EMMITSBURG -- The last time Melvin Whitaker Jr. played in a competitive basketball game, he blocked 11 shots to set a record for the Capital Classic. That was in April 1995 and Whitaker, a senior and a McDonald's All-American at Oak Hill Academy, thought his next significant game would be that fall as a member of the team at the University of Virginia.
Today, nearly four years later, the 6-foot-10 center from Raleigh, N.C., gets to play again as a 22-year-old freshman for Mount St. Mary's. And, he hopes, he can move on with the rest of his life.
"Right now I'm playing catch-up," Whitaker said Thursday in the weight room at Knott Arena as he prepared for his long anticipated debut today in Baltimore at a 1 p.m. game at Loyola College. "I want to stay focused on positive things."
For that reason, Whitaker prefers not to talk anymore about the 26 months of a 3 1/2 -year sentence he spent in two Virginia correctional facilities and the incident that led to his incarceration. In March 1996, he slashed a Cavaliers football player with a box-cutter after a confrontation during a pickup basketball game at a campus gym in Charlottesville, Va.
Since last April, when Mount St. Mary's announced that Whitaker had signed a letter of intent while still in jail, there has been a barrage of publicity for the small Northeast Conference school that said his admission is in
keeping with its Catholic tenets. It has increased since Whitaker moved to the area, took a part-time job on campus and began sitting in on classes.
Media outlets from local weeklies to Sports Illustrated wanted to talk with Whitaker. Finally, after an interview last week with the New York Times, Whitaker told head coach Jim Phelan, assistant Whitaker coach Don Anderson and sports information director Eric Kloiber that he preferred to concentrate on the present and future rather than the past.
"I think he's just tired of answering the same questions all the time," said Jeff Null, a former teammate at Oak Hill whose family lives in nearby Gettysburg, Pa. Whitaker has been staying with them since shortly after his release from jail Oct. 18.
Null also has become something of Whitaker's personal basketball trainer. The two have been working out six days a week, four to five hours a day, to help Whitaker get back in the kind of playing shape he'll need to be in after his extended layoff.
"He's got to get into a rhythm and see what it feels like to play again," said Null, who was a freshman on the team when Whitaker was a senior. "But I think he's ready for it. He can shoot it a lot better now. He's a lot stronger."
Whitaker was considered more of a defensive presence coming out of high school, and that's exactly what Phelan hopes he'll be for a team that has been out-rebounded in each of its first eight games.
Mount St. Mary's today will also welcome back senior forward Newton Gayle, who hasn't played this season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Phelan said earlier this week that he would likely play Whitaker on a limited basis against Loyola, since a walk-through scheduled this morning was Whitaker's first official contact with his new teammates on the court. Phelan also is aware of the huge expectations placed on Whitaker, and how his stature as a player has grown with his notoriety.
"It's a lot like what happened with Richie Parker -- he suddenly became all-world," said Phelan, referring to the Long Island University guard who was charged with sexual assault while in high school. "He was a very good player, but he wasn't what everybody said he was. I don't know what to expect, but he [Whitaker] could really meet a need."
Said Whitaker, who has attended all the team's home games and most of its practices but couldn't gain his eligibility until the day after first-semester classes ended, "I definitely think I'll be a big help in the team winning some games. But I don't want to try to do too much right away."
Konata Springer, a senior from Baltimore who has been starting at center, has been impressed in what he has seen from Whitaker in the pickup games he has watched. But he cautioned, "He's still a freshman. He's going to be a really good player, but not right away. Eventually he'll be a great player."
Though he won't move into the dorms until tomorrow, won't start practicing until Christmas night and won't begin classes until Jan. 11, Whitaker seems comfortable adapting to his new life and new friends. One class in particular, "Freshman Seminar," has particularly piqued the interest of a student who considered himself bored and lazy in high school.
"All you have to do is listen and it opens your mind," said Whitaker, who failed to qualify under NCAA academic guidelines coming out of high school, went to prep school for a year and became a voracious reader while in prison. "One of the professors told me to join in whenever I had something to say, and that made me feel like a student already."
In an interview last month, Whitaker said he expects to be taunted about his past when the team plays on the road.
"I look at it as being part of the game," he said a few days after arriving on campus. "The game is not always about putting the ball in the basket. It's a mental game, and I'll be ready for it."
Whitaker said he wrote Maurice Anderson, the player he slashed, while in jail, but the letters were never answered. Anderson, a 6-4, 280-pound defensive tackle who is now finishing his career at Virginia, has been quoted as saying that he would accept an apology from Whitaker, but doesn't want to meet him in person.
Ironically, the two players will be staying with their respective teams in the same Atlanta hotel when Mount St. Mary's plays at Georgia Tech on Dec. 30 and the Cavaliers are in town to play Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
Whitaker continues to express remorse over the incident, and has gained a new perspective after losing his freedom for more than two years.
"I got to see where all these roads end," said Whitaker. "The penitentiary is a dead-end road."
With his life seemingly turned around, Whitaker begins a new road today.
Pub Date: 12/19/98