CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Melvin Whitaker came here a little more than two years ago as a promising basketball player with hopes of making a name for himself at the University of Virginia. He accomplished that, though not the way he planned.
Whitaker left this college town last week without having attended a class or played in a game for the Cavaliers. He left not as a transfer from Virginia, but as a transfer from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
And he wasn't going yet to Mount St. Mary's College, the school Whitaker committed to in March and hopes to play for next season, but to the Southampton Correctional Center, a medium-security facility in southeastern Virginia.
Now 22, Whitaker seems to display the kind of maturity and levelheadedness that he lacked on that March afternoon in 1996 when he slashed Virginia football player Maurice Anderson with a box cutter after the two had exchanged words and elbows during a pickup basketball game at a campus gymnasium.
The incident left Anderson with a facial wound that required 75 stitches and a permanent, 3-inch scar. It left Whitaker with a 3 1/2 -year prison sentence for malicious wounding and a reputation he hopes he might someday erase.
"I've tried to learn from that, to keep cool and think things through," Whitaker said at the Charlottesville prison one morning last week, a few days before he was moved. "When you're playing ball, you're living in the fast lane and things can get out of hand.
"But I don't want to forget what happened. Being in here will be a reminder for me of how I want to live my life when I get out."
With time off for good behavior, Whitaker is scheduled to be released in October. Though he hoped to get out before classes begin in the fall, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center likely will suit up in late December at Mount St. Mary's, with the possibility of bringing the small school in Emmitsburg both acclaim and ridicule.
The news that Whitaker had signed a letter-of-intent last month while in prison raised issues that Jim Phelan had never encountered in a 44-year career.
"We don't recruit players like this," said Phelan, the winningest active coach in NCAA Division I. "I'm not talking about players who are in jail. I'm talking about players of Melvin's ability. He kind of recruited us in a way."
The relationship between the former McDonald's All-American -- Whitaker still holds the record for blocked shots in the prestigious high school all-star game -- and Mount St. Mary's began in the months between the incident at Virginia and Whitaker's sentencing in August 1996.
After returning home to Raleigh, N.C., Whitaker was invited to spend a few days with Jeff Null, a former classmate at Oak Hill Academy and the son of a dentist in Gettysburg, Pa.
Dr. Cleveland Null also happened to be the dentist of Mount St. Mary's assistant coach Don Anderson and would become a friend of the Whitaker family, helping foot the attorney's bills during the trial.
"He called me to see if they could come over and play ball," recalled Don Anderson, a former head coach at Gettysburg College. "He also asked me if I could talk with Melvin. Basically, I wanted to see if Melvin needed to talk to a priest or talk about what happened. As far as I knew, he was still committed to Virginia."
A few months later, as Whitaker's case was about to go to trial, Don Anderson heard from the player's attorney. Anderson said the attorney was going to suggest to the judge that Whitaker be placed on probation and, as part of the probation, attend Mount St. Mary's. Anderson was asked to speak on Whitaker's behalf at the trial.
In preparation for Whitaker's possible application for admission, Mount St. Mary's officials began checking into the player's background.
"At the time, we thought Melvin would be put in a juvenile offenders program," said Mount St. Mary's athletic director Harold P. Menninger. "We wanted to know more. We wanted to know what he was like in high school, what he was like at Oak Hill, what he was like at the military prep school [Hargrave] after Oak Hill."
No previous incidents
All the reports were consistent: The coaches and administrators at Garner High School in Raleigh, where he spent his first three years, as well as at Oak Hill, from which he graduated, and Hargrave Military Academy, where he went while trying to get his Scholastic Assessment Test scores up to NCAA standards, said that the incident at Virginia was out of character for Whitaker.
The incident took place while Whitaker was living and working in Charlottesville before what would have been his freshman year at Virginia. Whitaker was advised by his attorney to plead guilty and thought a deal had been struck with the prosecutor's office for him to enter a program for first-time offenders.
Instead, the judge sentenced Whitaker to prison.
"It blew everyone away," Menninger said.
Whitaker continued to write letters and periodically call Don Anderson. The phone calls went from once a month to once a week to daily earlier this year. Then Anderson read in a newspaper article that Mount St. Mary's was one of the schools he was considering after being released.
"I really believed Melvin wasn't going to come here after one conversation I had with him about academics," said the coach. "I was talking to him about a coach who Melvin thought was a god. I told him that only three of his players graduated in 10 years, and Melvin said, 'But he won.' I told him that I was going to stay on his back even if he left for the NBA after two years."
When Anderson didn't hear from Whitaker the next day, he figured that the player had turned his attention elsewhere, perhaps to another Atlantic Coast Conference school. But the day after that, Whitaker called to say he was still interested in Mount St. Mary's. It was then that Anderson drove Phelan to Charlottesville to meet with Whitaker.
In Emmitsburg, Phelan had the blessing of university officials to recruit Whitaker.
"Prior to his being sentenced, it seemed as if everyone [in the administration] was dead set against it," Phelan said. "Once he was sentenced to jail, everyone wanted to give him a second chance. When we went down there, the chaplain and everyone else had such high regard for him, we felt he was worth taking the chance on."
When Whitaker's signing was announced, Phelan mentioned that one of the school's most famous alumni was Father Flanagan, the legendary founder of Boys Town. But he said he also understands that some might perceive this as a desperate move by Phelan, a 69-year-old coach coming off a 13-15 season and holding hope that a player with Whitaker's credentials would lead the Mount back to the NCAA tournament.
And there are some who believe that what Mount St. Mary's is doing with Whitaker is no different from what fellow Northeast Conference member Long Island University did two years ago with Richie Parker, who had been convicted of a sexual assault while in high school, received five years' probation and then helped the Blackbirds to the NCAA tournament as a freshman.
Question of mission
Dr. Gail Haynes, the LIU provost who signed off on Parker's admission, said this month: "All of us have to be willing to take certain risks. I think we throw away people too easily."
Mount St. Mary's president George Houston said: "As Christians, we are taught to forgive as we are forgiven. As Catholics, one of our sacraments is the sacrament of penance. Finally, if people don't want to talk about religion, should we not give a felon a chance to improve his life? If not, why let them out of jail?"
Houston said that he has received only two letters telling him that the school was making a mistake. He said that he has received letters from two prospective students saying they recently chose the Mount because of its decision to admit Whitaker.
For those who wonder whether Mount St. Mary's would have given Whitaker the chance had he not been a talented basketball player, Houston said: "If he were an average applicant, we wouldn't have known about his situation. I am certain we have had individuals at Mount St. Mary's who have committed some sort of illegal acts before they came here or while they were here."
The reaction to Whitaker's signing barely caused a ripple on the campus and certainly didn't evoke the same media criticism caused by the recruitment of Parker.
"I think it's part of where we're located, being a little bit out of the mainstream," Menninger said.
Sarah McGinley, a women's soccer player from Mount Airy, who is vice president of the school's Student Government Association, said that whatever reaction there is has been mixed.
"I think some students felt that as long as he has paid for his crime, then it was OK," she said. "I think some students were upset that there was going to be a felon on campus. I think that as long as he did his time and has been rehabilitated, then he deserves a second chance. As an athlete myself, we need good basketball players up here."
L Meanwhile, Whitaker is looking forward to his second chance.
"At first, it was something I looked as an experience to go through," Whitaker said of going to college. "Now, I look at it as privilege."
His life in prison has been filled with long hours of introspection. Whitaker said he has been inspired by several books he has reread while incarcerated, including "The Invisible Man" and a biography of Malcolm X. "They ask you, 'What are you going to be in your life?' It all boils down to trying to change things and taking a stand," Whitaker said.
He said he tried sending letters of apology to Maurice Anderson on several occasions in the first year he was in prison, but the letters went unanswered.
According to a spokesman for the Virginia athletic department, Anderson has declined all requests to be interviewed about the incident.
Jeff Jones, who was fired as basketball coach after last season, in part because of a series of off-court incidents involving Whitaker and other former Cavaliers players such as Courtney Alexander, was unavailable to comment.
In the 21 months he spent in prison here, Whitaker helped other prisoners get their high school equivalency diplomas and worked for the facility's chaplain in his role as a trustee.
"It's been kind of devastating [for the family]," said Melvin Whitaker Sr., a former electronics specialist who works as a security guard. "But he's accepted what he's done, and he knows he has a chance when he gets out to get his education."
Virginia rescinded Whitaker's scholarship after the incident, and Whitaker called Jones' lack of support disappointing.
"We told him that coming to Virginia was not an option after what happened," said athletic director Terry Holland. "We wanted to show support, but I think in Melvin's mind he wanted us to fix it. That was certainly not in our power to do."
On the court, a project
In choosing Mount St. Mary's, Whitaker said, he will be entering a low-key, family atmosphere that doesn't exist at a more high-profile program.
"I could have gone to a big school in a tough conference, but I feel I can do at Mount St. Mary's what I could do at any school," said Whitaker, who was considered among the top 25 high school prospects in the country his senior year at Oak Hill. "If the NBA comes into my life, it'll be because of me, not because of Mount St. Mary's."
According to those who followed Whitaker's high school career, the chance of that happening seems remote. Whitaker was considered a project at Virginia. That his recent playing has consisted of occasional pickup games against fellow inmates -- and has been limited further the past few months by construction at the facility -- will mean that Whitaker will be rusty when he heads to Emmitsburg.
Yet he might be the best big man the Northeast Conference has had since Rik Smits played at Marist College.
"He should be a dominant player because they're several levels below the ACC," said Bob Gibbons, one of the most respected evaluators of high school talent in the country.
Whitaker likely will receive harsh treatment at gyms on the road, just as Parker got when he played at Knott Arena in January 1997. Whitaker said that some people will always look at him for what he did that afternoon in Charlottesville and not at how he has tried to turn his life around since the incident.
"I think it will be one of those things that people definitely will remember, seeing as it happened at an ACC school," he said.
"It's still something people talk about. They might say, 'What's he going to do next?' But they don't understand what happened. I think the people at Mount St. Mary's will be understanding. Everyone else doesn't matter."
Pub Date: 5/27/98