The last thing Delaware forward Mike Pegues remembers about the day he almost died is meeting Thomas Hearns, the former world champion boxer. It was the summer of 1992, and Pegues, then 14, was traveling with a Washington, D.C.-based AAU team to a tournament in Yakima, Wash. The team was walking through Detroit Metropolitan Airport during a layover when some of the players spotted Hearns coming off an escalator. "We were all getting his autograph, saying, 'What's up, champ?' " Pegues recalls. "After that, all I remember is waking up in the hospital with all these tubes coming out of me and seeing my mom and dad. I was confused as hell."
That Pegues is currently the nation's eighth-leading scorer, averaging 22.9 points a game through Sunday, would be remarkable even if he hadn't almost died six years ago after suffering 13 seizures and slipping into a coma that would last three days. (Pegues was suffering from encephalitis, a condition that causes inflammation of the brain and, in his case, probably resulted from a case of chicken pox.) His scoring average is also extraordinary because he's a post player who stands only 6'5".
Pegues began taking the medication Dilantin to treat his illness. It slowed his metabolism, and his weight ballooned to 280 pounds during his freshman year at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md. Delaware coach Mike Brey, then an assistant at Duke, first met Pegues while conducting a clinic at DeMatha during the summer of 1993. "He was a blob," Brey says, "but as he went through drills, you could see he had the footwork of a ballet dancer." Pegues wanted to play for a major-college program, but as a senior at DeMatha he was still a 250-pound wallflower. He signed with Delaware only because no more prominent school wanted him.
Pegues (pronounced puh-GEESE) was weaned from Dilantin the summer before he enrolled at Delaware, and since then his conditioning has steadily caught up to his considerable skills. He started 12 games near the end of his freshman season and last year averaged 16.8 points in leading the Blue Hens to the America East title and a berth in the NCAAs. Pegues, who at week's end had led Delaware to a 17-5 record (10-3 in conference), is a favorite to be the America East MVP this season and has gotten rave reviews from some of the coaches who passed him over in recruiting three years ago. "He can play, in my opinion, in any league in the country," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said after Pegues dropped 35 points on the Cavaliers during a 72-64 Blue Hens loss. "We had no answers for him." No answers for a 6'5" post player who has one dunk and two three-pointers all year? "It's just about positioning," Pegues says, answering for himself.
Both of Pegues's parents played college basketball: his father, Mike, for Division II Pitt- Johnstown (Pa.); his mother, Sharon Marshall, for Division II University of the District of Columbia. Sharon works for the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks, and Mike Jr. spent his childhood following her to playgrounds all over the city, where he had to test his mettle against more than just the other guys. "My mom used to put me on my butt," he says. One day when he was trying to counter by jacking up outside shots, Sharon stopped the game, stood in the paint and said, "Mike, if you want to play this game, this should be your area. Right here."
It's a lesson he learned well. "If you're a post guy, and you do most of your damage with your back to the basket," says Pegues, "why not get as close as you can?"