OMAHA, Neb. Now it can be told: Robbie Hummel cannot rap. He can make it rain from the corner. He can drive the lane like a Dodge Charger. Give him the ball while you're up a point or two, with the clock winding down, and he'll answer with a dagger.
He can tear his right anterior cruciate ligament, climb all the way back, tear it again, then climb back a second time. He can play with scars the size of potato wedges and a brace that looks like it was stolen from the set of the movie "Robocop." He can crack the All-Big Ten's first team, nab academic all-conference honors and promote literacy in local schools. But, Heaven help him, Robbie Hummel cannot bust a rhyme.
"I'll be in the locker room, I'll be rapping, and he'll be too scared to battle-rap," teammate Terone Johnson said, grinning in front of his stall at CenturyLink Center Omaha, where the Boilermakers open their NCAA tournament quest Friday against Saint Mary's. "I heard him rap a couple times, though. He's all right. I'd have to give him a 5' (out of 10). He should keep his day job."
Some trips to the office, of course, are better than others. Thursday was a keeper. For the first time since 2009, Hummel was working out at full speed with his teammates on the eve of a Big Dance. It was hard to miss the fifth-year senior on the floor, cutting and weaving; shooting treys; scrapping for loose balls and generally bounding about the way a puppy does when it's off the leash.
It beat the living pants off the last two NCAA tournaments, in which Hummel's knee had reduced him to the role of spectator and mentor, cheerleader and sage, a 6-foot-8 bundle of what-ifs and coulda-beens. After all, the forward from Valparaiso, Ind., had watched the Bracketville saga play out in 2010 and 2011 from the best and his mind, worst seat in the house.
"Sitting out the last two years for the tournament, it's been frustrating," said Hummel, who's averaging 16.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. "But I think it's made this time all the more special for me.
"When you miss something like that, when you have grown up watching a tournament, and you always wanted to play in it it's been disappointing not to be with my team like it has been the last two years. But I think we're all excited to be here and we're looking forward to (Friday)."
But perhaps no one in the building more than Hummel, whose career at Purdue has been more star-crossed than the U.S.S. Enterprise. A holy terror from the minute he set foot in West Lafayette, the 215-pounder was averaging 15.7 points as a junior when he tore his ACL for the first time on Feb. 24, 2010. The next October, Hummel tore it again, wiping out the 2010-11 campaign as well.
Under coach Matt Painter just as it was when Gene Keady scowled away at the reins the Boilermakers pride themselves on grit. Their practice shorts feature the words "PLAY HARD" across the back in giant gold letters. In baseball terms, they are a roster of A.J. Pierzynskis. And yet Hummel remains widely respected by his peers and opposing coaches, for his journey as much as his prodigious talents. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo even went so far as to scold the Spartans' infamous "Izzone" student section back in January after they mocked Hummel's injury history.
Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett on Thursday called the Indiana native "a legend."
"Heard about him for six years, finally get to see him up close," Bennett continued. "He knows how play, he competes, he does a little bit of everything. It's amazing he's had as good of a season as he has after coming off the second (knee injury)."
The Boilermakers reached the Sweet 16 during Hummel's sophomore season the sky was the limit. Then it fell. They were supposed to contend for a Final Four berth each of the next two years after that, but fate had other ideas. Without Hummel around to flank JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, Purdue's run was capped at the Sweet 16 by Duke in 2010, then clotheslined the next year by upstart Virginia Commonwealth in the round of 32.
Meanwhile, all Hummel could do was watch. Watch, coach, and wonder.
"He was always there to help," junior guard D.J. Byrd recalled. "Whether I needed to open up on this screen or set a screen here. He just kind of knew what was going on, and he was always there for that."
A lesser man would've walked away after the first ACL tear. Most would've limped away after the second. Hummel got back on the horse. Legends stick it out.
"The two times he hurt it, it was non-contact," senior guard Lewis Jackson said, shaking his head. "And it's just, Why me?' You would think a guy would quit. And that just speaks so much about his character. If I'm banged up with a little sore ankle or anything, how I can I not come to work with this man every day and fight, just because of what he's fighting in order to help this team?"
"It's probably the No. 1 story for us in the last seven, eight years since I've been back at Purdue," Painter added. "In terms of everything he has had to endure with his back injury, his two ACL injuries and just a guy who has stayed with it and not made any excuses.
"He's had a long road and really didn't get into rhythm in terms of shooting the basketball until February."
The Boilermakers, no coincidence, took off after that.
"There were points in the season where it was a team thing, where (we wondered) Is our resume good enough to get us in the tournament?'" Hummel said. "And at the end of the season, we started playing our best basketball and we were able to get in. There were times where it was myself asking, Will I be on the court andor will the team be there?' And those both definitely occurred."
Between February 12-29, with Purdue slipping on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, Hummel upped his scoring clip to 23.7 points per game. The Boilermakers won five of six. Legends rise to the occasion.