Duquesne's Ashaolu ready to walk out of hospital

Updated: October 13, 2006, 5:14 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- As four Duquesne teammates left Sam Ashaolu's hospital room to attend study hall following their nightly visit, he quietly pushed himself off his chair without wobbling and began walking out the door with them.

For one moment, Ashaolu, a transfer from Lake Region State in Devils Lake, N.D., ignored the burst of unprovoked violence last month that damaged his body and his basketball career and created an uncertain future for both. He merely was one of the guys again on the eve of his first official practice at his new school, about to realize his lifelong goal of being a major college player.

But Ashaolu wasn't on the court Friday when Duquesne opened preseason practice. He remained a city block away in the brain rehabilitation unit of Mercy Hospital, four days short of the one-month anniversary of the shooting that nearly killed him.

The other four Duquesne players shot following a student party are in various stages of recovery, but Ashaolu -- shot twice in the head by an assailant unknown to him -- was by far the most seriously injured. One bullet was removed, but he still has multiple bullet fragments lodged in his head. The shootings have affected his mobility, memory and motor skills, with each in various degrees of damage and recovery.

Duquesne coach Ron Everhart, who recruited Ashaolu from Lake Region State last spring, believes he is "watching a miracle" as he sees his player progress daily. But the coach also understands from numerous discussions with doctors that brain injuries such as Ashaolu's are complex, that progress can stop and start abruptly, and there is no guarantee Ashaolu will be the same person or player he was before the shootings.

"When you walk in there and see him, you understand how far he's come but yet realize how far he has to go ... to overcome as severe an injury as you could possibly have," Everhart said. "You have mixed emotions. The biggest thing is, and I know it's a cliche in athletics, but you don't look forward and you don't look back but concentrate on getting better today. Whether it's a baby step or a giant step, it seems like every day he's made progress. And that's been very inspirational to me."

The 23-year-old Ashaolu has displayed significant and encouraging progress in the last few days. Wobbly on his feet and needing assistance to walk on Monday, he got up on his own and nearly walked out of his hospital room with his teammates Thursday night before a nurse stopped him.

Known to his friends as "Big Slim," he wanted to stop and shoot a basketball while walking through a hospital gym, but a game already was going on and no basket was available. His speech also has become much clearer and deeper in the last few days, and he can follow and engage in conversations involving multiple people. He also speaks now in sentences, rather than with a few softly spoken words.

His most repeated phrase: "I want to get out of here."

Ashaolu can become confused about where some family members are at a certain time and occasionally can't recall teammate's names. He has talked infrequently to family members about the night of the shootings. But he can operate the TV remote control, play video games and correctly answer basic math questions when asked them in rapid fashion by a family friend.

Doctors say it's normal for any shooting victim to experience brief confusion, and that Ashaolu's progress has been excellent and rapid, but it is too early to determine if there will be any longterm brain damage.

His basketball future also is uncertain, mostly because he is mere weeks into what often is a very long rehabilitation. Yet, for all the doubt and the unavoidable questions of "Why us" that have been asked by his close-knit family, there has been far more progress in a much shorter time than was anticipated when he was fighting for his life in the hours immediately after the Sept. 17 shootings.

Ashaolu has begun wolfing down cans of nutritional drinks, an encouraging sign since the previously 225-pound power forward has lost about 30 pounds and considerable muscle mass. The drinks are stacked in the corner of a hospital room filled with balloons, flowers, a huge get-well banner signed by hundreds of Duquesne students, a large card from the Pitt women's team and a T-shirt bearing his likeness and signed by his former junior college teammates.

He also asks repeatedly about his younger brother, Olu, a high school basketball star in Texas to whom he is extremely close. They talk almost daily on the phone, and family members are hoping to arrange a visit before Olu's season starts.

Ashaolu's oldest brother, Steve, visits weekly from Toronto, and older brother John is by his side for hours daily, whenever John isn't taking Duquesne graduate classes or working as a graduate assistant basketball coach.

John's presence seems to be especially motivating to Sam. He is constantly pushing him, asking questions to jog his memory and making sure he exercises, eats regularly and takes the necessary but evil-tasting antibiotics that guard against a brain infection. Doctors are hopeful they can begin cutting back some of the medication by this weekend.

"We're seeing progress every day, and we are thankful for that," John Ashaolu said. "The doctors said it's a long journey, it's a long road ahead, and that's going to be the biggest thing."

Sam's mother, Christinah, has visited weekly from Toronto, where she works two jobs as a nurse. The captain of her college basketball team in her native Nigeria, she began praying immediately after arriving at the hospital for a miracle that would give her son his normal life back. She repeats that prayer daily, and Everhart said her optimism and courage have motivated not only her son and family but those at the university.

The Ashaolu family has asked itself how four brothers who have always tried to be role models and don't drink, use drugs or run with gangs could be struck by such a tragedy. Yet Everhart said their mother has made sure each focuses on being optimistic and positive, not angry and vengeful.

"She has been an inspiration to everyone who has met her," he said.

That attitude is necessary, he said, because there are many tough days ahead not only for Sam Ashaolu, but for a deeply damaged Duquesne program looking for its first winning season in 13 years.

The shootings have cost the team its two power forwards, the 6-foot-7 Ashaolu and 6-7 Stuard Baldonado, who was shot in the back and left arm. Baldonado also is undergoing rehabilitation, as are two other shooting victims, guard Kojo Mensah (arm, shoulder) and 6-10 center Shawn James (foot). Guard Aaron Jackson was grazed in the wrist by a bullet and can practice as normal.

James, the nation's leading shot blocker last season at Northeastern and an NBA prospect, and Mensah, who averaged 16.6 points last season at Siena, were ineligible this season after transferring. But Baldonado was expected to be an impact player immediately.

"There's no question from a basketball perspective we've taken a major blow and it's going to be a major obstacle to overcome," Everhart said. "But from a program-building standpoint we're going to have better players to deal with a year from now. God willing, we'll have some healthy bodies that will be able to come back and help us that much more -- we'll be healthy, strong and better."

That Ashaolu might someday be among those players is his most heartfelt wish.

Everhart also said the pending court cases -- four young people stand accused of crimes in the shootings that followed a Black Student Union party -- must be dealt with by his players at the same time they're trying to focus on the season and their studies, as well as on a hospitalized teammate.

"Obviously, it was a traumatic incident, so traumatic that it's probably been precedent setting throughout NCAA basketball history," Everhart said. "That's the one great unknown. Nobody has ever had to deal with anything like this before."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press