Our Fab Five

With the predictability of some kid throwing a newspaper on a front lawn in the opening of a movie, on April 7, 2007, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette released its yearly list of the top local talents in men’s and women’s high school basketball. Many newspapers have this ritual, but this season in Pittsburgh was unique: with due respect for the players whose lives went in other directions, every player on the list was equipped with the skills to play professional sports.

The members of the men’s 2006-2007 "Fabulous Five" team were comprised of players from three local high schools: Aliquippa (in Beaver County, PA), Schenley (in the city of Pittsburgh), and Jeanette (in Westmoreland County, PA). I loved the goofy photo that the Post Gazette used to accompany the piece that year. It was far from the last good snapshot,but the effortlessly had the most simultaneous talent and silliness (silliness may be bested). I thought it'd be interesting about five years later to checkin on the guys from this picture – where all five of them remain in the media spotlight in either basketball or football.
I: Baldwin,The Kid on the Bus

While taking the "14" bus home one day, I recognized a sophomore wide receiver from the Pitt football team sitting close by: his name was Jonathan Baldwin, but to many he was just J.B. Since I doubt being noticed on public transit happens much to a sophomore wide receiver, I hope Baldwin was at least a little pleased to be recognized by a die-hard Pitt fan. I asked him about the upcoming season and if he felt it'd be a Heisman year.

"Oh yeahhhh," Baldwin replied, with the cockiness of someone who knew he was very, very good at the sport. Later on the route, as I got off the 14, his parting words were kind, familiar: "Peace, blood."

As I detailed in a negativedunkalectics entry months ago, the reality of that season ended with a crushing loss that may have eventually cost head coach Dave Wannstedt his job. Baldwin stayed for another season, in which the Pitt fan base split on their opinions of him. While half the fans seemed to think he gave up on his routes and eventually the season itself the other half believed he was another great Pitt player from Aliquippa (a legacy going back to Mike Ditka or earlier) who was stuck on a declining team with a mediocre quarterback. Either way, he left school for the NFL Draft in 2011 and ended up on the Kansas City Chiefs.

JB's career with the Chiefs began with a spat of gloom, as he allegedly injured himself in a locker room fight with a teammate, running back Thomas Jones. But since then, he appeared to settle in the lineup,and had a productive rookie campaign (21 receptions for 251 yards and a touchdown). For die-hard Pitt fans (all seven of us), there was a special moment when quarterback Tyler Palko completed his first pass to Baldwin, a duo I quickly named "the Route 60 connection," referring to the stretch of highway between their respective high schools in western Pennsylvania. The future for Baldwin seems like it could be bright, even if his attitude is continuously questioned because of his rough start. I will always root for a Quip.
II: "Due to his recovery from the shooting, Pope was not available to answer questions."

I still read Sports Illustrated in its tactile,magazine format every week. In their January 31, 2012 edition, Pablo Torre wrote an article on Herb Pope, the then-senior forward for the Aliquippa Quips who was unavailable to answer questions for the 2007 Post Gazette article because he had recently been shot after a party in his hometown. Years after the shooting, Torre writes a dark, but encouraging piece about Pope's recovery- he's now one of the stars of the Seton Hall Pirates - and the city of Aliquippa itself:
Yes, it can still be hard for Pope to see peers such as [Derrick] Rose and [Kevin] Love living their NBA dreams. But he's not wondering why his journey has taken much longer—not any more. "Those guys are where I'm trying to be," he says, grinning. "I'm just taking steps in the right direction." And even now, after twice defeating death, he's gotta lot more basketball to play.
With all that's happened to Pope, and as the last remaining NCAA player on this list (seemingly playing with a chip on his shoulder and a bit of attitude), the shape of where he is now as an NBA draft prospect is at least as important than where he's been.
III: Blair, The Perfect Landing

DeJuan Blair was the first Pittsburgh City League basketball player to be recruited onto the Pitt Panthers since Darrelle Porter in 1988. He also was arguably the best pro prospect at Pitt since that 1988 season as well,when eventual Knicks/Clippers forward Charles Smith was helping take the team to a top ten national ranking. Blair's high school (on the edge of the Oakland neighborhood where the University of Pittsburgh sits) went on to win a state championship with a group of kids from Pittsburgh's nearby Hill District neighborhood. The Hill is roughly best described as Pittsburgh's Harlem, with a black history nationally noted dating to the Harlem Renaissance era including a legacy of famous citizens who moved on to fame in civil rights activism, and arts such as photography, theater, and most of all, jazz.

Dejuan's grandmother eventually made the final decision that he would attend the University of Pittsburgh during a family reunion that she had invited Pitt coach Jamie Dixon to.

With Pittsburgh being a small town, you cross the paths of these local celebrities pretty often. Whether it was a friend who was his communications professor at Pitt (who noted Blair tried to quietly sneak into class once despite a posterior so large it was the subject of a New York Times piece), a sister who dated a friend of his (my dad and I were excited for the opportunity to finally have top level competition for back yard games), or a cashier who talked to me about playing ball with him in a summer league -- Blair remained grounded in Pittsburgh in an accessible way.

Meanwhile he also put together a great college basketball career, including a second place finish in the 2009 AP College Basketball Player of the Year voting (tied with Tyler Hansborough and behind Blake Griffin.) My fondest memories of this run included total domination of Connecticut's 7'3" center Hasheem Thabeet in every game the two matched up in.

Despite this domination of Thabeet (with whom he shared the2008-09 Big East Player of the Year award), draft night was very rough for DeJuan, due to concerns about his two ACL surgeries in high school. At the time, Andy Katz reported:
They [The Spurs] don't listen to anyone else but themselves, and their track record has usually proven to be right. "Our guys did our work,''Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said by phone late Thursday night. "[Blair] fills a huge need for us. He was our target, but we never dreamed he would be there at No. 37."
Despite the low draft number, it was the ideal landing spot for Blair: a coach and a big man ready to help him further develop his game in the NBA-crazed San Antonio. Since that night, Thabeet has been a legendary bust (the highest drafted player ever sent to the NBDL), while Blair's numbers and style point to somebody who could be a contributing player for years to come.

IV. Pryor, "Our long national nightmare" of college football corruption (isn't over)

The story of the “tattoo-gate”of Ohio State, including Buckeyes quarterback Terelle Pryor, has already been told ad nauseum. But the story of the Pryor that could have been hasn't been told as much (though to their credit, there is apiece over at Dime Magazine).

When Terrelle Pryor played high school basketball and football at Jeannette High School, he was a legend in a region known for idolizing sports stars only slightly more than various Orthodox Catholic saints. The county Pryor was raised in, Westmoreland, is the whitest county in the United States with at least 300,000 residents (nearly 97% white, according to the last Census.) Because of that alone, Pryor spent a lot of his early life looking around and seeing people who looked different then he did. He also probably saw himself as different because of his elite athletic abilities. The kid who comes around running a 4.3/4.4-40times growing into a 6'6" frame is going to be rare in any year – the fact he also played quarterback and small forward at high levels made him even more desired.

My strongest memory of his high school playing days was when I was at a rally to save the Aliquippa Community Hospital. A county commissioner I had a lot of respect for seemed to be in a bad mood. When we asked him what was wrong he recalled that he had been to the Aliquippa - Jeannette football game the night before. In the third quarter, the game was tied 48 all,until Pryor's Jayhawks rattled off a series of unanswered touchdowns, and ended up winning 70-48. People in Aliquippa aren't used to losing basketball or football games, but the commissioner could just sigh and lament, "Yeah, that Pryor is pretty good."

The college sports recruiting machine jumped on Pryor as soon as they could. After he watched Rich Rodriguez leave West Virginia for Michigan after the 13-9 debacle that cost them a national title shot, Pryor snubbed local powerhouse Penn State and became an Ohio State Buckeye. Around this time, the apparatus of college football took over. Pryor eventually was reportedly driving eight different vehicles during his three years at Ohio State.

Lost in the big-time football games and later corruption charges was Pryor's statement in his high school years that he'd rather end up in the NBA then the NFL because of reduced chance of injury. It’s possible that he never had the basketball skills to be an NBA player, but we'll never know because of how money and hubris affected him. At some point, Pryor insisted to his friends he was a surefire first round NFL draft pick even after it became clear to everyone else in the world that wouldn't happen.

Pryor eventually played his first NFL game against the Kansas City Chiefs, including his old rival Jonathan Baldwin. Pryor's first NFL play was nullified by a penalty. Terrelle Pryor may not be in "last chance" mode yet. But players signed to the Raiders often have to wonder if that stage of their career has come way too early, and it makes me wonder if the 18 year old Pryor was right about the NBA being his best option.
V: Kennedy, somewhere in between

D.J. Kennedy, mentioned above as a teammate with Blair at Schenely, decided to join St. John's – reportedly because he loved New York City. Kennedy put together an impressive career at St. John’s but perhaps gained most national attention when the Red Storm (honestly, to their credit), reported on Kennedy's ACL injury right before the seeding of the NCAA tournament in 2011:
"Honesty is really the best policy - it's really that simple and it's a good lesson for our players," Lavin said Friday. "I have the perspective to know what matters most in March is to have the team playing well. Region and seeding are overrated. Much of the time the brackets get turned upside down anyway."
In the wake of this, Kennedy is currently is on a roll with for the Erie Bayhawks, averaging 14 points, 7boards and 3 assists in about 35 minutes per game. The injury set back his NBA dreams for a bit, but I wouldn't bet against him moving up to the majors (which could be the Knicks!)

The alma mater of Kennedy and Blair, Schenley High School, has since closed due to the usual strains of life in the Rust Belt - budget problems, concerns with the building, and in a city whose enrollment in public schools has dropped from around 40,000 in the 1970s to around 25,000 today. Even as Western Pennsylvania somewhat regains its footing, enrollment is expected to fall through 2018, if not longer. A few academic programs remain in the old Schenley building, but there will be no more state championships for the Spartan basketball team.

Every time that Pittsburgh is named America's most livable city, it gives me a certain amount of pride.
But there is also always a voice in my head reminding me it's not nearly as livable a city (or region) for African Americans, even if a fabulous group of five – all of whom grew up in poor to working class neighborhoods – were able to move on to various levels of sports stardom and provide some inspiration to those who watch them.


Nick said...

Palko never played with Baldwin; Palko's final season was 06-07 Baldwin graduated 07-08

Anonymous said...

yes In college that is true. It was a dream that could only come true in the NFL. I don't think I implied otherwise.

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