Condition of 2 players improving

DU's Baldonado released, Ashaolu listed as serious

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Gene J. Puskar, Associated PressDuquesne University men?s basketball coach Ron Everhart helps Stuard Baldonado with his wheelchair after he was released from Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh yesterday. Mr. Baldonado is one of five basketball team members who were shot early Sunday morning after a party on campus.

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The outlook improved yesterday for the two most seriously wounded Duquesne University basketball players, with one leaving the hospital and the condition of the other upgraded from critical to serious as he began to respond to family members.

Stuard Baldonado, 21, was released from Mercy Hospital, six days after he and four other players were shot following a dance on campus early Sunday morning. Three of the players were treated and released.

Mr. Baldonado was accompanied by his aunt, Ana Lucia, and uncle, Norbert; Duquesne head basketball coach Ron Everhart; and members of the coaching staff.

"I want to thank everyone for their kind words and care, especially the staff at the hospital," Mr. Baldonado said in a statement. "I'm feeling better each day. I'm looking forward to seeing my family and getting some home-cooked meals."

Sam Ashaolu, 23, who was shot in the head, remained in Mercy Hospital, upgraded to serious condition. His brother John said Mr. Ashaolu has been opening his eyes, looking at family members and speaking a few words in a whisper.

Mr. Ashaolu has two bullets lodged in his head -- one intact and one fragmented.

"It was hard to understand and really in a low voice, but he whispered to us, asking about Olu," John said, referring to another Ashaolu brother who is 17 and remains in Texas in high school.

John said that Sam awoke Wednesday morning as a television report of the shooting was airing in the hospital room.

"People said that when he saw that, his eyes were fixed to the television," John said. "They were showing the scene where it happened and he was just staring at the television. Then, my interview came on and the people in the room said Sam immediately whispered my name."

Though small, the strides were huge positives for the Ashaolu family.

"It does give us a lot of hope," John said. "It is a great sign. But it also frustrates us a little bit, too, that this all happened. I just have to keep telling myself to look at the positive and help Sam get through this and not look at the negative because that's all in the past."

Mr. Baldonado, who is from the tiny Colombian island of San Andres in the Caribbean, has been watched over by his aunt and uncle, who flew in from Germany Wednesday, and his girlfriend from Miami. His parents were expected to arrive in Pittsburgh late yesterday.

A university spokesman said Mr. Baldonado would not return immediately to his dormitory room on campus, but he would not divulge where he will be staying out of respect for his privacy.

Mr. Baldonado, a 6-foot-7 forward who transferred from Miami Dade College this fall, was hit by a bullet that tore an artery in his left elbow and chipped his fifth vertebra. He had the bullet surgically removed from his lower back Tuesday.

The bullet narrowly missed striking the spinal column, which could have caused paralysis. The bullet was spinning in such a way that the bone fragments ricocheted toward muscle and in the opposite direction of the spinal cord.

"We're ecstatic to have Stuard out of the hospital. I'm thankful to God that he pulled through and is well enough to go home, especially when you consider how bad things could have been," Mr. Everhart said in a statement. "We're blessed to have him back."

For Mr. Baldonado, much of the past six days was filled with uncertainty and despair. But his mood brightened considerably yesterday after a good night's sleep and he felt less pain with every step.

Art Alvarez, a former coach of Mr. Baldonado who was instrumental in bringing him from Colombia to the United States, said, however, that the shooting had taken an emotional toll. Mr. Alvarez has talked daily by phone from his home in Miami with the 6-foot-7 junior forward.

While in the hospital, Mr. Baldonado would ask, "Why? Why me? How did this happen? I didn't do anything. I've never hurt anybody. Am I going to play again?" Mr. Alvarez said.

"He's cried on the phone to me. We've cried together," Mr. Alvarez said.

"Stuard spent the first two or three days in total shock. He's coming out of it, but there's still some shock. He's walking around and he tells me he can feel his legs and his toes," said Mr. Alvarez, who plans to come to Pittsburgh next week to visit Mr. Baldonado. "He believes in God, and I keep telling him, 'God works in mysterious ways. You've got to stay focused and stay strong. At the end of the day, you're going to fight through this.'"

Mr. Baldonado, who already has attracted some interest from professional scouts, averaged 18.8 points and 9.9 rebounds and was the Southern Conference player of the year last season at Miami Dade. He was ranked as the 36th best player in junior college by JUCO Junction Top 100.

Mr. Baldonado's road to Duquesne began several years ago, when Mr. Alvarez first heard about the powerful 18-year-old.

"He was looking to come to the United States. He probably was the best player in Colombia," Mr. Alvarez said. "He comes from a very poor family from the island of San Andres. He's a very humble kid. Stuard knew if he could help his family down the road, the best way to do it would be through basketball."

Mr. Baldonado signed with Northeastern University when Mr. Everhart coached there, but still struggled with English and didn't qualify academically as a freshman. He attended Winchendon Prep, outside Boston, and formed a close relationship with Mr. Everhart.

"Since he's left home, Stuard has made a lot of sacrifices. He's worked hard academically and done everything you could have asked of him."

Although Mr. Alvarez was reluctant to speculate about what lies ahead as far as basketball is concerned, he said, "I would be totally surprised if he came back to play any basketball this year, but I would predict he'll be back in full force next year."

Mr. Baldonado could receive a medical redshirt if he sat out this season, leaving him two years of eligibility.

"He will come back," Mr. Alvarez said. "He's come too far to give up now."

Phil Axelrod can be reached at or 412-263-1967. Colin Dunlap can be reached at or 412-263-1459.


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