The first time Herbert Pope Jr. almost died was on March 31, 2007, when he fled into the pitch-black woods, drenched in blood. It was just past 2:30 a.m., and the 6'8" Pope, then a senior at Aliquippa (Pa.) High, was getting into his ride home from a house party when a man named Tremayne Foster demanded a lift. According to Aliquippa police, both Pope and the driver of the purple Grand Cherokee denied Foster's request; hard punches were exchanged; and another man, Marcus Longmire, 19, shot Pope five times with a revolver. The first two slugs tore into Pope's abdomen, the third exploded his left wrist (which was guarding his head), the fourth grazed his right shoulder and the fifth hit his buttocks, just as Pennsylvania's best basketball prospect ran for cover in the nearby trees.
Five years later Longmire, who pleaded guilty to attempted homicide, is still serving out his sentence—six to 16 years—in a Huntingdon, Pa., jail. (Foster pleaded guilty to simple assault and received two years' probation.) As for Pope? After staggering a quarter mile through the muddy woods, he was picked up by a passing motorist, who sped him to a community hospital. He was soon airlifted to UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh for eight hours of life-saving surgery. "The first thing that really went through my mind that night? It was the craziest thing," Pope recalls now, shaking his head. "I thought, Man, I got a lot more basketball to play."
It's a frigid afternoon in mid-January, and the fifth-year senior is sitting in a conference room on Seton Hall's campus in South Orange, N.J. For several years, Pope says, he relived that night through body-twisting, life-or-death nightmares that arrived, as if on cue, at 2:30 a.m. "The dreams would have different scenarios, but I'd always wake up frantic, ready to battle," he says. Therapy sessions helped ease those terrible memories and allowed him to sleep through the night, but the shooting also left more permanent damage: a jagged scar over the steel rod in the 23-year-old's left wrist (courtesy of a later round of reconstructive surgery), as well as a pair of .22-caliber bullets (one buried close to his kidney, the other near his abdomen).
All of it amounts to compelling evidence in another case: that Pope's candidacy for Big East player of the year is one of the most surprising stories of the season. With a 15--4 record and the nation's No. 6 RPI at week's end, Seton Hall has the senior forward—averaging 16.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks—to thank for engineering one of the most stunning starts in the country. Under second-year coach Kevin Willard, Pope had notched double-digit points or rebounds in all but one game through Sunday, and he cleans the defensive glass (rebounding percentage: 26.0) better than anyone in the conference. "We were 8--11 at this point last year," Willard says. "I think that tells you what type of player Herb is."
But even the coach must concede that he didn't see this sort of resurrection coming. It was only two years ago, Willard says, on a spring afternoon in South Orange, that the Pirates had watched Herb Pope nearly die for the second time.
Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo, Michael Beasley. All are now NBA veterans. But in high school, these future lottery picks—all one-and-done college players—were also Pope's peers. In June 2006, Pope ranked ninth in that storied recruiting class; sneaker doyen Sonny Vaccaro said at the time that Pope belonged "maybe in the top five" and was "the best player I've seen from the Pittsburgh area probably in more than 20 years." On the day he was shot, Pope was scheduled to fly to Chicago with Aliquippa assistant coach Nick Lackovich for Vaccaro's Roundball Classic, an all-star game in which he would play on the Bulls' home floor with Mayo and Love.
An elite rebounder and low-block scorer, Pope developed a point forward's guile, complete with spin moves, a slick handle and an unblinking eye for the bounce pass. ("I've learned how to play all positions: one through five, like my number ," he once explained.) "Herb had a fabulous IQ," says Lackovich, who pegged the player for a future coach. "Our conversations were in depth, not like it was with other kids."
But Pope's childhood wasn't like that of most other kids, even in a town as tough as Aliquippa. Both Herbert Pope Sr. and Juanita Bridges abandoned their five children when Herb Jr. was nine. The parents' rap sheets are lengthy: guilty pleas for robbery, theft and aggravated assault (him); retail theft and multiple cases of bad checks (her). "All the odds were so against Herb," says Aliquippa's assistant police chief, Don Couch, who investigated Pope's shooting as a detective. "Basketball was his light at the end of the tunnel." Herb Jr. bounced among foster care and relatives' and teammates' houses, never staying at one for long. (He spent his freshman year at Rockville, Md., hoops power Montrose Christian.) While Pope would eventually settle in with an aunt and uncle, fighting would get him sent away from Beaver Falls (Pa.) Middle School, as well as from an AAU tournament in Orlando. The student was, as an old English teacher once put it, "extremely articulate" but with "a complete lack of guidance." "Herb could hang out with the businessman or the guys on the corner," says former Aliquippa assistant coach Sherman McBride. And after Pope's two-week stay at UPMC Presbyterian—he checked out 37 pounds lighter—the hazards of the latter choice of company were clear.
While Pope had verbally committed to Pittsburgh as a sophomore, he ultimately embraced New Mexico State over schools such as Maryland, Texas and Oklahoma. The prospect of leaving the troubles of his hometown far behind was appealing, and he knew he could start immediately for the Aggies. Coach Reggie Theus, the former NBA All-Star, even took a booster's Lear jet to seal the deal. But in June '07, Theus left to coach the Sacramento Kings. And that fall, upon arrival in Las Cruces, an academic eligibility inquiry kept Pope on the sideline for his first 19 games. (He would average 11.1 points and 6.8 boards in 16 games for the 21--14 Aggies.) By the summer of '08, with Pope's one-and-done dream splintered, he transferred to Seton Hall, which was starving for a power forward on the rise.
Inside the conference room in South Orange, which overlooks the glistening hardwood of Walsh Gymnasium, Pope has been asked to ponder the alternatives. What if, at 4 p.m. on April 28, 2010, he had not been walking up Walsh's gray staircase, en route to the weight room? What if a graduate assistant had not been behind him when Pope suddenly crumpled to the floor? What if, when Pope's heart stopped beating—rendering him clinically dead—he wasn't already within 100 meters of both an athletic trainer and Seton Hall's director of sports medicine, Tony Testa? "What if is all I thought about for those first four months," Pope says. "I mean, What if it'd happened when I was asleep?"
Instead, within seconds of Pope's collapse, Testa sprinted over, performed CPR and applied defibrillators to Pope's chest. The player was rushed by ambulance to Saint Barnabas Medical Center in nearby Livingston. Willard, who was in his first month on the job, followed, and the situation was so touch-and-go that the Pirates' sports information director, Matt Sweeney, readied a press release (headline: SETON HALL'S HERB POPE PASSES AWAY) announcing the sophomore's death from "a cardiac event." "I got flashbacks back to when he was shot," says Couch, who came to visit a comatose Pope at Saint Barnabas. "I was like... again?"
Only after Pope's condition stabilized and he survived another week of testing did a diagnosis arrive. Pope had been born with an anomalous right coronary artery, a condition found in less than 1% of the U.S. population. His blood, like water through a pinched garden hose, hadn't been able to pump freely. Three harrowing hours of surgery were needed to fix the problem. "It was full-blown chaos," recalls Willard. "But the first thing Herb says to me when he wakes up is, 'Don't worry, Coach, I'll be back, better than ever.'"
At the time, though, Pope wasn't expected to be back at all. After sitting out the previous season as a transfer, in 2009--10 he became the first Seton Hall player to lead the Big East in rebounding (10.7 per game). But the year ended on the wrong note when Pope was ejected from the first round of the NIT for punching Texas Tech forward Darko Cohadarevic below the belt. (Cohadarevic had allegedly caught Pope with an elbow.) The day after that, coach Bobby Gonzalez was canned. With the program seemingly falling apart, Pope declared for the NBA draft.
Less than two weeks later, while still bedridden in Saint Barnabas, he withdrew his name. In part this was in recognition of his declining physical state; by the time Pope left the hospital in late May, he was down to 205 pounds. But also during his stay a parade of visitors stayed by his side—especially his Seton Hall coaches and teammates. Besides Willard, point guard Jordan Theodore logged countless hours. A PlayStation appeared. University staffers worked to adjust insurance plans. "You know how some people say they love their school? Well, Seton Hall saved my life," Pope says bluntly. "They made that hospital room feel like home."
Making the most of his final shot at college basketball has been the operative theme of Pope's year. He averaged a career-low 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds last season, but he was functioning at a mere 50%, Willard estimates. If the Pirates were going to make their first NCAA tournament in six years, the offense—run through Pope, and controlled by the electric Theodore (16.3 points and 7.5 assists a game at week's end)—would need the big man better, and fitter, than ever before.
Out went fast food and Skittles, his favorite candy. In came salads and home-cooked chicken. Instead of going back to Aliquippa last summer, Pope spent seven weeks in Houston with former NBA coach and player John Lucas, with whom he still talks at least twice a week. "I couldn't keep him off the floor," recalls Lucas. "He's always had talent. Now he's taken ownership of his life." On the menu in Houston: twice-daily runs in the Texas heat, individual drills, counseling sessions, weightlifting and four-on-four marathons in a gym without air conditioning. "I was selfish in high school," says Pope, who's back up to 240 pounds now. "I liked to pass, yeah, but it was always about me having a great game." Teenage Herb and the new Herb, he figures, are "like night and day."
Consider: Pope became the first member of his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in social behavior science last month. He regularly confides in both Willard—who swears that no one has seen the best of Herb Pope yet—as well as a therapist when times get hard. He's trying to forgive and reconnect with his mother, who is now living in Pittsburgh. (His father remains in jail.) And an aunt, Amy Pope-Smith, brings his two daughters, ages four and one, from Aliquippa to South Orange for home games. (Their mother is a former girlfriend from Aliquippa.) "Herb's matured so much this year," says Couch, who has become a close friend and mentor. "He's finally got his head straight."
Yes, it can still be hard for Pope to see peers such as Rose and Love living their NBA dreams. But he's not wondering why his journey has taken much longer—not any more. "Those guys are where I'm trying to be," he says, grinning. "I'm just taking steps in the right direction." And even now, after twice defeating death, he's got a lot more basketball to play.
"IT WAS FULL-BLOWN CHAOS," RECALLS WILLARD OF THE HOURS AFTER POPE'S COLLAPSE. "BUT THE FIRST THING HERB SAYS TO ME WHEN HE WAKES UP IS, 'I'LL BE BACK, BETTER THAN EVER.'"
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
PULLING HIS WEIGHT Pope struggled last season while still recovering from heart surgery, but dedicated summer workouts have helped him join the Big East's leaders in points, rebounds and blocks.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
SCAR TACTICS Pope's stomach and left wrist bear reminders of the five gunshot wounds he suffered in 2007, when he was one of the nation's top 10 recruits as a senior at Aliquippa High (left).
[See caption above]