11/02/2010 11:11 PM ET
Seton Hall's Pope stares death down twice
Pirates forward making steady recovery
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Herb Pope should return to Seton Hall's lineup sometime shortly after the season tips off. (AP)

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. -- If it seems like Herb Pope has cheated the Grim Reaper twice, well, that's because he has.

"I hate to look at it that way but yeah, so I'm just ready to play basketball and put all those things behind me," the 6-foot-8 Pope said Tuesday at Seton Hall's media day. "God blessed me multiple times."

On his left arm is a foot-long scar, evidence of the night in March 2007 he used his forearm to block five gunshots -- four at close range -- directed at him during a party in his hometown of Aliquippa, Pa.

"I didn't cause it," he said. "The high school incident I didn't cause it. It was just a bad decision that I made being out that late."

Pope has another scar across his chest from his latest brush with death, the one that required heart surgery to deal with a birth defect -- an anomalous right coronary artery -- that Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said they "usually only find in an autopsy."

"To me, I really don't see a problem with it," Pope said. "Obviously, it being a birth defect, it's kind of like it was going to happen at some point. And I can talk about it so it doesn't bother me. Some people that it happened to, they're not here to talk about it."

Collapsing after feeling light-headed: It was April 28 when Pope recalled feeling light-headed as he walked from Walsh Gymnasium upstairs to lift weights.

"[I] kind of felt woozy and kind of thought it was just from me not eating that morning," Pope said. "And obviously that's when it happened."

Pope went into the bathroom, came back out and still felt light-headed.

According to reports, team physician Tony Testa performed CPR and he and graduate assistant Grant Billmeier used two defibrillators to shock Pope. Before long, he was in an ambulance en route to St. Barnabas Medical Center.

"I woke up in the hospital," Pope recalled. "I woke up with my daughter [H'Amila] by my side and coach Willard and my family members. I really wasn't coherent."

Pope was heavily medicated for the first three of the 22 days he spent in the hospital. After that he said he relaxed and enjoyed PlayStation with family, teammates and friends like Jets cornerback Darelle Revis, a fellow Aliquippa native, and former Pittsburgh basketball star Charles Smith by his side.

"That meant a lot to me," he said. "It wasn't like it was unexpected. If something happened with them, I would've been there for them. And so in return, me and Revis have a close enough relationship, more so than me and Charles, because I've known Revis for most of my life. It was just a blessing because my family wasn't here and it was like family there because they were all there and I knew they cared about me."

Neither of Pope's parents is involved in his life. Both spent time in jail and as a child he moved around, living with relatives and in foster homes before his aunt, Amy Pope-Smith, took him in during the tenth grade.

He reportedly made peace with his father after the collapse, meeting with Herbert Pope in the Beaver County (Pa.) Jail.

The long road back: Willard had only been on the job a few weeks when the incident occurred, a difficult introduction to his new situation, to say the least. "After it happened and he collapsed, it was four weeks of pins and needles," Willard said. "After the first seven days, you knew he was going to be alright, but it was a matter of is this young man going to be able to come back and play basketball again?"

Pope lost more than 40 pounds during his time in the hospital, dropping down to 198.

"I gained it all back and some," he said.

He ultimately underwent a three-hour procedure on his heart that allowed him to resume athletic activities. Without it, he said, "[I] more than likely would not have been cleared to play for Seton Hall."

Initially hesitant about the procedure, Pope said it was his daughter who ultimately helped make the decision a simple one.

Now that he's healthy enough to play with her again, Pope is ready to play basketball, but admits he's still "half a step outside of the mix."

He wants to compete in the season opener Nov. 12 at No. 22 Temple, but is realistic enough to know he probably won't be full ready until after the team trips to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam before Thanksgiving.

"I think I'll be good to go by the time we get done with the tournament out in the islands because that's enough games to get my legs underneath me," he said. "Because there's nothing like game shape."

Willard says Pope is impatient to play but the coach must be careful with how he uses him.

"He's not 100 percent back, just because he spent four months really doing nothing," Willard said. "He's getting his legs. I have to be careful with him. I want to make sure in January he's hitting stride, not in January he's gassed."

Pope played all of the team's recent scrimmage and said he felt fine.

"He'll play as much as he can play," Willard said. "He has no restrictions on him. It's just a matter of in the next 10 days, can he get in good enough shape to play a major amount of minutes."

'God blessed me multiple times': The last game Pope played for Seton Hall wasn't exactly a career highlight.

In a loss to Texas Tech in the first round of the NIT -- the last game of the Bobby Gonzalez Era in South Orange -- Pope slugged Tech's Darko Cohadarevic in the groin.

"You can't define somebody off of one game and say that I'm a bad citizen or a bad role model," he said. "Everybody has their times in the games where something just happens. And if you grew up playing in a physical atmosphere -- I got punched in mine throughout the season, but I never rolled on the ground or said anything. It just happens."

In the hours after that game, Gonzalez was fired. Pope's former teammate, Robert "Stix" Mitchell, whom Gonzalez had kicked off the team, was later arrested on charges of kidnapping and robbery.

"I kind of feel bad for my man Stix and Bobby getting fired because I never want to see a grown man lose his job, but we've got to move on and now I feel that we're in a better position with the coaches and the players that we have," he said.

Having stared death down twice, Herb Pope is now looking boldly forward, not backward.

"I'm just ready to play basketball and put all those things behind me," Pope said. "God blessed me multiple times."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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