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Gunfire Leaves Duquesne Stunned

Team's basketball coach tells of `chaos' when five players are shot after dance. One is on life support with a bullet in his brain.

September 19, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

They came from Canada, Colombia and Brooklyn, from junior colleges and other NCAA Division I programs, to help resurrect Duquesne University's faltering men's basketball team. The season hadn't started, but school had and early Sunday most of the 16 men on the basketball team were coming home from an on-campus dance. Moments later an unidentified shooter fired and five of them were bleeding from gunshot wounds.

"It was chaos," Ron Everhart said Monday. "Just chaos."

Everhart is the new coach, hired last spring from Northeastern to take over a program that finished 3-24 last year. Duquesne, in downtown Pittsburgh, is a Catholic university that hasn't been nationally competitive in nearly four decades.

Sam Ashaolu wanted to change that. Ashaolu went to Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., last fall. But he wanted to play Division I basketball and his dream came true in May when Everhart offered him a scholarship. Now Ashaolu is clinging to life, listed in critical condition with a bullet in his brain. Ashaolu, a distant cousin of former NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon, was on life support, according to two sources in Pittsburgh. His family arrived from Toronto for a bedside vigil.

Stuard Baldonado hasn't seen his mother in more than four years. Baldonado came from Colombia to play basketball. He attended prep school in Massachusetts and then Miami Dade Junior College. Baldonado, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward who considered top programs such as Minnesota and Kansas State, was the jewel in Everhart's first Duquesne recruiting class.

Baldonado has undergone surgery to repair damage to his arm and back. He will miss this season. Shawn James and Kojo Mensah grew up together in Brooklyn, played AAU ball together, wanted desperately to play together in college. At first it didn't work out. James went to Northeastern, Mensah to Siena. But Everhart wanted both at Duquesne, so the pair transferred last spring, willing to sit out a year so they could be teammates again.

According to his friend and Brooklyn mentor Norm Ostrin, Mensah put himself between the shooter and his teammates. He is hospitalized with a bullet in his shoulder. James, who was the nation's leading shot blocker last year at Northeastern, has a bullet in his foot and is on crutches.

Aaron Jackson was a leftover from last year's team. He's been dreaming about rebuilding. He's been working on making all the newcomers feel welcome.

Jackson was only grazed in the incident, though he is stunned and shaken.

"It seemed like the bullets never stopped coming," Jackson told the Associated Press.

Everhart had brought to Duquesne 10 new players this year. Most came from junior colleges, but Mensah's transfer wascontroversial when Siena officials would not give him his scholarship release. Because of NCAA transfer rules, Mensah came to Duquesne as a walk-on and without a scholarship this year.

Mensah's story touched actor Louis Gossett Jr., a childhood friend of Ostrin. Gossett tried to intercede on Mensah's behalf with Siena and remains close to the young man whose family came to Brooklyn from Ghana.

"I've known Shawn and Kojo forever," Gossett said. "They are the two nicest kids you can know." Butch Estes, Baldonado's coach last season, said basketball was going to be the way to a better life for the young man from South America.

"It was worth it for Stu to leave his family because he wants to make things better," Estes said. Ashaolu had played at two high schools in Toronto and two junior colleges in the U.S. while trying to pursue his single-minded hope of being a Division I player. Last May, when he signed his Duquesne scholarship, "he was the happiest kid I've seen," his former coach Mark Graupe said.

The shooter is still at large.

"There seems to be a consensus emerging that there was a boyfriend-girlfriend issue of some sort," Duquesne President Charles Dougherty said Monday.

James had told ESPN.com that a woman who was a friend of the shooter had hugged one of his teammates shortly before a gun was drawn.

Bill Barton, who coached James and Mensah at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., said of the two: "Shawn and Kojo are the nicest kids I've ever met.... They wanted to play college basketball together. That was finally going to happen."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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