Herb Pope ready for final season at SHU
As he climbed the dimly lit stairwell behind Walsh Gymnasium, nothing seemed out of the ordinary for Herb Pope.
The 6-foot-8 senior was participating in a routine Wednesday afternoon workout when he asked head coach Kevin Willard for a breather. Pope hoped to collect his thoughts with a light workout in the team’s weight room, something not uncommon amongst players his size.
Accompanied by coordinator of basketball operations Grant Billmeier, Pope climbed the first set of stairs with ease. Then, without warning, he collapsed in a heap just outside a storage room on the second floor landing.
That is where Herb Pope almost died for the second time.
In his senior year of high school, Pope cheated death when he was shot four times at a party following an altercation. He managed to shield himself with his forearm where a visible scar still remains as a small reminder that fate has been on his side.
As Pope prepares for his final college basketball season, nearly two years after his second brush with death, the physical and mental scars of Pope’s miraculous life remain inexplicable.
“I don’t think even now, after all this time, anyone has fully grasped the severity or the concept of what Herb has been through,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “It was scary, really scary. It’s still crazy to think about it.”
Willard had only been the head coach of the Pirates for a month when Pope’s incident occurred but he felt the seriousness of it right away.
“He lost over 50 pounds while he was in the hospital alone,” Willard said, as he described how tough it was to watch Pope recover. “When he finally got back on the court, it was great to see, but he couldn’t practice for consecutive days at a time. He definitely had some work to do.”
Pope’s condition, an anomalous right coronary artery, is incredibly rare. The survival rate of patients with the condition is even rarer, which makes Pope’s comeback to basketball even more special.
With just a week left until the regular season opener, Pope understands just how hard he has to work to prove that he can still play basketball effectively.
“I got a chip on my shoulder, man,” Pope said with a smile. “To all the people who wrote me off, they can just wait for the results. I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces this year.”
Growing up in the small borough of Aliquippa, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh, Pope is not a stranger to difficult situations. He and his six siblings were forced to deal with harsh living situations as children, living in the various different homes of friends, family members, and foster families.
“If you could survive there, dealing with things that most people don’t worry about until they’re out of school like providing yourself with food, shelter and clothing at a young age then I think it will only help me survive after college,” Pope said.
Pope credits his childhood experiences with allowing him to persevere through rough situations, specifically this past summer during his off-season training with former NBA player John Lucas II.
Lucas, whose son Jai plays for the Texas Longhorns, has worked with several high-profile basketball players.
Pope spent seven weeks in Houston, Texas rehabbing seven days a week for more than eight hours each day. The grueling workouts were designed to help Pope recover both physically and mentally.
Each morning he would wake up at 7:30 a.m. and run three miles in the blistering heat before his gym sessions. At the gym, he would split time between the basketball court and the weight room, taking sporadic breaks for a drink of water.
“It took about a week or so to get myself acclimated to the regimen down in Texas,” Pope said, describing the differences between his summer workouts with Lucas and his current workouts at Seton Hall. “When I got back to school, it only took me about three days to get used to it. “
Pope, who is set to officially graduate in December, recognized Kevin Willard as one of the main reasons why he was able to focus on both his basketball career and his undergraduate studies.
“Coach Willard didn’t even really know me and I had just declared for the draft right after I met him,” Pope said. “He didn’t even worry about any of that. He was there at the hospital with me every day, and that showed me what kind of man he really is. He’s gone above and beyond for me and I can’t forget that.”
Two years later, just a month before he officially graduates from Seton Hall University, a narrow staircase in the bowels of Walsh Gymnasium serves as an enduring reminder that Herb Pope’s life is not over, rather it was just beginning.
“I definitely want to play basketball as long as I can,” Pope said. “But I want people to look back and think I was a terrific basketball player, and more importantly I want them to think I was a good person, someone who always persevered and fought for what I wanted.
“I want to be one of those guys who, even if I don’t make it somewhere playing basketball, I’ll make it somewhere else in life.”
John Lopiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org