’t describe me in one word,” Ben said.
That’s the truth, said Greg, adding that Ben is impressive and Tyler is admirable.
As for himself?
“Alive,” he said. “And hardworking.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com