One year after five players were shot in the worst act of random violence to strike a major college sports program, Duquesne University’s basketball team is in healing mode.
Three of the five shooting victims are playing, and a fourth should return next year. The Dukes are coming off a 4-0 exhibition tour in Canada over the Labor Day weekend. And there’s more optimism than there’s been in years surrounding a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1977.
Before attending a chapel service held this week on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, Coach Ron Everhart found himself reflecting about the damage done but also about the unexpected positives that have followed.
“The one thing that overwhelms you is it could have been so much worse,” says Everhart, who had yet to coach a Dukes game when the shootings took place following a Black Student Union party. “At first, that’s all we could give thanks for, that there were no fatalities.”
Two junior college transfers, Sam Ashaolu (head wounds) and Stuard Baldonado (back, arm), were critically injured; Ashaolu was in grave danger for hours, and Baldonado came perilously close to being paralyzed.
A pair of major college transfers, Shawn James (foot) and Kojo Mensah (arm, shoulder), also needed months to heal, and the 6-foot-10 James still has occasional pain caused by the breakup of scar tissue.
As the 45-year-old Everhart spent four days last week recovering from minor surgery in the same hospital where the players were taken after being shot, the memories from last Sept. 16 began racing back.
Everhart remembered the anxious hours spent in Ashaolu’s and Baldonado’s hospital rooms. The outpouring of support from other students and the college basketball world. The sense of worry that the team he was trying to build might not recover from this tragedy, even if the players did.
He also worried he had broken the trust with the parents whose sons he had promised to protect.
“But you know what? I don’t think the guys are looking back on this as something that’s been a horrific tragedy,” he says. “Quite frankly, it’s one of those situations we talk about it as a team, being able to overcome obstacles and fighting through tough times and being mentally tough.”
James, the nation’s leading shot blocker, while playing for Everhart two seasons ago at Northeastern, acknowledges that there was anger and self-pity immediately following the shootings. Not any longer.
“My mom always told me that you should make a positive out of a negative,” James says. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Several players, including Mensah and guard Aaron Jackson, risked their lives to protect their fallen teammates during the shootings. To Everhart, no practice drill or video game can replicate that kind of real-life, put-your-teammate-first mind-set.
“It’s created a lot of bonding, created a lot of trust,” he says. “It’s been positive in terms of guys appreciating the opportunity they have a lot more. I know that has done that for me.”
It’s as if each player, including those not injured, has been given a second chance.
“You just don’t take things for granted,” Everhart says. “I’m not afraid to have more personal relationships with the kids. There’s a business part of this, being on the floor and competing academically, but I also like to think I have a better relationship with the guys.”
Ashaolu still has several bullet fragments in his brain and his future was uncertain for weeks after the shootings. But, according to friends, he did well academically in summer school. He is a full-time student again this fall and, unless there are unexpected setbacks, he could resume playing next year.
“You look at Sam, and you say to yourself that you should never bet against this guy,” Everhart says.
The major disappointment came several weeks ago when Baldonado was arrested twice in a week’s time on marijuana-related charges. He also faces two felony charges related to domestic violence in Miami that Duquesne was unaware of until two weeks ago.
Baldonado is suspended from school and the team, and it is all but certain that he will never play for the Dukes. Two other players transferred after last season, including leading scorer Robert Mitchell, who is at Seton Hall.
Another disruption will occur Oct. 23 when the four people charged in the shootings are due to come to trial, especially if the legal proceedings carry into a season that starts Nov. 9.
“No question it’s going to be a distraction, but a criminal trial is an obvious byproduct of something like this,” Everhart says. “It’s not going to be fun and nobody is going to enjoy it, but we have to go and do it well.”
The relief will come when the season finally starts, and the team Everhart began to assemble last year finally begins coming together.
“This team,” Ashaolu says confidently, “is going to win a lot of games.”
The Dukes won only three games in the 2005-06 season before Everhart arrived, but won 10 a year ago. With James and Mensah in the lineup, the Dukes are expected to have their best team since they were 17-13 under former Celtics coach John Carroll in 1993-94.
“We’re going to overcome this (the shootings),” Everhart says. “You’d better bring your lunch pail and hard hat because you’re going to be here for a while and you’re going to have to work.
“The guys who saw us play recently in Toronto said, ‘Man, your guys play so hard.’ I said, ‘Well, why wouldn’t we?’
“These kids get to walk on the floor every day and play basketball, and that’s a blessing for them.”
– Associated Press
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