After undergoing heart surgery 15 months ago and struggling to gain a full recovery afterwards, Seton Hall senior forward Herb Pope has now declared himself healthy and ready to return to the premier status he enjoyed with the Pirates two seasons ago.
“I feel like I’m a little better than 100 percent,” Pope said recently. “My ultimate goal this year is to be the Big East Player of the Year. I totally respect the others in the league, but I now feel like I am one of the best power forwards in the country.”
Pope started off his season in fine fashion Saturday night, scoring 21 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, helping the Pirates capture a 75-71 overtime victory over St. Francis (N.Y.), a game where the Pirates trailed for most of the contest.
If Pope can continue the play he showed Saturday, then it would be a complete resurrection. Pope, who was a mere shell of himself last season, averaged 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, a year after averaging 11.5 points and leading the Big East in rebounding with 10.7 average, the first Seton Hall player to lead the league in rebounding since Glenn Mosley in 1976-77.
In April of 2010, Pope collapsed during off-season workouts at Seton Hall and was found by the school’s training staff without a pulse or a heartbeat. After being rushed to the hospital, still unconscious, it was determined that he had an anomalous right coronary artery, a condition Pope was born with. Surgery repaired the problem, but it took a while for Pope to regain the strength and endurance he once had.
Thus, the struggles Pope had to endure last season. At times, he looked overweight and out of shape. His once-potent short range jump shot was gone and he had a tough time getting shots off down low against players he dominated the year prior.
“Sure, it was frustrating,” Pope said. “I knew I wasn’t playing well and it hurt me. But thankfully, Coach (Kevin) Willard was on my side and stuck with me. He helped me get through it.”
After the season was over, a year where the Pirates finished 13-18 and lost to Rutgers in the opening round of the Big East Tournament in overtime, Pope faced the crossroads. He could either pursue a professional career, which was highly unlikely due to his sub-par performance, or return to Seton Hall to continue his education, get his degree and play one final season.
“I had no choice but to come back,” said Pope, who had the extra year of eligibility after transferring to Seton Hall from the New Mexico State three years ago. “I had the chance to graduate and I had the opportunity to play again.”
In the offseason, Pope traveled to Houston to play and train under the guidance of former NBA head coach John Lucas for seven weeks. Pope had been friendly with Lucas’ son, Jai, who is currently at the University of Texas, so he gained the elder Lucas’ confidence through his son.
“Coach Lucas extended his hand and invited me to come,” Pope said. “Coach Willard gave help in setting it up. It was great.”
During his seven weeks in Houston, Pope worked out with several NBA players.
“I played well down there and proved to be one of the top power forwards in the camp,” Pope said. “It definitely helped me and helped me gain respect from a lot of people and my opponents.”
Now, Pope feels ready for the challenge ahead.
“This is really the first time in my life that I’ve ever been really healthy,” said Pope, who survived being shot five times in an incident near his home in Aliquippa, PA a few years ago. “I was never really healthy, because I never knew that the heart disease was there.”
Willard has high hopes for Pope.
“Herb will be honest and the first one to tell you that he’s right and doing all the right things,” said Willard, who began his second season as the head coach of the Pirates. “No one comes back from what he went through and is healthy right away. He had a whole summer to work on getting back and everything we saw of him on film two years ago is back now. His skill level is back and I think he’s a first or second team All-Big East player this year.”
Pope is one of two Pirate seniors with experience, the other being point guard Jordan Theodore, who looks to improve on his 11 point-per-game average and four assists per game that he had last year.
Theodore had a career-high 25 against St. Francis, including a clutch driving shot with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation, sending the game to overtime.
Willard was a little concerned with Theodore’s performance.
“He has to pick and choose his shots better,” Willard said. “I think Jordan grew up a lot tonight. He’s going to be the one who is responsible with the ball down the stretch and he might have to be the one doing the scoring. He wanted the ball down the stretch, so we gave him the ball. He wants to be the guy, but he has to learn how to be that guy. He took a lot of bad shots early. He has to keep control.”
A lot of people might have been concerned that the Pirates struggled mightily against a team that was projected to be toward the bottom of the Northeast Conference.
Willard is keeping his head up.
“I think this team has great potential for growth,” Willard said. “Once they understand their roles, they’ll be fine.”
One role is for certain, that being the starting power forward. Herb Pope proved he’s back Saturday night, which is remarkable considering where he’s been.