Roy Hibbert returns, to play first game in Indy as opponent

While many — OK, most — are looking forward to Monday’s professional basketball game in downtown Indianapolis because it is Kobe Bryant’s last in town, it’s also notably the first time Roy Hibbert will step on the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in an opponent’s uniform.

(Someone really should be there to direct him to the visitor’s locker room.)

It’s Roy’s Return.

Hibbert and George at the 2014 NBA All-Star game in New Orleans.

Hibbert and George at the 2014 NBA All-Star game in New Orleans.

He played his first seven NBA seasons in Indy. The Pacers made a deal with Toronto to acquire its pick and select Hibbert out of Georgetown in the 2008 NBA Draft with the 17th overall pick.

His best season was arguably in 2013-14. He was coming off a terrific postseason (highlighted by his block on Carmelo Anthony), was named an All-Star for the second time, and earned Second Team All-Defensive honors.

Bring up his name around town and most fans are upset and point to his gloomy end in Indy — the scoreless games, managing to only grab a few rebounds despite his 7-foot-2 size, playing soft, the inconsistency … oh, the inconsistency, and the falling on the ground.

His former teammates remember their time together fondly and hope that fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Monday night cheer for him to celebrate his contributions to the team and to the city from 2008-2015.

“I’ll be disappointed if the fans don’t cherish and congratulate him and welcome him for all that he’s done for Indiana and how big he’s been in Indiana,” Paul George told VigilantSports.com. “I know Roy’s going to be happy to play a game here in his return, but I just hope that the fans acknowledge how great he really was for us.”

There’s no doubt he was a great teammate, probably the most caring individual in the locker room. When George suffered a compound leg fracture with USA Basketball in Las Vegas, Hibbert got on a plane to be there in the hospital with his teammate … delivering lots of goodies like gummy bears, plus a silk and fur blanket.

A memorable image from Hibbert's time with the Pacers.

A memorable image from Hibbert’s time with the Pacers.

[Hibbert put his Carmel house on the market and hung out with George before moving to Los Angeles for good]

Hibbert, who’s statistically having his worst pro season averaging 6.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 24.5 minutes per game, is listed as questionable with a sprained left ankle. He suffered the injury in the first quarter of their game on Saturday in San Antonio and he did not return; X-rays were negative.

He is in Indianapolis with the Lakers, though, as he watched Super Bowl 50 with his teammates in a meeting room at their downtown Indianapolis hotel.

“It will be weird,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel shared. “I’ll be really happy to see him. I’m hoping for the best for him. I hope he has great success out there and I look forward to seeing him.”

[Hibbert’s last swipe not a good look]

Vogel and Hibbert had a special relationship. Hibbert thrived once Jim O’Brien was relieved of his coaching duties in Jan., 2011.

Hibbert, and other guys on that team, needed a supportive coach, one that believed in them. Hibbert had that in Vogel. Together they tirelessly worked, and together Hibbert mastered verticality — the art of going straight up when the offensive player goes up at the rim.

Coach Frank Vogel was just what Hibbert needed after Jim O'Brien, and he has always been in his corner.

Coach Frank Vogel was just what Hibbert needed after Jim O’Brien, and he has always been in his corner.

During the rough part of Hibbert’s final season and a half with the Pacers, Vogel never wavered his support. Coach was asked countless times about changing the rotation, whether he had considered moving Hibbert out of the startling lineup during Roy’s dark times. But Vogel stayed with him.

Once David West decided to move on, turning down his player option for the opportunity to contend for a championship with the San Antonio Spurs, the Pacers pushed even more to move Hibbert, who was on the final year of his deal worth $15.5 million.

The Lakers were willing to take on his monster salary … but only in exchange of a 2019 second-round pick. Still today, it’s crazy to think that was the Hibbert’s value.

After dealing Hibbert, the Pacers signed forward Jordan Hill, the former Laker. Funny, right?

He’s turned out to be a bargain, checking in at $4 million this year in comparison. Hill’s producing an average of 9.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists in 22.3 minutes per game this season.

“It can be emotional,” said Jordan Hill, now with his fourth team. “Especially playing against guys you were good friends with on and off the floor. It’s still a business and it’s just a game. It’s another game for us.”

Ian Mahinmi, who has taken over the starting center role for Hibbert, echoed those sentiments.

“I expect it will be a little bit emotional for him because he played here so long, but for us it’s not really about Roy,” Mahinmi said. “It’s really about us. We got to keep this train going, we got to play better, and we got to do what we got to do to win. It’s just another game.”

The Pacers are 27-24 this season, seventh in the Eastern Conference and a half game ahead of Detroit. They’ve lost eight of their last 13 games and have had their difficulty closing games.

Team health has been an issue as three key players have missed at least nine games. On Monday, Rodney Stuckey won’t be available for the 19th game of the season.

Some within the Pacers organization still don’t like how he handled his situation, his parting shot, and how mentally weak he was. One staff member who invested serious time with Roy over the years now gets the cold shoulder from him.

In their first meeting this season out in Los Angeles last November, Hibbert registered eight points, nine rebounds, and two blocks.

Point guard George Hill was one of his close friends on the team.

“It’s going to be good to see him,” Hill said. “He’s always going to be our brother. I wished him the best when he left but I miss him dearly. … I’m always here for him if he needs to talk and he’s always going to be a brother to me.”

The question for fans when players return is how should they be treated. Recently, Lance Stephenson was booed, for example. Pacers fans don’t like to see one of their own on other teams. (I think David West and his unique situation will be different.) Hibbert can likely expect a mixed reaction.

“No, I don’t think he deserves boos,” George Hill said candidly. “No matter how bad he played his last year, he did give Indy a lot to be proud of — getting us to where Indy basketball was … people were wanting to watch and come out to support. I don’t think he deserves any boos. I think he deserves everyone’s standing ovation.”

Hibbert at his annual softball challenge with three of his teammates back in 2013.

Hibbert at his annual softball challenge with three of his teammates back in 2013.

Hill’s right.

Hibbert, with his Area 55, helped make the Fieldhouse a lively atmosphere once more. He stood up for his teammates, even offering to pay one’s fine one time. He gave back to the community often — more than most even realize — like when he co-hosted the annual Celebrity Softball Challenge.

Take Pacers super fan Justin Beck from Australia, who sent me these comments on Twitter.

“Man, I hope he doesn’t get booed. Did so much for the team off and on the court. He flew me up from Australia to watch a whole season in area 55. Dream came true. No matter how it ended I’ll never forget Roy for all the good he did! #FanForLife

“… He also gave me Orlando all star tickets, met up and had breakfast with me, drove me around. Can’t fathom how well he treated me just cause I’m an overseas fan. Drove me to airport 1 day becaz I needed a lift.”

The telling point will be during pre-game warmups and team introductions. Once the game is tipped, I expect fans to treat him like any other player. And that’s fine.

During the Pacers’ two successful runs to the Eastern Conference Finals, coming up just short both seasons to the Miami Heat, they were built around Hibbert and his presence inside. They were playing smashmouth basketball and teammates could defend their man tighter knowing that The Big Dawg always had their back at the rim. He was the rim protector, one of the best in the league, and he was the safety net.

Whatever your opinions of Roy, consider the impact he made on the franchise and on this city. I’m hopeful that, in time, the feelings are mutual and that he’s willing to reflect on his history here because he helped make this team respectable and relevant once again.

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