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Ashaolu hungers to play again

    PITTSBURGH — Wearying of his long hospital stay and eager to resume being a college student, Sam Ashaolu was spending another boring evening watching TV when news of Miami football player Bryan Pata’s shooting death flashed across the screen.
    A look of disbelief on his face, the Duquesne basketball player realized immediately what might have happened to him Sept. 17, the day his life nearly ended.
    ‘‘I lived and that poor kid didn’t, so I can’t get down,’’ said Ashaolu, a junior forward who was one of five Duquesne players shot following an on-campus party. ‘‘I’m just happy to be alive.’’
    And, he added, getting well.
    The worst act of street violence involving a major college sports team injured nearly half of Duquesne’s scholarship players, but the 23-year-old Ashaolu is making a steady recovery from two gunshot wounds to the head. One bullet was surgically removed, but the other splintered in two sections of his brain and may never be taken out because such surgery would be extremely risky.
    For now, Ashaolu is happy to be an outpatient, no longer saddled to a Mercy Hospital bed, and he shoots and dribbles a basketball and lifts weights daily. He attends Duquesne practices and games, so involved emotionally that it’s almost as if he were playing himself. At the Dukes’ first game, he was seen walking nervously and cheering in a private box.
    ‘‘The toughest part is sitting, not being out there with my teammates and helping them out in games,’’ Ashaolu told The Associated Press in his first interview since the shootings. ‘‘I’m looking forward to next year, getting back into things. Missing out on playing basketball, that’s the worst thing that’s happened the whole time.’’
    Now that he’s back on campus, though not yet as a student, he is asked repeatedly by students about the shootings. He is polite, but clearly dislikes discussing the subject.
    ‘‘I’m a quiet type of dude so I’m not used to all these questions from them,’’ Ashaolu said. ‘‘I just want to be Sam — chill out with my boys, be back in school and do what I’m ready to do instead of being a guy who got shot and is still living.’’
    Also shot were forwards Stuard Baldonado (left arm, back) and Shawn James (foot) and guards Kojo Mensah (arm, shoulder) and Aaron Jackson (wrist). Only Jackson played as Duquesne split its first four games with the most inexperienced lineup in NCAA Division I. James and Mensah are ineligible this season after transferring from other schools.
    Ashaolu does not know any of the four charged in the shootings — two men, two women — and was walking away from a shouting match that occurred just before the gunfire began. The mayhem apparently occurred when the female friend of a male who isn’t enrolled in the university began talking to a Duquesne player at the party, one of the first social events Ashaolu attended after enrolling at Duquesne two weeks before.
    Ashaolu’s big brother, John, and best friend Jason ‘‘Quick’’ Campbell have told him what happened. Sam Ashaolu has watched TV newscasts, but he does not recall being shot — only the shouting that occurred before it. He is glad to be pain-free after initially being on strong painkillers.
    ‘‘He considers this a minor setback,’’ Campbell said. ‘‘He knows he’s getting back.’’
    Campbell, Ashaolu’s friend since their childhood days on the outdoor courts in the Toronto area, has been with Ashaolu almost constantly since the shootings. But Campbell has never heard the 6-foot-7, 220-pound power forward speak angrily about what happened.
    ‘‘Sometimes, it’s hard for him, he feels he should be out there playing, but he knows he needs to get healthy and get better and that he’ll play again,’’ Campbell said. ‘‘It’s amazing. There have been no tears, no getting down about the situation. He’s happy to be alive and be working out and still be here.
    ‘‘He’ll smile and say, ’Why me?’ but that’s about it. Sam just wants to come back — he doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. He’s never hated anybody. I don’t think he’s even cursed at these guys once,’’ Campbell said.
    Campbell has seen the soft-spoken Ashaolu get madder over a foul call during a pickup game or when asked to speak up in a classroom than he is about being shot.
    ‘‘This is such a good dude, everybody who’s ever known Sam gets along with him,’’ Campbell said. ‘‘He doesn’t have any enemies. He’s a soft-spoken dude. He looks like a pretty intimidating figure, but he’s a gentle giant.’’
    Ashaolu nervously read a short statement during a Nov. 13 news conference updating his condition, his only formal public appearance since the shootings, but he did not answer questions. He was much more animated and relaxed during an unscheduled and impromptu AP interview while he was heading to a weightlifting session.
    ‘‘I’m just thinking about getting back, and as soon as possible,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m out there with Quick every day, shooting around, trying to get back to playing. I plan on being 100 percent and I’m going to come in real ready next year.’’
    As he watches Ashaolu sink shot after shot, Campbell laughs as his friend says, ‘‘I’m back, Quick, I’m back.’’
    However, Ashaolu may not know for months if he will be cleared medically to play college basketball again because doctors need time to assess his progress. He has occasional problems with balance and memory, though they appear to be lessening each day. Doctors also don’t know whether he can regain the ability to concentrate for long stretches in a college classroom.
    Dr. Hilly Rubinsky, a neuropsychologist who has worked with Ashaolu for weeks, said it is normal for a recovering patient to level off after six to eight weeks of significant improvement. Doctors do not know yet whether that will happen to Ashaolu.
    Another worry is whether on-court contact might cause the bullet fragments to shift into vital areas of the brain, resulting in more damage.
    To Ashaolu, who averaged 15.3 points last season at Lake Region State College in North Dakota before transferring to Duquesne, the only question is when he will return, not if.
    ‘‘He’s a fighter, and we knew that when we recruited him,’’ Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said. ‘‘I don’t know if anyone I talked to at the hospital those first couple of days thought he would make it, but he has amazed us almost daily.’’
    Ashaolu so misses basketball, Campbell said, ‘‘He can’t wait to have coach Everhart yell at him again.’’
    There is one positive in this for Ashaolu. He may get to play two seasons, not one, with James and Mensah after they become eligible next season. James was the nation’s leading shot blocker last season at Northeastern and Mensah averaged 16.6 points at Siena.
    ‘‘We’re going to win a lot of games,’’ Ashaolu said. ‘‘I can’t wait.’’
    Ashaolu has not considered moving back to Toronto or elsewhere to get away from the Duquesne campus and the memory of the worst night of his life.
    ‘‘I didn’t expect it to happen at school, but it could happen anywhere,’’ Ashaolu said. ‘‘I think about it sometimes and, if I could do it again, would I have went there (to the party)? But the whole team was there. It was a bad situation to happen for the team, not just to me.’’

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