Commentary

Just a short walk from home, local boy Blair makes good with Panthers

Originally Published: January 28, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- It is 10 minutes to history, and DeJuan Blair isn't about to miss it. The tour of his Hill District neighborhood is put on hold as Blair bangs a quick U-turn in front of the Ammons Recreation Center and follows a handful of twisted, hilly streets before pulling up to the curb in front of his uncle's house.

[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
David A. DeNomaBlair celebrates Barack Obama's inauguration in the living room of his uncle, Michael Smith.
He hugs his uncle, Michael Smith (everyone just calls him "Unc"), offers a quick introduction to the people following him into the house and grabs a seat on the sofa directly in front of the television.

For the next 30 minutes, Blair is riveted as Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States. Sitting in a house in what is the roughest and hardest section of blue-collar Pittsburgh, Blair has a hard time explaining what it means to see a black man become the most powerful man in the world.

It is exactly as his family told him when he decided to stay home, to travel merely 600 yards to the Pitt campus instead of across the country to forge his college basketball path: One man can make a difference.

"Someone once said to me that I'm doing for the city of Pittsburgh what Barack is doing for the United States," Blair says. "I didn't even know what to say. That's just crazy."

What may seem like hyperbole is proven to be anything but when you travel around the neighborhood with Blair. He is the Pied Piper-grown gargantuan, a hometown hero who can't go unrecognized even hidden in a nondescript rental car. Grown men stop working to take a picture alongside him, and other adults insist he can't leave without putting his name on a basketball. And kids? Kids who don't know a thing about the University of Pittsburgh know who No. 45 is.

Not a lot of hope comes out of Blair's neighborhood, and if it does, it usually takes wing for greener pastures. Once a cultural mecca and home to the Crawford Grill jazz spot, the Hill began to fall on hard times when the bulldozers made way for the Civic (now Mellon) Arena. Its population more than halved, the city's attempts at urban revival via new, well-appointed homes sit next to boarded-up shells.

[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
David A. DeNomaSophomore forward DeJuan Blair grew up in Pittsburgh's Hill District, just 600 yards away from Pitt's campus.
Blair is civic pride and a community's dreams bundled into a 6-foot-7, 265-pound ball of infectious energy -- a well-mannered, intelligent kid who chose to embrace his hometown rather than escape it. When he signed with Pitt, he became the first City League player to play for the Panthers in 16 years, and only the third since Sam Clancy left campus in 1981.

Can one man make a difference?

In the spring, Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon and his team will launch a mentoring program for kids in the Hill District. "We've been talking about doing it for a long time," Dixon says. "But now is the perfect time. If we can't get it going with this guy, when can we?"


The house sits on the downslope of Avalon Street, across from what Blair admits was a killer sledding hill.

"Except you had to go at night because of the street at the bottom," he says. "You couldn't see, but there weren't any cars coming, so it was safer."

Blair grew up here, the oldest of Shari and Greg Blair's four children. (One brother, DeMond, died as an infant when Blair was 4 and is the reason he points to the sky after big plays.) He was the smallest of the kids, only 6 pounds, 11 ounces at birth; still in his high chair, unwilling or unable to walk at his first birthday.

By grade school, Blair was the biggest kid in his class, a big boy with a soft heart who, his grandmother says, "didn't want to hurt the other kids" when he first started playing basketball. He jokes that because he was too big to play peewee football, the weight requirement crushed his dream. Truth is, basketball was in his blood. Both Shari and Greg played at Schenley High School. Blair used to bang with his father on the neighborhood courts, and finally won when he was 12.

"I spotted him a few points, but by the time I started to play, it was too late," Greg Blair remembers.

As a kid, Blair spent his afternoons and evenings at Ammons. His uncle ran the place and taught him to play there. Ammons is where Blair announced his commitment to Pitt in a news conference, becoming the first Schenley player in more than 30 years to sign with the nearby university.

The building is closed for renovations when Blair stops by on a January afternoon. Naturally, he's let right in.

Initially forsaken by the city, Ammons has since been brought back under its care. The rec department is in the middle of refurbishing the place. There are new baskets on the rim, and the hardwood glistens with a fresh resurfacing. Blair promises to stay off the court, but when a ball materializes, well, he can't help himself. He points to the far basket, the spot where he made his first dunk. He was already 11 or 12 by the time he took his game above the rim, plenty tall enough, "but I lacked the proper technique," Blair says, grinning sheepishly.

[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
Dave DeNoma for ESPN.comBlair is always well-received when he passes through his old hoops stomping ground, the Ammons Recreation Center in Pittsburgh.
By now, he's dribbling on the shiny floor, tossing up a few jumpers. Coerced into a dunk, he misses the first, residual effects from the previous night's body-banging win over Syracuse.

No one complains that Blair has traipsed across the court. Instead, he's asked to sign the ball before he leaves.

Not far from the rec center is Kennard Park. If Ammons is where Blair learned to play the game, Kennard is where he learned to survive it. The summer league there is to Pittsburgh what famed Rucker Park is to New York, with teenagers mixing with grown men in rugged street ball, drawing hundreds of people on a sweltering day to watch a game.

Blair remembers a championship game when he faced Terrelle Pryor. (The Ohio State quarterback from nearby Jeannette was a 2,000-point scorer in high school.) A handful of Steelers players were among the fans lining the court.

"They were taking bets -- I got DeJuan, I got Terrelle," Blair says. "I had 56 that night. We won."

At Schenley, Blair's basketball skills and oversized personality made him a literal and figurative big man on campus, especially after he led the school to the Class 4A state championship in his senior season. Blair had 18 points, 23 rebounds and six blocked shots in the title game against Chester (and Pitt teammate Nasir Robinson), helping Schenley become the first City League team to win the title since 1978.

He and his teammates paraded through the city that day, hanging out car windows and honking horns. But now, there are no kids outside Schenley as Blair drives by. A year after he graduated, the city shut the school's doors, citing an asbestos problem that would be too costly to remove from the 93-year-old building. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Schenley is just another vacant building in the Hill.


Greg and Shari Blair admit that if they had made the decision, their son would be dressed in orange and white, playing for the University of Tennessee.

They liked Vols head coach Bruce Pearl and thought it might be good for Blair to move out of the city.

[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
James Lang/US PresswirePittsburgh, led by Blair and point guard Levance Fields (right), have led the Panthers to an 18-1 start.
Blair couldn't make up his mind. Considering as many as 18 different scholarship offers, he was so conflicted and overwhelmed that one day he hurled his cell phone across the room, staring blankly as it fell to pieces.

Donna Saddler remembers it well. Blair's maternal grandmother still shakes her head and tsk-tsks as she recalls seeing the boy she calls 'B-Daddy' (short for Big Daddy) crying in her bedroom.

"I just told him, 'Don't worry. I'll be at your school at 12:30, and we'll figure this out,'" Saddler says. "We met in the guidance counselor's office. I said, 'Pitt is it. Now stop it, because you're stressing me.'"

And that was it. Blair, who became the first City League player for Pitt since Darelle Porter (who played there from 1987 to '91), might be big enough to knock opposing centers off the blocks with one good bump of his hip, but he is no match for the woman he calls Mamaw.

She helped raise him. When he and his brother, Greg, needed to go somewhere, Saddler would drive them, rather than risk putting the boys on the rough neighborhood streets. When Dixon, the head coach, started recruiting Blair, he wisely courted Saddler as much as Blair and his parents. On the first day of the contact period, he wanted to come to the house. Saddler explained they'd be having a family reunion barbecue that day, and if he wanted to come, he could.

Dixon went.

When Dixon was down to his last scholarship, he called Saddler.

"I said, 'This is it. If he wants to have it, he has to have it now. It may or may not be there in the future," Dixon says. "She said, 'OK, I'll talk with him.' And she did."

Saddler had done her homework. She knew Aaron Gray was graduating, knew her grandson could play immediately if he earned it.

But she also liked the idea of keeping him home. Blair and his teammates are frequent dinner guests at Saddler's home, where she'll cook up spaghetti or chicken. Blair, who rents a house nearby, stops in to see his Mamaw almost every night.

[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
Dave DeNoma for ESPN.comOne of the benefits of staying close to home for Blair is having his grandmother, Donna Saddler, close by to make sure he's properly dressed for the cold weather.
On this bitter-cold afternoon, he meets her outside the Baum Boulevard Dodge dealership. Saddler, sporting a fire-engine red coat and matching hat, is there to have her car repaired, courtesy of a love tap from a city bus a month earlier. Blair greets her with a smile and warm embrace. Saddler is having none of it.

She takes one look at him and says, "DeJuan, where is your coat? It's cold outside. You need a coat."

Dressed in a hoodie over a T-shirt, Blair explains, "I don't have one. I can't find one big enough."

"Well, I'm going to find you a coat. I'm going to get you a coat that fits today," Saddler responds. "Don't you worry. Mamaw will take care of everything."

Blair just shakes his head as if to say, See? See the price of staying home?

Three hours later, Blair has just finished his tour and is heading toward his car when Saddler pulls up in front of the loading dock at Pitt's Petersen Events Center.

She jumps out with a red bag in her hand.

Inside is a new blue coat.


Unc likes to play a game with Blair. He'll hand Blair an ordinary household product -- a stack of napkins, toilet paper -- and tell him to smile.

"I'm telling you, he could sell anything," Unc says, laughing.

It's true. Proximity makes Blair popular; Blair makes Blair special.

Meet him on the street; Blair smiles. Watch him during pregame warm-ups; Blair smiles. Elbowed in the gut by Syracuse's Rick Jackson during a game; Blair smiles.

And it's not just a polite grin. It's a smile that would make toothpaste makers proud, a full-watt, wide-as-the-face, I-know-something-you-don't-know beam.

Not everyone could enjoy staying so close to home, people pulling at you everywhere you go, turning a routine visit to McDonald's into a circus.

Blair revels in it. He is a people collector, attracting fans and friends as he walks through his neighborhood, across campus and on the court. The same Steelers who watched him play at Kennard watch him play at Pitt. The day after they clinched a Super Bowl berth, Santonio Holmes and Jeff Reed sat courtside watching the Panthers beat Syracuse. When the game ended, Blair went over to give Holmes a hug. They're friends.

When the Panthers earned the program's first No. 1 ranking, Blair walked into a standing ovation at his computer class. All 52 people were on their feet, leaving a seat at the front of the room for the guest of honor.

[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
Dave DeNoma for ESPN.comPittsburgh has embraced Blair and the Panthers, who enjoyed a brief stint at No. 1 this season and are a contender for the Big East and national title.
Inside the car dealership with his grandmother, mechanics stop work and whip out their camera phones to take pictures alongside Blair. They tell him to bring home a national championship and head back to work with P-I-T-T chants ringing through the garage.

Two hours later, Blair waits at a stop sign sitting in someone else's car. Another car crosses the intersection. Even in the anonymous rental, the driver spies Blair and honks the horn.

"You ride through here with him, you get tired of beeping the horn," Unc says. "Everybody likes him. I can't explain how much he means to people around here. I liked the other schools and coaches he was looking at, but what did they have that he couldn't get in his own backyard? I told him he had the chance to change the face of an entire city. I truly believe that he can and he will."

Danny Fortson is the last NBA player to come out of the city, but the 10th pick of the 1997 NBA draft transferred here from nearby Altoona in his junior year of high school.

Blair would be the first with Pittsburgh coursing through his body from birth to city high school to Pitt since Peabody High's Mel Bennett, who played at Pitt in the mid-1970s.

"If he makes the NBA, I told him you'll hear this," Shari Blair says as she knocks on a table. "That's the sound of me fainting."

In news that is sure to delight Pittsburgh fans, Blair says he's in no hurry to make the jump.

"I've been poor my whole life," he says. "I can wait."

Besides, he still has things to accomplish. When Obama finishes his oath, Blair jumps to his feet, arms outstretched, and lets out a "Barack!" scream. He says he wants to win a national championship -- not just for the obvious reasons, but also because he wants to meet the new president. He jokes he'll score 44 in the national championship game to honor the 44th president, then fall down.

But more than meet the president, Blair says he wants to be like the president. His circle of influence, he knows, is considerably smaller. But his impact, he hopes, can be just as great.

"A lot of people can say they played in their home state, but I literally grew up right here," Blair says. "I'm not just in my hometown -- I'm home. I'm doing good things in my home. That means something.

"And there's a lot more to come."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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