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?"