October 2006 — Miracle Man on the Mend

Miracle man on the mend
In the aftermath of the shooting at Dueuesne University, Toronto’s Sam Ashaolu faces an uncertain future, but he’s facing it with family love and support, writes Morgan Campbell.

14 October 2006 – Toronto Star

PITTSBURGH – On a recent trip home to Toronto, John Ashaolu downloaded 36 Jay-Z tracks to his iPod. He knew how much his younger brother Sam loves “HOVA,” and hoped the music would help liven the long, lonely hours spent in the rehab unit of Mercy Hospital, where Sam continues to recover from a September shooting that nearly killed him.

But on Wednesday morning, that music didn’t just entertain Sam, a Rexdale native known as Big Slim who moved to Pittsburgh in late August when he enrolled at Duquesne University on basketball scholarship. For John, a 26-year-old graduate assistant coach with Duquesne’s basketball team, the hip-hop provided hope.

When he plugged the iPod into a speaker, Sam’s face brightened. Though two bullet fragments remain lodged in his brain, and although he’s capable only of short conversations, the 23-year-old flashed what John calls “that Big Slim grin” when he heard the song “Dead Presidents.

Sam, who was moved to rehab from intensive care just a week ago, recited every word along with Jay-Z.

“By the ounce dough accumulate like snow/we don’t just shine; we illuminate the whole show/you feel me.”

John says hearing Sam rap is the closest he has felt to happy since Sept.17, when a man opened fire on a group of Duquesne basketball players after an on-campus dance, hitting five of them.

A man and two women – one of them a Duquesne student – are charged in the shooting.

Two bullets struck Sam in the back of the head and no one is sure whether the 6-foot-7 forward will ever play basketball again, but rhyming along with Jay-Z has reassured John that much of Sam’s personality is intact.

“It shows he’s still got something upstairs,” John says.

And while the four other students wounded in the shooting have returned to class – only sophomore guard Aaron Jackson is healthy enough to play this season – Sam Ashaolu continues to inspire his family, teammates and coaches from his hospital bed.

“Sam comes across as not real aggressive, but he’s been through a lot,” says Jackson, who was wounded in the wrist during the shooting. “His state of mind is so strong, you can’t break it.”

Ron Everhart, head basketball coach at Duquesne, a Catholic university with about 10,000 students, sees God at work in Sam’s recovery.

“We’re witnessing a miracle,” says Everhart, who came to Duquesne last spring. “In terms of where he is today compared with where he was two weeks ago, God is answering a lot of prayers right now.”

When John Ashaolu agreed to join Duquesne’s coaching staff in early September, he was just happy for the chance to coach his younger brother again, as he had two years ago when Sam attended Trinity Valley Community College in Texas.

John still coaches the team and attends classes as he works toward his Masters in sports leadership, but when he’s not in class or at the gym, he’s at Mercy with Sam. The hospital is less than a block from campus.

John was offered similar jobs at schools in New Jersey and Tennessee, but looking back, he believes God guided his decision to come to Duquesne.

“Who would be here on a day-to-day basis?” John says. “My mom needs to be back at home. She has bills to pay. If I was at Rutgers I would have had to give up that opportunity to come here.”

Sam’s friends and relatives visit Pittsburgh in waves. Steve, the oldest of the four Ashaolu brothers, visits most weekends along with their mother, Christianah.

The youngest brother, Olu, a high school junior in Texas, will fly north later this month. Their father even made the trip from Nigeria.

Sam’s best friend, Jason Campbell, spends as much time in Pittsburgh as he can, hitching rides with the stream of relatives traveling back and forth to Toronto.

John lives in a hotel room a block from the hospital that the university pays for and visits with Sam at least three times every day.

They spent the first part of Wednesday morning’s visit talking about friends, basketball and music. Then John noticed how dry Sam’s skin was, so he rubbed his brother’s arms and legs with lotion. Sam can shower on his own if a nurse supervises, but John says nurses sometimes forget to moisturize his skin afterwards.

Their mother, a nurse and a stickler for hygiene, bought a huge bottle of Listerine to keep in Sam’s room. When Sam was sedated she’d wipe his teeth and gums with mouthwash after brushing his teeth. The last time she left town she instructed John to do the same.

But Sam can brush his teeth now and when John tried to wipe his brother’s gums on Wednesday, Sam snatched the swab and did it himself.

Afterward, they spent half an hour listening to Jay-Z. Rather, John listened while Sam rapped. And John marvelled at how much progress his brother has made in three weeks.

In the days after the shooting, doctors weren’t even sure if he would live.

“I’ll never forget what the doctor told us,” John says. “He said, ‘Let’s face it, this is a near-fatal injury. If you want to kill someone, where do you aim? The back of the head.'”

For his first week in hospital, Sam had a tube that fed him and another that let him breathe. But in a recent rehab session, Sam sank nine of 10 free throws on a miniature basket while seated in his wheelchair. He can now walk short distances on his own and he recognizes every friend and relative who visits him.

“The way he’s fought and the way Sam has responded, I can’t think of anybody else in my life I’ve found more inspiring,” says Everhart. “It’s a powerful thing when you see him smile.”

No one discusses the shooting around Sam, nor do they think he knows for sure why he’s in the hospital. According to news reports, a jealous man allegedly opened fire after he saw his girlfriend flirting with some basketball players.

But John suspects Sam knows something. He’s had that feeling since about 10 days after the shooting, when the sedative wore off and Sam began to speak.

“When he first woke up he said, ‘I don’t know what happened. I was just trying to stop an argument. I don’t know what happened,'” John says.

What’s certain is that one of the slugs shattered into fragments when it crashed into Sam’s skull, and will likely remain in his brain forever. John says the doctors feel surgery to remove them would harm Sam even further.

Beyond that prognosis lies more uncertainty. Right now the university pays Sam’s medical bills, but the family has established a website ( http://www.sam-ashaolu.com ) and a “Get Well Sam” fund in case he remains in rehab indefinitely.

From a seat in Duquesne University’s basketball arena, John dials Sam’s cell phone and waits for the voicemail greeting to activate.

After a few rings he hears a recorded voice, but it’s not Sam’s. It’s Jay-Z rhyming a cappella on a song called “It Was All Good Just A Week Ago.

John shakes his head as he snaps the phone shut. The click echoes in the empty gym.

“That’s so true,” he says, as though the irony of the song’s title had occurred to him only that moment. “It was all good just a week ago.”

By early September, Sam had enrolled at Duquesne and ended an odyssey that took him to two Toronto high schools, two U.S. prep schools and two junior colleges before he finally landed at an NCAA university.

A 235-pound forward with ball skills, shooting touch and a team-first attitude, Sam created mismatches all over the court, John says. He’s too fast for most forwards to defend and too strong for most guards, but so unselfish that Duquesne’s coaches had to pester him to shoot more.

He was a big part of Everhart’s plan to rebuild a team that won only three games last season and hasn’t had a winning season in 13 years.

Now it’s unclear whether he’ll have that chance.

“The first thing I thought is that I’d love to trade places with this kid,” Everhart says. He motions to his jersey from Virginia Tech, which hangs in a frame in his office. “I’ve played in big games. I’ve had a life, I’ve got family. You look at Sam and you think all the things you’ve been able to do, he may not be able to do now because of this incident.”

John, too, recognizes the vast distance between sinking free throws in rehab and playing big-time college ball.

Still, he remains hopeful that Sam will suit up for Duquesne on Oct. 12, 2007, when the Dukes officially open practice for the 2007-08 season.

“(The doctors) don’t know if they can get him back to where he was, but they’re going to try,” John says. “It’s kind of frustrating because you expect doctors to have all the answers. But I have faith. I know God is going to do what’s right.”

Copyright ©2006 Toronto Star

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