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" roadside Sisyphus.
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 cleanup 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 himself.
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 two lives.