On another brokenhearted afternoon in a year that knew no end of
them, Melvin Whitaker ran back to the car wreck he had just
survived. The smell of spilled gasoline warned him that the
crumpled station wagon might explode, and yet he kept running,
for the driver was trapped inside and he feared she would die.
Though fear had come to replace basketball as the constant in
his life, he imagined he might conquer it just this once if he
could get the driver's door open and pull her to safety. But the
station wagon had landed on its side in a drainage ditch, and
the door wouldn't budge no matter how frantically Whitaker
yanked on it. So he started pushing the wreck, trying to rock it
back onto its wheels so he could reach the driver through the
passenger's door. When he waved for help from passing drivers,
no one stopped. All he could do was resume his struggle, a 6'10"
It was his latest role in the drama that began four months
earlier, in March 1996, when a University of Virginia football
player was slashed with what prosecutors were saying was a box
cutter. Whitaker, a blue-chip basketball recruit for the
Cavaliers, stood accused of the crime. The only thing that
brightened the gloom stretching out before him was the goodness
of the family that had offered him refuge before his trial. But
on Route 81, just outside Winchester, Va., even that bounty
looked like it was turning to tragedy.
The family had taken Whitaker with them on vacation, and he was
returning with their 15-year-old daughter and a friend of hers,
who was at the wheel when the station wagon went out of control.
The driver had jammed on the brakes to avoid another car, and
suddenly the station wagon began skidding from one lane to the
other before it slammed into an embankment. The jolt sent the
station wagon rolling once, twice, three times before it came to
rest in the ditch. And nobody inside was wearing a seat belt.
The deathly quiet afterward was broken when Whitaker showed the
side of himself that remained unseen at Mr. Jefferson's
university. He helped the family's daughter out of the wreck and
hustled her down the road to safety. Then he went back for the
driver and struggled to set the station wagon right, as if doing
so would somehow do the same for his world gone wrong.
He arrived at Mount St. Mary's College the first week of
November 1998, and right away he started working on a clean-up
crew. Even if the students hadn't known he was coming to their
Emmitsburg, Md., campus, it would have been hard to miss him.
Some came up to talk. If they hung back, he took the initiative
and introduced himself. They could call him Melvin or Mel,
whatever. He would be one of them in the second semester, a
freshman, at last, at 22.
Until then there would be seven weeks of purgatory, when all he
could do was work out on his own and watch in envy as the
Mountaineers practiced without him. "I can hardly stand hearing
those balls bounce," he confessed just four days into that
stretch. But he always showed up at Knott Arena, and he always
made sure he talked to Jim Phelan, who had never, in 45 years as
the school's coach, had a player quite like this. "Melvin's
already a legend around here," Phelan says, without so much as a
wink at the irony of his words. For that would make two legends
on a campus with only 1,400 undergrads. The other one is Phelan
What else can you call somebody who has won more college
basketball games than anybody else now working the sidelines and
who, in the next two weeks, could become just the fourth coach
in NCAA history to reach 800 victories? The only other label
that fits him so perfectly is self-deprecating. Consider how he
recalls a friend's reaction to the news in 1954 that Phelan was
going to interview at Mount St. Mary's: "He told me, 'You'll go
there, you'll get the job, you'll love it, and you'll be there
forever, and nobody will ever hear of you.'" A wry smile crosses
his face. "How prophetic."
So there was nothing Phelan had to prove and nobody he wanted to
impress when Whitaker became eligible to play on Dec. 19. But he
knew the kid was aching to get out there after nearly three
years away from competition. Of course, the next day the Mount
traveled to Baltimore to play Loyola, and that is the war of the
worlds in their corner of the Division I universe. Phelan never
flinched, even though the kid had yet to practice with the team.
Midway through the first half Whitaker made his college debut.
Two seconds later he scored his first basket on an inbounds lob.
Then he got lost in the offense, picked up three fouls and
performed as though he were sheathed in rust.
Phelan wasn't surprised, but then he rarely is. He will tell
you, however, that he wasn't prepared for the day he saw
Whitaker playing chess with a teammate and asked where he'd
learned the game. "In the system," Whitaker replied. Right away
Phelan knew the kid was talking about Virginia's prison system.
He might have been a freshman, but he was already a graduate of
a very different kind of school.
The undeniable fact, the fact that speaks to how violence has
become the coin of our fractious realm, is this: On March 5,
1996, in the lobby of Virginia's Slaughter Gymnasium, Melvin
Whitaker did slash the face of Maurice Anderson, opening a wound
that took 75 stitches to close and that scarred one cheek and
If there is agreement on anything else, it is that the spilling
of blood didn't fit the circumstances when that crystalline day
turned ugly. Football players and basketball players don't wage
war on each other at Virginia--there is simply no history of it.
Anderson will tell you that he'd never been in a fight before,
and he has obviously had his chances while bouncing people
around as a defensive tackle. The last dust-up on Whitaker's
resume came in a ninth- grade, one-punch victory over someone
who had stolen something from his locker. As for putting up his
dukes in the vicinity of a basketball court, all Whitaker ever
saw that lead to back home in Raleigh was people with their
heads caved in. "I'd just tell 'em I quit," Whitaker says. "I
don't do a lot of loud stuff, make a lot of scenes."
How similar that is to Anderson's take on his own personality:
"I'm quiet, I keep to myself. You know, just hang back and
observe everybody else." No wonder there are those who can't
resist imagining the different course Whitaker and Anderson
might have traveled if their first meeting had been at a dorm or
a party. Anywhere but a pick-up basketball game in which sweat,
pride and testosterone formed an unholy trinity.
"Sometimes they almost sound like the same guy to me," says
Danny Wilmer, the assistant football coach who recruited
Anderson. "I guarantee they go through the same problems as
athletes--ups and downs, wins and losses, everybody wanting a
piece of them, from coaches to academics. The more I think about
it, they probably could have been friends. Very good friends."
Any chance of a peaceful introduction began to evaporate,
however innocently, when Whitaker headed for Slaughter Gym late
that unfortunate afternoon. He had been in Charlottesville for
only three weeks and could just as well have still been playing
at Hargrave Military Academy, the Chatham, Va., private school
where he had put enough polish on his jump hook and turnaround
jumper to ring up 20 points a game. But as soon as he boosted
his SAT scores, which, after all, was the only reason he was
there, Whitaker waved goodbye to that backwoods West Point and
set out for the dream life he imagined at Virginia. It hardly
mattered that he wouldn't be able to enroll until summer school.
For the moment just being around the campus was enough.
Mornings he would work out at University Hall, the home of the
Cavaliers, lifting weights before shooting on the court where he
intended to prove why he had been one of the nation's top 50
high school players in 1995. Afternoons he would load beer
trucks at the Anheuser-Busch warehouse to earn walking-around
money and the rent for his tiny apartment. Then he would go
looking for a pickup game at Slaughter, usually with ordinary
students working off their classroom frustrations and playing
out their Michael Jordan fantasies.
But came March 5, and Whitaker felt as if he needed a day off
from basketball. All he wanted to do was kick back, and he went
on campus hoping to find a Virginia basketball player he knew,
someone he could hang with. No such luck. The basketball player
wasn't around. Just as Whitaker started to feel loneliness
closing in on him, he ran into three students he'd seen around
campus. Good guys. When they discovered that Whitaker had time on
his hands, inspiration struck. They'd go to Slaughter with him
and show him their moves. He was too nice, and too much in need
of friends, to say no.
At the gym it didn't take many warmup shots for Whitaker to
realize that the basketball aesthetic was in for a beating. "Air
balls," he says softly. "These guys I'm with, they got their
hats turned backward and they can hardly get it up there." But
when it was time to play winners in a full-court game, Whitaker
& Co. still called, "Next!"
He remembers their opponents as "big guys" and says that later
he would learn they were all Virginia football players.
Anderson--in what is just the first of many discrepancies in
their dual recollections of that afternoon--begs to differ. "I
was the only football player," he says.
Be advised, however, that there was a lot of Anderson at the
time--upward of 300 pounds on a 6'3" frame--so Whitaker couldn't
help but notice him. Whitaker says he heard Anderson, too: "He
was talking loud. 'Man, he ain't gonna do this, I'm gonna do
that.' That type thing."
Though they had never met before, never even seen each other,
Anderson had indeed heard of Whitaker, and now that they were on
the same court together, he took the young giant's presence as a
challenge. "I had to play to what I figured was his level,"
Anderson says. "Plus he was taller than me, so I had to rely
more on position." It was the prescription for a game that
started rough and turned brutal.
This, remember, on a day when Whitaker would rather have been
doing nothing. "I wasn't out there to what we call 'shine,'" he
says. "I wasn't out there to show off." But he was still taking
his lumps, primarily from Anderson, who outweighed him by more
than 80 pounds. "And he's got an extra-extra-large shove,"
Whitaker says. After absorbing one too many of them, Whitaker
did what he normally considers heresy in a pickup game: He
called a foul. Anderson, predictably, went off like a Roman
"The first thing he said was, 'How you gonna call a foul on
that, mother------?'" Whitaker remembers. "I'm like, 'Whoa, you
don't even know me to call me outside my name.' And he goes,
'You want to do something, mother------?'"
"It wasn't no name-calling or nothing," Anderson counters. "Just
loud and verbal."
With a crowd gathering, Whitaker's initial instinct was
eminently sane--he headed for the door. But he only got halfway
out before he succumbed to the siren song of Anderson's
teammates, who crooned that their man's temper had subsided,
that everything was cool now. Two plays later Whitaker
discovered otherwise when he went up for a dunk on a fast break.
"I felt these hands grab me," he says, "one by the shoulder, one
by the arm, and just slam me on the ground. I didn't know who
had done it, but when I opened my eyes, he's standing over me
saying, 'What's up now? What's up now?'"
If you listen to Whitaker, it was Anderson who challenged him
with that question. Anderson, however, acknowledges no malice,
no taunting, only that "I hit him hard." But both versions of
the story lead to the same exit, the one that Whitaker made from
the gym. Oddly enough, it was Anderson who expected him to come
back--to resume playing, not to fight. Whitaker, on the other
hand, says he had no intention of returning until he remembered
that he had left some things in his gym locker: a cellular
phone, a pullover, his apartment keys, his driver's license and
$200 from the paycheck he had just cashed. "I didn't want to go
back there, but what could I do?" he says.
Whitaker says he spent the next half hour or so walking around,
pausing only to call the Virginia basketball player he still
couldn't reach. Then he took a deep breath and headed back to
the gym, armed, he insists, with nothing more than a promotional
bottle opener he had attached to the chain his locker key was on.
Maybe he's telling the truth, or maybe he's in denial. Who
really knows? But Albemarle County prosecutor Jim Camblos, in
the case he built against Whitaker, planned to introduce
testimony from a resident dorm adviser--"a disinterested third
party," Camblos calls her--who says she gave Whitaker a box
cutter on the day of the slashing. "He asked her for a knife,"
says the prosecutor, "and when she asked why he needed it, he
said, 'I've got something I've got to cut.' She told him all she
had was a box cutter. He asked, 'Is it sharp?' She gave it to
him, and when he walked away, she said he was running his finger
along the edge of it."
Box cutter or bottle opener, it was in Whitaker's right hand
when he encountered Anderson in the gym's lobby. Anderson says
Whitaker was sitting on a flight of steps waiting for him.
Whitaker says he was hoping Anderson had left. What they agree
on is that once they saw each other, Whitaker approached
Anderson with his left hand extended. Then their memories again
diverge. Anderson says he warily offered his own left to
shake--and as soon as he did, Whitaker used his right to hit him
on the cheek. Whitaker admits hitting Anderson, but asserts he
did so only because the football player jerked him forward and
looked ready to throw a punch. For a moment the battle seemed to
be on. "I went to hit him," Anderson says, "but my face felt
wet. I reached up, and my hand was full of blood."
Just like that, everything shifted gears. Suddenly people were
grabbing Anderson and putting a towel on the cut that now seemed
like a crimson Niagara Falls. Suddenly Whitaker was running out
the fire exit, shocked by what he had done, afraid of what it
would mean. In the eternity of the next few minutes, Anderson
could only think of finding a doctor to sew up the gash he still
couldn't feel. "What's it look like?" he kept asking the friend
taking him to the hospital. His friend was afraid to tell him.
How many ways are there to say you're sorry? Whitaker had two
years and one month to think of them all--hard time, with guards
waiting for him to cross them and other prisoners sizing him up
with medieval intentions. He made three stops along the way, and
every one of them qualified as an iron hotel. Check-in was when
he pleaded guilty on June 26, 1996, to malicious wounding with
intent to maim, disfigure, disable or kill. Whether Whitaker
knew it or not, that was his first giant step toward apologizing
The plea was also a practical consideration. Losing a jury trial
would have meant a minimum five-year sentence, and there was
never any real chance that Whitaker would win, even if--or maybe
especially if--he got on the witness stand and said that Anderson
had provoked him. "If the cut had been any lower, at the throat
instead of the cheek, I would have been prosecuting a murder,"
Camblos says. "Even though Anderson was arguably being a jerk on
the basketball court, he didn't deserve that."
Nothing in Whitaker's past suggested he was capable of such
violence--no juvenile record, no fights in games, no scrapes
with teachers. Growing up in a section of Raleigh blighted by
such distinctly urban touches as ragged housing, abandoned cars
and a thriving drug trade, his haven was the home that his
father, Melvin Sr., a security guard, kept together after his
wife walked out in 1987. Money was always scarce, and sometimes
young Melvin, his little brother and his little sister sat in
darkness because the electric bill hadn't been paid. But the
kids hung together because of their father's will. Whitaker
makes sure everybody he talks to understands that right up
front. The harshest things said by people from his past are that
he was hard to motivate in the classroom and harder still to get
out of bed in the morning. "He was very subdued," says Scott
Shepherd, his coach at Hargrave. "An in-the-middle-of-the-pack
type of kid." But there was no pack for him to follow when he
arrived in Charlottesville. For the first time in his life, he
was on his own.
Rod Leffler, his attorney, realized just how alone Whitaker was
when no one from the university showed up to help him after he
surrendered to the police. "He struck me as an incredibly
immature kid who was suddenly in a university environment
without any supervision," Leffler says. What Whitaker was there
for, of course, was basketball, a fact driven home to Leffler
when his preparation of Whitaker's defense was interrupted by
calls from coaches at other colleges. "They expected me to help
them get to Melvin," he says. "I told them, I'm not an agent,
I'm a trial lawyer." And it was as such that Leffler advised
Whitaker that a trial wasn't the way to go. The guilty plea was.
There are those in Raleigh and at Mount St. Mary's who profess
amazement that Whitaker could walk into Judge Paul M. Peatross
Jr.'s court after that and still be sentenced to 10 years in
prison. They don't care about the six years that were suspended
off the top or even his release a year and a half early. They
think the bounce was too stiff for a kid who had never come this
way before. "Melvin's sentence fell at the midpoint of our
guidelines," Leffler says. "It was neither lenient nor harsh."
That wasn't what the hopeful Whitaker wanted to hear. At first
he unsuccessfully tried to sue his attorney, unable to shake the
idea that somehow he had become the victim. Only time would
bring him back to reality--time and the kind of contemplation
that had nothing to do with basketball.
"I did a lot of seeking," he says of his journey from
Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail to the Southampton
Receiving Unit and Classification Center to the Powhatan
Correctional Center. He read the Bible and history books and
novels like Invisible Man and Native Son. He worked as a
chaplain's assistant, and in the process he met a Catholic
priest and a Sunni Muslim who introduced him to ideas beyond his
own Baptist raising. He played basketball whenever he could, but
he also evolved to the point where he began to understand that
life doesn't necessarily revolve around the game. His growth
showed in his letters. "They stopped being bitter and
resentful," says Eddie Gray, his coach at Garner High, east of
Raleigh. "It made me think that maybe something positive could
come out of this."
There was just one problem, and it remains to this day: No
matter how many times Whitaker says he is sorry for spilling
Anderson's blood--and he says it over and over again, to family
and friends, coaches and reporters and anybody else who asks--he
can't get Anderson to acknowledge him.
Maybe Whitaker could understand that, when his first letter of
apology, written in the stiff language of the lawyers who helped
him compose it, offered Anderson $100,000 if Whitaker ever made
it to the NBA. But his second letter came from the heart,
written during his first months in prison. Silence again. "I
keep saying I'm sorry," Whitaker says, "but he doesn't want to
hear me." It is one more thing to be sorry about.
"I cried that whole night," Maurice Anderson remembers. Tears
fell anew every time he walked into the bathroom and looked in
the mirror. There was a stranger staring back at him. The
stranger's eyes were filled with disbelief and his swollen cheek
was laced with 75 stitches in a baling-hook curl from just below
his left ear to right above his left upper lip. Anderson
couldn't believe that this was who he had become. But when he
tried to escape back into his dorm room, he kept seeing
reflections of that face, with its tearful gaze and its
carved-up cheek. It was in the window and on the TV screen and
everywhere else he had never before thought of looking at
himself. The sight of it drove him back to the bathroom mirror
over and over that night. "I didn't want to look," he says, "but
I couldn't stop."
His parents arrived on the Virginia campus the next morning. All
he had told them on the phone was that he had been cut on the
face, and that they'd better come. No sense in worrying them; he
never talked about the football injuries that were forever
afflicting him, either. Then they walked through the door. "My
mom, when she saw the cut, she started to tear up," Anderson
says. "That just made me cry harder."
He sits in the half-light of a Charlottesville hotel room and
tries to work through the memories he wishes he didn't have.
Every now and then he unconsciously runs a finger over the scar
that mocks his handsome countenance, the scar that will always
remind him of the day he met Melvin Whitaker. "I never thought
something like this would happen to me," he says. Nor did he
have any idea that the pain, when it set in after the shock wore
off, would move so quickly from his cheek to his heart. Only
lately has he been able to talk about that intimate hurt with
anybody except his folks, a few close friends and Wilmer, the
assistant coach who has always been there to listen to him. The
story seems a little easier to tell each time, and yet he longs
for the moment when the conversation turns to football.
That's when he feels like something other than a victim. That's
when he is just plain Mo Anderson again, the strong man who
plugged the middle on defense for a Virginia football team that
ranked as high as 12th in the nation last season. He was a force
despite a case of turf toe on each of his feet and torn
ligaments in his left thumb. "If it hadn't been for all those
nagging injuries, my performance could have been incredible," he
says. His great expectations unmet, he decided not to declare
for the NFL draft and instead will return for his senior season
after picking up his degree in anthropology in June.
He was raised to be practical, an only child who learned to
count his blessings in the peanut and tobacco country around
Blackstone, Va. But what happened between him and Whitaker seems
a curse on his very existence. Wilmer tells him everything
happens for a reason, and sometimes Anderson agrees. He
remembers how he used weight training to escape the blues after
he was slashed, losing nearly 40 pounds until he reached his
current sculpted 280. Ultimately, however, such diversions stand
no better chance of getting him past his pain than do Whitaker's
letters of apology. "I can see what he's trying to do," Anderson
says, "but I can't forget. This scar is going to be with me for
It will be on display for the people he hopes will one day hire
him for a job outside football, people who might think he looks
like a gangbanger. Worse yet, the scar will be on display for
the daughter, Tiara, his girlfriend bore him in December.
"What's my little girl going to say?" Anderson asks in a whisper
that's a scream. "How do I explain it to her?"
They were in the same hotel. Think of the odds on that. Out of
all the Marriotts in all the world, both of them had found their
way to the one in downtown Atlanta. Anderson was there to play
Georgia in the Peach Bowl, and Whitaker had come to face Georgia
Tech in his only shot at a big-time opponent this season.
Instantly everybody in the Mount St. Mary's traveling party
began envisioning horrific revenge scenarios. Then Whitaker
threw their imaginations into overdrive when, on the last
Tuesday of 1998, he was a no-show for the bus to practice.
It wasn't what Jim Phelan was expecting. Just a half hour
earlier he had been talking about all the juice Whitaker had
brought to a team that before his arrival had been the walking
definition of subdued. Here was a kid who came advertised as
laid-back, and he showed up practicing like something out of a
coach's fantasy, going hard in every drill and always cheering
for his teammates. "Melvin shakes things up," Phelan had said.
But the way he was shaking things up now wasn't supposed to be
part of the deal.
"Maybe he found a sweet young thing," Phelan said, his face
wrinkling in a smile full of wisdom and mischief. With that, he
climbed on the bus and drove off with the rest of the team. The
scorekeeper was left behind to find Whitaker, a job that
required only a matter of minutes. Whitaker hadn't crossed paths
with Anderson, and he never would. He was just visiting a friend
on the Virginia football team and lost track of time. A typical
Phelan didn't say a word about it until practice was over and
the team was getting the next day's schedule. "On the bus at
11:30," Phelan said. There was a moment's pause as that funny
little smile of his came back into play. Then he said, "Not the
Virginia bus, Melvin." End of sermon.
If Whitaker was expecting something else, something harsher and
more imperious, he had a lot to learn about Phelan. For this is
a 69-year-old coach who has nine grandchildren and peppers his
conversation with such musty nuggets as "zingo, zango, zongo"
and "flooey" (as in, everything went ...). A coach who considers
a bow tie the ultimate fashion statement and who, on the cover
of last season's press guide, with his shiny gray sport coat and
his hands stuffed in his pants pockets, looked like the
reincarnation of Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. Of
course, Phelan came into the season with 785 victories, so
Whitaker would be wise to remember that he is dealing with the
rock on which Mount St. Mary's basketball stands.
Phelan has endured in Emmitsburg by sticking to a philosophy
that emphasizes the practical and the unpretentious. "Win or
lose," this South Philadelphia Irishman always says, "turn the
page." But the newest page in his book is adorned with the name
of a player unlike any other who has walked among the school's
191-year-old stone buildings. Whitaker comes with more
publicized baggage and more natural--if untapped--ability than
anybody in the legions Phelan has coached. Surely there will be
changes on the coach's part, but they will come slowly, just the
way he has worked the prison-rusty Whitaker into the Mount's
lineup. It is a scenario that calls for restraint, for cool, and
what could be cooler than Phelan's admitting that, until his new
star took the court against Loyola, he had never seen him play
in person? "Just on tape," Phelan says. "He was in that
McDonald's All-Star Game or whatever they call it. The one where
he blocked 11 shots, which is a record. The little I saw, we
weren't going to get him."
That was in 1995, which was like every other year before now.
Phelan could always find guards, whether they were playmakers or
shooters; it was talented big men who were seemingly beyond his
reach. Instead he got the projects, players who would reward all
the teaching and tinkering they required with maybe two decent
seasons, or sometimes just one. No wonder Phelan can't help
exulting at his once-in-a-career good fortune. "Melvin Whitaker
is not a project," he says. "He's a big, swift, 6'11" athlete
who knows how to play basketball."
Notice, please, that the coach doesn't hesitate to credit his
prodigy with an inch more than Virginia did. But the miracle of
growth, real or imagined, pales in comparison with the tale of
how Whitaker found his way to Mount St. Mary's. As hard as it is
to believe in this cynical age, he did it through the kindness of
At the outset the only one of his benefactors who wasn't a
stranger was Jeff Null, the son of a Gettysburg, Pa., dentist
and a freshman at Oak Hill Academy, a private school in Mouth of
Wilson, Va., that Whitaker attended for his senior year. Jeff
played on the jayvee, but he endeared himself to Whitaker with
his gung ho style in pickup games and his ceaseless questions
about recruiting. "I'd kind of mess with him," Whitaker recalls.
"One day I'd say I was going to Carolina, the next day I'd say
it was Virginia." Those were good times, which helps explain why
it was such a shock for Null to see the news about Whitaker's
arrest on ESPN. His family was vacationing in Los Cabos, Mexico,
then, and the first thing Jeff did after hearing about the
slashing and the 75 stitches was turn to his father and say with
heartfelt conviction: "I can't believe Melvin would do something
Being a Virginia grad (class of '72) and a passionate Cavaliers
fan, Cleve Null didn't want to believe it, either. He had
listened to Jeff talk effusively about Virginia's next great
power forward, and he remembered thanking Whitaker for being so
nice to Jeff and how gentle Whitaker had seemed in that one
brief meeting. But before he could move beyond that, Null had to
deal with something he still feels deeply. "I'm a victim's
rights guy," he says. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
So he started making calls, trying to find out more about the
incident, and the more people he talked to, the more he realized
how dire Whitaker's situation was. "It finally dawned on me," he
says, "that if this kid served a significant amount of time in
prison, he wasn't ever going to be a contributing member of
Thus was born Null's campaign to help Whitaker work past the
worst mistake of his life. He enlisted the help of his wife,
Betsy, and together the Nulls hired Leffler to replace the
public defender assigned to Whitaker's case, and they footed the
bill. They went to court with him, they visited him in prison,
and they invited him into their home before he served his time,
just as they would when he was released on parole. They showed
him a way of life unlike any he had known, with a computer in
his room, a bike to ride down leafy country lanes and a deck on
which he could sit and think as he gazed at the Catoctin
The Nulls figure he repaid them a thousand times over with his
bravery the day that station wagon went hurtling off the
highway. "When I saw the way the car looked, I thought I'd be
going to three funerals," Cleve says. But none of the occupants
even spent the night in the hospital. The Nulls' daughter, Kate,
was hurt the worst, with two cracked bones in her back, and all
she wanted to talk about was how Whitaker had risked his neck
for her and the driver until rescue workers arrived to pry the
driver out of the wreck. As for Whitaker, he has to be prodded
to discuss the accident. He'd rather praise his benefactor. "Dr.
Null didn't have to give me a chance to be in the most positive
place I can be," he says. "But he did, and it's definitely...I
want to say a blessing, but that's too common. This is something
higher. He's a magnificent man."
It is not, however, as though Null has cornered the market on
good deeds. Soon after he decided to help, he began discussing
Whitaker's predicament with a patient of his named Don Anderson,
who happens to have been Phelan's top assistant since 1989. Null
convinced Anderson that Whitaker was going to need all the
lifelines he could get from the world beyond prison, so the
coach started making regular trips south just to talk to
Melvin--conversations about life and history and everything else.
The one thing they didn't talk about was the possibility of
Whitaker's playing at Mount St. Mary's. The recruiting pitch was
omitted for a reason. "Melvin is the kind of kid who normally
winds up at a TV school," Anderson says. And it was the TV
schools, the ones that dominate the national rankings, that kept
calling to find out how Whitaker was doing. Imagine their
surprise last April when Whitaker let it be known that he would
enroll at the Mount for one reason: "They understand there's
more to my life than a ball and a basket," he said.
Anderson had taken the idea to Phelan, who ran it through the
school's chain of command. "Having Melvin Whitaker here is
absolutely the right thing to do," says school president George
Houston. That isn't because the president repeatedly saw, during
his 20 years as an administrator at Georgetown, what a
basketball star can do for a school's clout. It's because of
something as essential to Christian tradition as the Lord's
Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses...." It's because the
National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes sits on the Mount St. Mary's
campus, welcoming a million pilgrims a year as they seek to
replenish their souls at a sacred spring adorned by the words of
John 7:37: "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink." It's
because Father Flanagan studied at Mount St. Mary's before he
founded Boys Town in 1917, and surely everybody remembers his
motto: There's no such thing as a bad boy.
So it is that Whitaker has come to the Mount to seek a second
chance. He was never much of a student in the past, but he seems
eager about his classes in sociology, English literature and
Western civilization. As for basketball, he has learned quickly
that it will be a long road back to what he once was. You could
hear it in Whitaker's voice after Georgia Tech's Alvin Jones
blocked two of his shots almost disdainfully. "That used to be
my game," he said.
There would be other games for him, and in the meantime he stops
by Phelan's office every day, less for the conversation than for
the reassurance that his coach cares. Life will go on even
though at week's end the team's record was 12-12 and Whitaker
was averaging only 9.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. As for Phelan,
he needed just 3 victories to reach 800 and join a club whose
only other members are Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and Clarence (Big
House) Gaines. "That's history," says Whitaker, who has every
intention of being there. He knows how history works. Sometimes
you embrace it, sometimes you try to leave it behind.
He got off the school bus and started for home. He remembers the
day vividly: He lived two doors from the corner, and he was
almost to his front porch when he saw his mother, Cheryl, pull
up in her car. It was jammed with furniture. He remembers how
that puzzled him and how he couldn't find a way to ask her about
it. So he said, "Where are you going?" And she said, "Across
town." Then she drove away.
The next thing he remembers is opening the front door and
stepping inside. His mother had stripped the house to the rugs
on the floor; the only things left behind were a TV, a microwave
and a couple of beds. Melvin was 11. He turned down his mother's
invitation to live with her, and after that, she never returned
to the family full time. He remembers the emptiness settling on
him like a winter fog.
That feeling is still with him, but he doesn't put it on display
in hopes that it will somehow excuse his past. The harm that is
done you doesn't cancel the harm you do to others. At best it
becomes a life lesson, like the one Whitaker carries with him
whether he is going to church on Sunday or calling his parole
officer in Charlottesville on Monday. Every day he walks a
little easier as a free man. "I'm starting to breathe again," he
says. He lives in a dorm now, and he waits to dig into Martin
Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham jail as part of his
freshman seminar. He clings to his dream that he can still
become the basketball player he was supposed to be, and he
steels himself for the abuse he always expects to hear on the
road. But it can never be as cruel as what he did to Maurice
Anderson, and it can never be as cold as what his mother did to
Whatever happens, he will get through it, just as his father did
when he discovered that his wife had taken nearly everything
worth taking. Whitaker remembers it all perfectly. His father
marched out to the shed and came back in with a beat-up table
and four rickety, mismatched chairs. They went in the kitchen.
None of the kids said a word about how bad the furniture looked.
Over the years, bit by bit, the house has been refurnished.
There's even new carpeting. When Whitaker came home from prison,
that old table was gone and a new one stood in its place. His
father had taken something bad and made it good. Melvin Whitaker
will remember that most of all.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA A watchful eye Phelan has been coaching at Mount St. Mary's for 45 years, but only a violent crime and a chance meeting brought him together with Whitaker, the best big man the school has ever had.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA TURN THE OTHER CHEEK Anderson has twice been asked for forgiveness by Whitaker, but he feels the damage done was too great.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA BACK IN THE GAME Almost three years after the slashing, Whitaker entered his first game for the Mount and showed his stuff.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO CLEARING THE WRECKAGE Cleve Null says he and Betsy decided to help Melvin when it became clear that if they didn't, "he might never be a contributing member of society."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA "What's my little girl going to say about this scar?" Anderson asks in a whisper that's a scream. "How do I explain it to her?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON/AURORA SCHOOL TIES Don Anderson (at blackboard) visited Whitaker (44) in prison before he ever thought Melvin would play for Phelan (left).
The undeniable fact is this: Melvin Whitaker did slash the face
of Maurice Anderson, opening a wound that scarred one cheek and
Two seconds into his first game, without ever once having
practiced with the team, Whitaker scored on an inbounds lob.
The Nulls figure that Melvin repaid them a thousand times over
with his bravery the day the car went hurtling off the highway.
Later this season Phelan could become only the fourth coach to
win 800 games, but he's never had a player like Whitaker.