Comeback win

PITTSBURGH – The first triumph came five hours before the Duquesne basketball team's season opener on Monday, and here's what it looked like:

Sam Ashaolu walked into a conference room.

He sat behind a long table.

He stared at a phalanx of television cameras, photographers and reporters.

Moments later, with about 40 people watching in near silence, the junior forward leaned into a microphone, gripped it with his right hand and spoke for the first time in public since being shot in the head.

"I'd like to thank God for making me live," he said, and he proceeded to thank his family, friends, teammates, coaches and everybody across the country who had prayed for him. "I hope to get 100 percent so I can get back on the court real soon."

Later, Ashaolu's teammates would take the court without him for Duquesne's game against Youngstown State. They would attempt to reverse two decades of futility, including last season's 3-24 record. They would attempt to shed their reputation as perennial sad sacks of the Atlantic 10 Conference. They would attempt to follow the lead of Ron Everhart, who, after being hired as head coach last spring, brought in new energy and 10 new players, including Ashaolu, a junior-college transfer.

But five hours before tip-off, victory was measured in simpler terms. Sam Ashaolu was breathing. Walking. Talking.

Remarked one of three doctors at the press conference: "He's a quiet fighter."

Eight weeks ago, Ashaolu was fighting for his life.

He and four other Duquesne basketball players were shot after an on-campus dance. The incident started with a verbal exchange, reportedly over a woman flirting with one of the players.

Bullets whizzed through the air. Players scattered for cover. Then when the gunmen fled the bloody scene, the players scrambled to one another's aid.

One player took off his shirt and used it as a tourniquet for a bleeding teammate. Another player dragged a teammate to his car and drove him to the hospital. All five players eventually made it to Mercy Hospital, where their coach rushed the instant he heard about the shooting and checked on his players.

One had been shot in the left foot. Another had been grazed on the left hand. A third had been shot in the left forearm and right shoulder. A fourth had been shot in the left arm, the bullet severing an artery and just missing his spine. But none was injured as critically as Ashaolu.

He had been shot twice in the head with bullet fragments lodged into his brain.

Days after the shooting, when police arrested the alleged gunmen – two 18-year-old men who were not students at Duquesne – the other four players were out of the hospital. Ashaolu still was on a ventilator.

The shooting shocked the 8,500 students who attend Duquesne, a Roman Catholic university in downtown Pittsburgh and previously considered one of the country's safest schools. What happened next shocked doctors at nearby Mercy Hospital.

Ashaolu, 23, who was born in Nigeria but grew up in Toronto, began a remarkable recovery.

He overcame fever. He overcame infection. He overcame setback after setback.

Basketball practices went on without Ashaolu. But each time the players and coaches huddled, the Duquesne Dukes paid tribute to their recovering teammate with what became a mantra.

"One, two, three, Dukes! Four, five, six, Sam!"

Six weeks after the shooting, after doctors performed surgery to remove one of the bullet fragments from Ashaolu's skull, the Dukes gathered for practice and got a big surprise. It was Sam.

They watched in amazement as he hit one jumper after the next. But his aim was better than his speech and memory that still were slowed by the brain injury. Ashaolu, quiet and shy even before the shooting, restricted his contact to family members, friends and doctors. Until Monday afternoon.

Sitting next to his older brother John – a graduate student manager for the basketball team – Sam Ashaolu joined three doctors and four school officials at the press conference. He shifted his gaze from the contingent of media to the table as the school president talked about the increased security on campus and one doctor talked about Sam's progress with rehabilitation. Another doctor talked about the bullet fragments still lodged in his patient's brain, and it was hard to know how much registered with the recovering player.

Then someone asked about Ashaolu's rehabilitation, which involves a morning workout at Duquesne's basketball arena with the doctors. Everhart interjected.

"Sam was relating to me that they have some deficiencies with their post defense," he said. "Sam said they have no doctors that can guard him down low. … Right, Sam?"

The doctors laughed. The school administrators laughed. The media contingent laughed.

Ashaolu's eyes lit up. He flashed a huge grin that wiped the blank look off his face.

Soon, a school official called the press conference to a close, and she asked Ashaolu if he had anything to say.

"I just hope they play hard and win the game tonight," he said.

Worried the excitement of the game might be too much for Ashaolu, doctors advised him not to watch the game. Yet how could he possibly stay away?

This was no ordinary night for a basketball team that during one dreadful stretch last season drew about 200 fans to one home game. On Monday, students began arriving two hours before tip.

"Are you serious? People are lining up?" one student said as he approached the line.

"Yeah, this is big-time," another replied.

But the excitement came with something eerie. Students had to pass through metal detectors for the first time in school history, and signs outside the Palumbo Center that houses the basketball arena listed prohibited items such as weapons and firearms. But the security measures, or memories of the Sept. 17 shooting, could not dampen the enthusiasm among those cheering for Duquesne.

By official count, there were 1,830 people in the cozy gym. But the fans brought enough lung power for 5,000.

They cheered wildly when Duquesne broke out to a 10-point lead, and they kept cheering even though the lead shriveled to one by the half. The Dukes, with their roster depleted by the shooting-related injuries and a starting lineup comprising three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, were down to only seven scholarship players. Those players grew tired, too, and in the second half they found themselves down by eight points with less than 10 minutes to play.

"Don't put your head down," Everhart commanded during timeouts. "We're coming back."

Then Everhart sneaked a glance at the president's suite across the court. A few times, he pointed at the suite but couldn't make out faces behind the glass. When the Dukes gathered at the free-throw line, they occasionally pointed in the same direction. As if drawing on a higher power, the Dukes willed themselves back into the game.

They tied it at 65 with 5:19 left, then went down by one, up by one, down by one and up by two. And with the crowd roaring its approval, Duquesne pulled away, missing free throws down the stretch but playing as if the Dukes had no choice but to win.

When the buzzer sounded, when Duquesne's 81-75 victory over Youngstown State was official, the players and coaches hugged and grinned and, as they left the floor to cheers, again pointed to that VIP box.

"I think this game exemplified what's been going on with this basketball program for the past two months," Everhart said after the game. "Guys just believing in each other and sticking together."

In the end, they all were there – the walk-ons and the walking wounded. Shawn James, who had the bullet removed from his left foot on Friday. James "Kojo" Mensah, who was hospitalized for three days after being shot in the left forearm and right shoulder and began practicing with the team a week and a half ago but was not ready to play. Stuard Baldonado, who still is recovering from surgery to repair the artery in his left arm that was severed by a bullet.

Aaron Jackson, who was grazed by a bullet, was the only player injured in the shooting who was able to play. And oh, did he play. Jackson had 12 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two blocked shots and a steal. He wanted this game bad.

"We wanted it for Sam," he said.

And, yes, Sam Ashaolu saw it all.

Ashaolu was sitting in the VIP suite the entire game, secretly led before tip-off to the quiet perch where behind the glass he watched his teammates chase down loose balls, scrap for rebounds and expend every last ounce of effort. He also watched every time the team saluted him, as Everhart did when he pointed to the box before the game, at halftime and after big plays.

In the end, the Dukes honored Sam's request.