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  Basketball

Jamaica's Hibbert working hard to reach the top

 
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
ATLANTA, Georgia,

His voice, a low almost whispered tone, doesn't tell it. Size 17 shoes, balancing his slender 7' 2", 278-pound frame, don't show it.

But Roy Hibbert's profile, as the only national player consistently starting for his club in the world's best basketball league, may have pressed him into the spotlight as the poster child for Jamaica's future in the international game.

Although Hibbert reluctantly accepted the role as Jamaica's captain before last year's Centro Basketball Tournament, the Indiana Pacers centre in North America's National Basketball Association (NBA) said he is committed to the country's fast break into a sport usually dominated by the United States (US), Europe and South America.

"At first, I actually didn't want to be the captain because there were guys that were on the team for a couple years and I just came in and started working," the 24-year-old explained as he relaxed in the visitors' dressing room here at Phillips Arena before a recent NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks.

"But they named me captain and I was appreciative."

His record suggests the big man, who was born in Queens, New York to a Jamaican father and a Trinidadian mother, fits the role. Hibbert, now in his third NBA season, is easily the most battle tested of any current national player. For four years he competed in the roughhouse Big East conference for Georgetown University. Now - night in, night out - he goes against the biggest names in the game. Against the Hawks he faced Al Horford, a fast rising star. For Hibbert, the pro game gets tougher as his reputation grows.

"I'm obviously a target," he said. "People know who I am."

TRADITION

Georgetown's basketball pro-gramme carries a huge tradition. Jamaica-born Patrick Ewing took the team to the US college title in the early 1980s. Hibbert was selected in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors, then traded to the Pacers. Observers believe he can join the game's elite.

"He has the potential for people to talk about him when they say top, big men in the league," said Mike Wells, who covers the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star newspaper.

But recently Hibbert has floun-dered. "Inconsistency," said Wells, haunts his game. His shooting accuracy has plummeted. The Pacers are frustrated. Hibbert could lose his starting job.

"Frankly, he's struggling hard right now," said coach Jim O'Brien before the Hawks game.

O'Brien is unclear how to remedy the situation. According to Wells, the centre has dedicated himself to the game and is a model citizen, which Pacers fans love. Hibbert is convinced if he works hard the slump will end.

SUPPORT

Yet, if all else fails, Hibbert knows he can rely on his Caribbean roots for support, especially his mother Patricia Edwards and father Roy Sr.

"Nothing comes easy," Roy Jr said. "You have to work for everything. So that's how I got to this point right here, because I have to work, and they instilled that in me."

Hibbert also stays in contact with national teammates via Twitter, Facebook and text messages. They boost his spirit. He does likewise.

"Roy is a cool guy, man," said Trelawny native Samardo Samuels, a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, one of the NBA's worst teams. "Roy (says) ... Stay focused ... and think about the big picture'."

Hibbert gets the "picture" reasoning with his Kingston-born father "probably every day". It's not just about the game.

"We don't always talk about basketball," said Roy Jr " ... He wants to see me do well."

Yet Hibbert's parents didn't immediately embrace their son's shift to basketball. School came first. Roy Jr tried other activities, like piano and tennis. He admitted he "wasn't really too coordinated" for football. But Hibbert knew his height, which he said comes from his mother's side, would play a role in his future. His love of basketball sealed the deal.

"I was so tall and I really liked to do it and I was pretty good at it at a young age," he said, breaking into a smile. "So I decided to stick with it ... (My parents) eventually just let me go ahead and do what I wanted."

They've stood with him.

"They wanted to be a part of it and make sure I was taken care of," Roy Jr said.

ROOTS

They also kept him close to his roots. Hibbert, an only child, said he visited Jamaica a few times as a young boy. Today he embraces his colourful background - Jamaican, Trinidadian and American.

"I just try to be multi-cultural," Hibbert explained. "It makes me unique ... . I have my own identity, but it was always nice to have family from both sides come together though."

He likes what the combo brings. Hibbert had no qualms mingling with the Trinidad players at Centro Basketball, which he left early due to a knee injury. He snacks on patties and cola champagne drinks, loves oxtail and 'yard' music and has a portrait of Bob Marley in his room.

While at Georgetown, Hibbert's roommate was Patrick Ewing Jr, son of the NBA legend. They discussed their connection to Jamaica, tried to influence others about the culture, and wondered how they could make the country's basketball team special.

Hibbert represented the US, but never forgot his talks with Ewing Jr, now a pro in the NBA Development League. Eventually, Hibbert told Jamaica's basketball authorities he wanted in. Ewing Jr too. The decision came easy.

"It'd probably be after I graduated college and I'd seen the (2008) Olympics," Hibbert said. "So Patrick Ewing (Jr) and myself said 'you know what, we'd (Jamaica) have a pretty good team and hopefully be able to be in the Olympics at some point'. So that's why I decided."

Jamaica is steadily stacking its basketball talent pool. In addition to Samuels, Ewing Jr and Hibbert, others, like Jerome Jordan, who's in Europe, play pro ball. Jamaicans are scouted by US colleges.

ADJUSTMENTS

The state-of-the-art facilities at Phillips Arena point to the professional game's wealth. But lack of money hampers progress in Jamaica. Hibbert understands. When he reports for national duty, there are adjustments to be made.

"It's up and coming," Hibbert said, describing the national basketball programme. "I wish that it'd get more funding. But, obviously, you have to win before you can get funding."

Other Caribbean countries, like the Domincan Republic, are trying to forge ahead. They note Jamaica's potential and recognise that Hibbert could be the centrepiece of the country's run to major championships.

"Each year he gets better," said Horford, who plays for the D.R. and faced Hibbert in college.

O'Brien wants "constant, steady development" from Hibbert. The centre admitted he had a tough night against the Hawks, playing just over 19 minutes and finishing with eight points, seven rebounds and no assists, well below his season's averages of 13.2, 8.2 and 2.5, respectively.

It's the story of year three in Hibbert's NBA journey.

"I'm having a real up-and-down season - down lately," he admitted. "But I'm gonna try to bounce back."

His father's teachings tell him he must. Jamaica's basketball hopes he does.

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