PITTSBURGH (AP)—Fittingly, Sam Ashaolu was standing on the court at a pregame shootaround, wearing his Duquesne University basketball sweats, when he received the best news of his life.
The former player who has inspired a college campus with his determination to graduate despite being the most seriously wounded of the five Duquesne basketball players shot in September 2006 was going to receive his college diploma Dec. 17.
|AN INSPIRATION—Sam Ashaolu, one of five Duquesne University basketball players shot in September 2006, sits in the school gymnasium as the team goes through some drills during practice at the A.J. Palumbo Center Dec. 16.
Ashaolu nearly died of head wounds in the horrific shootings that followed a dance, rocking an urban campus that had just been chosen as one of the nation’s safest.
He needed multiple operations to save his life, endured seizures and recurring hospital stays and, months after his recovery was under way, was told he couldn’t play again because it was too risky to remove bullet fragments lodged in his brain.
“At any given moment, I was told, I could go to sleep and not wake up,” Ashaolu said Dec. 16.
Many athletes might have become angry, given up, quit school and begun their adult life with a grudge that would last a lifetime. Instead, Ashaolu told Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio and coach Ron Everhart he wanted to stay with the team in any role and return to as normal a college life as possible.
Then, remarkably, he did exactly that.
“If somebody would have told you while he was in that hospital bed, battling for his life, that he would have a college degree in three years, most people would have said that’s not possible, that’s unbelievable, that can’t happen,” Everhart said. “It’s a modern-day miracle.”
Another player who was seriously wounded, Stuard Baldonado, left school without playing. Two others, Shawn James and Kojo Mensah, turned pro before their senior seasons in 2008-09 and didn’t graduate. Ashaolu and Aaron Jackson, who received a minor wound, became close friends and helped turn around a Duquesne program that was 3-24 in 2005-06.
Jackson did it on the court as an all-Atlantic 10 guard who led the Dukes to a 21-13 record last season, the A-10 championship game and the NIT, where he scored 46 points during a double-overtime loss at Virginia Tech.
Ashaolu did it off the court, serving as a team manager, a teammate in pickup games and a role model for every college player who has experienced adversity.
“I overcame a lot,” said Ashaolu, a 6-7 power forward who played at Lake Region State College in North Dakota before transferring to Duquesne. “I hope it inspires some other kids who go through the same thing I went through to keep fighting.”
Everhart and Amodio said every new Duquesne student quickly learned about Ashaolu’s relentless commitment to graduate. He went to school in the fall, spring and summer, rarely missed class, worked daily with speech therapists and at the school’s learning lab, and nearly became like a son to assistant director of student services Kevin Deitrick.
“He’s so resilient, so determined,” Everhart said.
Jackson, now playing in Turkey’s top pro league, said Ashaolu’s perseverance made him realize the minor problems in his own life were exactly that—minor.
“It’s remarkable seeing the things he does, seeing him wake up and take his medicine and go to class, come back, take his medicine and then go to night class,” Jackson said. “It makes you want to pray to God, ‘Thank you for giving this man another chance and everyone another chance.’ It’s going to be truly remarkable to see him walk across that stage and get that degree. It’s going to be a lot of tears, a special day.”
Deitrick and Amodio gave Ashaolu big hugs upon delivering the news at about 3 p.m. EST last Wednesday that he had passed his final class and could take part in Duquesne’s winter commencement 24 hours later.
Ashaolu and his family sued the university 15 months ago in a still-unresolved case, saying better security should have been offered to prevent the shootings, yet he never considered transferring. And Duquesne never took him off scholarship.
“You talk about somebody who’s overcome the ultimate obstacle,” Amodio said. “A little over three years ago, we didn’t know what the future held for Sam.”
That future could be in—yes, basketball. Ashaolu, whose older brother, John, is the director of basketball operations at East Carolina, wants to stay in the sport and work with youngsters. He will travel to his Toronto home for the holidays—he turns 27 on Christmas—but will return to Pittsburgh after Jan. 1 to begin searching for a job and to follow the Dukes.
“I’m close to a lot of the guys,” Ashaolu said.
Those Dukes players—and their coach—look to Ashaolu as a source of motivation.
“It’s the biggest win of my basketball career,” Everhart said. “I can’t think of many things in my life that have been a whole lot more special than Sam handling the adversity that he’s had to handle through the shooting, and putting himself in a position now to graduate. I think that’s about as good as it gets.”