- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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.