Herb Pope overcomes second scare
Much-traveled Seton Hall forward is on the mend after another brush with death
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- He walked to the end of the gym, the end where the stage still sits, turned right, went through an old wooden door, then through a set of double doors and climbed the steps.
Up one floor, everything was normal.
Then just as he reached the second-floor landing, only 30 feet from his weight room destination, Herb Pope collapsed.
That's all Pope remembers. The rest he has heard second-hand, just as he is on this Thursday morning in a conference room outside the Seton Hall basketball offices.
He listens politely as head coach Kevin Willard recalls his graduate assistant, Grant Billmeier, sprinting into the gym to tell him Pope had collapsed.
And he sits quietly while team physician Tony Testa explains what he found when he got to the stairwell -- Pope, unresponsive and without a pulse.
All Pope knows is that he's here. And he shouldn't be. For the second time in his life, Herb Pope has cheated death.
"I'm blessed,'' he said simply. "I'm still here.''
The technical term is an anomalous right coronary artery.
"Think of it like you would stepping on a garden hose,'' Testa explained.
Basically Pope's right artery was pinched and the blood that should have been freely flowing from his heart wasn't. Throughout his life, a basketball life dotted with the requisite physicals and checkups that an athlete has to endure, Pope occasionally felt light-headed or experienced some tingling in his legs during a strenuous workout.
In fact, he remembers feeling light-headed on Wednesday, April 28, as he walked from the gym and up the stairs.
But then, like every other time before, he wrote the symptoms off to exhaustion or exertion from hoops and no one ever gave him cause to believe otherwise. His condition, a rare genetic defect that affects less than 1 percent of the population, is almost impossible to detect -- it took doctors almost 10 days to discover it after he was hospitalized -- but it can be fatal.
In fact, had Pope collapsed anywhere else -- in his room, on his way to class, at a restaurant -- he likely wouldn't be alive.
"No, probably not,'' Testa said quietly.
Instead, Pope is not only alive, but as of Aug. 18 he has been officially cleared to resume all basketball activities. When Seton Hall opens its season at Temple on Nov. 12, Pope will be in the lineup with a heart doctors say is completely healed and healthy.
That's because the same twisted fate that for much of his life placed him in the wrong place at the wrong time, finally got it right.
When Herb Pope collapsed, he was in the right place at the right time.
Billmeier, who by sheer chance followed Pope up the stairwell, ran back to the gym after seeing him collapse and within seconds, Testa and athletic trainer Jessica Viana were at Pope's side.
Testa performed CPR and the two used the defibrillators on hand in the Richie Regan Athletic Complex. They had to shock Pope only once before he responded, and within 20 minutes, Pope was in an ambulance en route to St. Barnabas Hospital.
With the entire basketball team crowded in the waiting room, Willard, Testa and Pope's mentor, Charles Smith, stayed with Pope in the emergency room while Pope's family drove in from western Pennsylvania.
It had been all of 30 days since Willard was hired at Seton Hall, taking over after Bobby Gonzalez was fired. And now he stood next to the hospital bed of one of his best players, a player who up until that moment had been toying with going pro.
"You see someone with such a bright future I cried a lot,'' Willard said. "This kid had his whole life in front of him.''
Doctors quickly stabilized Pope, but intentionally kept him medicated while they tried to figure out what was wrong.
You see someone with such a bright future I cried a lot. This kid had his whole life in front of him.''” -- Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard
That proved more difficult than they'd hoped.
Doctors ran a battery of tests but none immediately found the defect.
"It's like going fishing but you have to know exactly where to fish,'' Testa said.
And in the interim, Pope felt better. He was walking, talking and itching to go home. When doctors finally diagnosed the problem and explained that without surgery, he could be OK for the rest of his life but it would be a risk, Pope balked.
"There were some heated discussions with my coaches, my family,'' Pope said. "They were all trying to do what was best for me, but I was the one getting cut.''
Finally, the family played the trump card -- Pope's 2-year-old daughter, H'Amila.
"Then it was a done deal,'' Pope said. "I want to see her go to kindergarten, first grade and all of that.''
Pope underwent the three-hour corrective surgery. Two days later, he was discharged from the hospital, weighing 45 pounds less than he did before his collapse.
"The day he walked in here, all 192 pounds of him, was the best day on the job,'' Willard said.
There is a small scar from the surgery, one H'Amila likes to kiss "to heal the boo-boo," but Pope isn't even fazed by the reminder.
"I've got bigger ones,'' he said, motioning to the long line on the inside of his left forearm.
Indeed, Pope's body is more like a road map, crisscrossed by the scars that mark the trials of his life.
Pope grew up in blue-collar Aliquippa, Pa., in an area still referred to as Plan 11, the name given to the section when the steel mills took over a hundred years ago.
It's now rife with crime, prostitutes and crack dealers and Pope didn't leave unscathed. His parents have both been in and out of jail and Pope spent his childhood hopscotching from relatives' homes to foster homes to friends' homes.
Finally in the 10th grade, his aunt, Amy Pope-Smith, took him in. For years she had made sure Pope had Christmas gifts and back-to-school clothes, but when Pope -- after a year at Montrose Christian in Baltimore -- had nowhere to live, she and her husband moved to the smaller bedroom in their home and gave the bigger space to her nephew.
Pope blossomed in the stable environment, and on the basketball court as well. By the time he was a senior, he was a top-50 prospect who would earn Parade All-American honors and catch the eyes of the typical name-brand basketball programs around the country. He originally was targeted to stay home at Pitt, but his plans changed on March 31, 2007.
According to police reports, Pope got into an argument at a party after refusing to give someone a ride home. The man punched Pope and when he retaliated, the man's cousin, Marcus Longmire, opened fire. Pope was shot four times -- twice in the lower abdomen, once in the thigh and once on the forearm, a defensive wound that likely saved his life.
Pope spent two weeks in the hospital and lost 37 pounds
"That was scarier because you don't know if something else could happen,'' Pope said.
He left the hospital with a new plan -- he would go to New Mexico State, as far away from the troubles of Aliquippa as he could get.
But after Aggies head coach Reggie Theus took a job with the Sacramento Kings and Pope decided he wanted to be closer to home -- but not too close -- he chose Seton Hall.
After sitting out a year, he burst onto the Big East scene last season, averaging 11.5 points and a league-best 10.5 rebounds. Respected as hard-nosed, he finally had shed the perception that had dogged him for much of his life -- that of a bad kid and troublemaker not worth taking a chance on, the one who refused to accept his runner-up medal in a state tournament and who punched an AAU coach during a game.
And then in the final game of Seton Hall's season, Pope twice punched Texas Tech's Darko Cohadarevic in the groin and was ejected from the game.
All of the same labels came back to life.
"All I can say is don't judge a book by its cover,'' Pope said. "I take it like it is. It's karma. I just hope people don't write me off.''
Those who know him insist they shouldn't.
"Herb Pope is not a troublemaker,'' Detective Sgt. Donald Couch, who investigated Pope's shooting, told The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger in 2008. "There are dozens of Herb Popes on the streets: star athletes who won state championships, then fell through the cracks here. Herb is a nice kid. A kid like Herb, you want him to get out and stay out.''
Pope's new coach, who offered a blank slate to all of his players after he was hired, concurs.
"He has a hard shell and can be hard to crack,'' Willard said. "But once you get to know him, he has such an engaging personality. He's smart and he's funny and he can be a pain in the ass like anyone else, but he's special.''
Now Pope has a chance -- another one -- to prove the doubters wrong.
Asked if he's changed, Pope doesn't hesitate.
"You got to,'' he said simply. "You can't not change how you're living.''
He has altered everything from how he eats -- no more Domino's pizza -- to how he thinks. Pope dreams of the NBA, but isn't obsessed with it, knowing the day will come when it's time to come.
Much to the delight of his aunt, he also has made peace with his father, paying his dad a visit after being discharged from the hospital. The two had been estranged for years, but Pope decided it was time to forgive the man whose name he shares. Herbert Pope was in the Beaver County (Pa.) Jail when the two reconnected.
"He had heard about it, but he didn't know,'' Pope said. "He didn't want to cry. You don't want to cry when you're in jail, but he prayed with me. I got his name, so I respect that. Everybody else in my family wrote him off, but I forgave him.''
Pope admits he was initially reluctant to talk about his situation. Neither he nor anyone in the university spoke publicly about his situation until Thursday, despite a swirling rumor mill that often painted a bleak picture.
He wanted to be sure he was OK physically, but more importantly, that he was OK emotionally. Regular visits with a therapist have helped ensure that.
"I'm fine now,'' he said. "I don't mind talking about it all except when people are like 'You really almost died. You shouldn't be here.' All right, yeah, let's not make the whole conversation about that. Let's move on.''
Indeed for Herb Pope, it is time to move on.
Time to move on to living.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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