'God kept me alive'

JASON PAUL -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

Sam Ashaolu doesn't remember much about the night that changed his life, almost ended his life.

His focus is elsewhere, on regaining his strength so he can return to what he loves best: Being on the basketball court.

He doesn't hate those responsible for putting him in a hospital. He is more focused on his future than his past.

And he is looking forward to coming home to Toronto in a couple weeks to see his family and attend a basketball tournament named in his honour.

A little more than two months since being wounded in a shooting incident, seven weeks since being released from intensive care and eight days since his first public appearance, Sam Ashaolu shares for the first time how he is feeling about life following a near-tragic incident Sept. 17.

"Things are going a lot better," Ashaolu told the Toronto Sun this week in his first interview since being shot in the head, leaving an on-campus party at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "I know I am surprising people, but not the way I wanted to. I wish it was on the court, but you know, things happen."

MEDIA SPOTLIGHT

Ashaolu, who for many years toiled in relative obscurity before landing an NCAA scholarship to Duquesne this season, has been thrust into the media spotlight since the incident.

The 6-foot-7 junior forward suffered two gunshot wounds to the head, and still has bullet fragments lodged in his brain. He has some difficulty with his short-term memory but has been participating in non-contact drills and attending games. He now is in rehabilitation at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Ashaolu read a brief statement to the media at Duquesne on Nov. 13, thanking everyone for their support. His voice was tentative and quiet. He wasn't comfortable taking any questions, and later admitted he was "a little bit nervous."

But during a 25-minute conversation with the Sun, his voice -- as animated and lively as in previous years we've talked to him -- lit up with enthusiasm and determination, his slur barely noticeable.

"The whole time I was in there (at the hospital), I just really wanted to play because I really miss it," said Ashaolu, who is living in an apartment on campus after being released from hospital last week. "That was one of the main things. I'm just trying to work back to get ready for when I play next year. That's what I'm thinking about.

"People are telling me to take it easy and that it's going to take time, but I'm trying to go 100% and when I step on that court, I want to play."

Optimistically, Ashaolu says he is "65%." His doctors, who are astonished at his rapid recovery, are taking a cautious approach because of the severity of the injury.

As for that fateful September evening when his teammates were confronted by the shooters, Ashaolu -- an innocent bystander -- is still sketchy on details.

"Since the situation that happened that day, I don't really remember much about it, to tell you the truth," said Ashaolu, who didn't know what happened until his brother, John, told him. "At first I didn't believe it. But the more I thought about it, I just try to think back to the memory of the night, about walking back to our dorms at school, and l said to myself: 'Yeah, I guess that could have happened.'

"I thought about it realistically and the guys who were there.

"I don't actually remember how they looked and everything ... I try not to think about that situation too much. I just try to look forward. I don't really remember those guys who were there that night, nah. Not at this moment in time."

When asked about his thoughts on those who have been arrested, he said: "Oh, um, I guess that's a good thing, but I'm not really thinking about that. I'm just thinking about trying to get back and ready. It's not like I'm thinking about hating and hoping they get locked up. I'm just trying to get back to doing what I came here to do."

John Ashaolu, a graduate assistant coach for the Dukes, has been overseeing his brother's progress.

"If you actually saw him the first day and see how he is now, it's just a miracle," he said.

Sam Ashaolu shocked his teammates when he showed up unannounced at a team practice in late October.

"I made my first shot," he said. "It was a jumper, one of my favourites, right from the corner. It was a beautiful feeling to be back out there. I'm used to being in that gym every day."

Ashaolu spends close to six hours a day in physical and mental therapy. He is expected to begin working with a tutor in second semester.

Ashaolu also hits the gym regularly and has been helped out immensely by his good friend, Jason Campbell, a former teammate at York Memorial Collegiate, who is staying with him.

"It has been great seeing all my friends, giving me positive stuff to believe in," said Ashaolu, who celebrates his 24th birthday on Christmas Day. "It's great to hear from them a lot and let them know how I'm doing."

Those friends in Toronto will get a chance to see him soon. He is scheduled to be the guest of honour at the first annual Sam Ashaolu Charity Prep Showcase, to be held Dec. 15-16 at his old high school, York Memo.

"I told him: 'You're big-time now that you have a basketball event named after you,' " said organizer Ro Russell, who has known Ashaolu for 11 years. "It's going to be exciting for everybody to have him back, especially when I remember going down to see him and he had tubes in his body and could barely speak."

One of the teams entered, Christian Life Academy out of Humble, Tex., happens to feature Ashaolu's younger brother, Olu, one of the top teenage players from Canada.

"It will be good to see a lot of young guys play again and to watch my little brother play," said Ashaolu, who will be staying with his mother, Christianah, at her home in Brampton. "My mom will have some stuff cooked up for Christmas, so it will be good to come back and chill."

In the meantime, Ashaolu has been attending Duquesne's home games, participating in the pre- and post-game dressing room pep talks and then watching from a private box.

"I wish I was out there, but it's good to hear them say: 'We've got to win this one for Sam,' " said Ashaolu, who attended three high schools, one prep school and two junior colleges before landing a Division 1 scholarship.

"I wouldn't change my life for anything right now. I was so happy to sign with Duquesne. I worked so hard to get here.

"I'm a fighter. I never quit. I'm looking forward to coming back next year.

"God kept me alive for a reason, so I'm just going to keep working hard to make everything right and pray to God and be thankful to him for saving my life."


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