Of those 469 people upon whom degrees were conferred yesterday morning inside the A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne University's December commencement ceremony, Sam Ashaolu stood tallest.
And it had little to do with his broad-shouldered, 6-foot, 7-inch frame topped off with a blue mortarboard.
Mr. Ashaolu stood triumphant because, after an on-campus party on Sept. 17, 2006, just a few blocks up the hill from that stage where he was handed a communications degree yesterday, he was lying unconscious after being shot in the head.
Most people thought there was a good chance he wouldn't live to graduate, and he admits knowing now some of his teammates thought he wouldn't even make it the few blocks to UPMC Mercy the night he was shot.
Mr. Ashaolu, the most seriously wounded of the five Duquesne basketball players shot 39 months ago, made it to the hospital alive -- barely.
He kept going from there.
He made it through multiple surgeries, has tolerated the debilitating seizures and head-pounding migraines that occasionally strike him, lives with a piece of the bullet still in his head, learned how to walk again, how to comprehensively read again and how to speak again.
Yesterday, at 26, he learned what it was like to walk across that stage -- atop Duquesne's basketball floor that he never got to play a game on -- to accept a diploma.
At last, Sam Ashaolu got something he came to Duquesne for -- to hear his name bellowed over the Palumbo Center public address system and have the ensuing applause fill the basketball venue.
"I was in very bad condition," Mr. Ashaolu said. "So this is surprising to me. A lot of people didn't think I could do it, but I did it, the classes and everything.
"I worked hard at it."
No one knows that like Duquesne coach Ron Everhart, who has been there from the very beginning. Mr. Everhart was at the hospital in the middle of the night just after Mr. Ashaolu and his teammates were felled by the gunfire, and Mr. Everhart made a point to be there yesterday, adjusting the Dukes' practice schedule to make sure the entire men's basketball team sat and watched its former teammate walk across the stage and extend his hand for that diploma.
Since the shooting, Mr. Everhart often has spoken about how Mr. Ashaolu -- who is from Toronto and after the shooting served as the team's manager for a time -- has inspired a basketball resurgence at the school along Forbes Avenue.
"A lot of times society holds people in a certain degree of esteem for things and they really aren't at that level," Mr. Everhart said. "But this kid embodies -- whether you want to call it being a hero, or whether you want to call it, a guy who has achieved something great -- when all the odds were against him, he's the guy who succeeded.
". . . Aside from the day I got married and my children were born, this might be one of the proudest days I've ever had. He's a great kid and has been very inspirational to our team, to me and, I think, to our institution."
Of the five players shot, Mr. Ashaolu is just the second -- joining Aaron Jackson, who now plays professional basketball in Turkey -- to earn a degree from Duquesne.
Mr. Jackson, who was shot in the hand, remains close friends with Mr. Ashaolu. Stuard Baldonado, the other player most seriously wounded -- he was shot in the back -- left school without playing.
Two others wounded in the shooting, Shawn James, who was shot in the foot, and Kojo Mensah, hit in the shoulder, didn't graduate, instead opting to turn professional after their junior seasons.
Mr. James plays in Israel; Mr. Mensah in Uruguay.
Mr. Ashaolu and his family sued Duquesne in September 2008, claiming inadequate security was a factor in the shooting. The case is unresolved.
Still, even with all of that, Mr. Ashaolu pushed through. He said yesterday he never wanted to transfer -- and Duquesne also kept him on scholarship.
Mr. Ashaolu said he will head home to Canada for the holidays and then return to Pittsburgh to look for a job.
"They don't write this in any coaching manual, everything that's happened, that is for sure," Mr. Everhart said. "It has been an interesting metamorphosis and journey for Sam and he's had to endure some adversity and, in the process, he's been a tremendous inspiration to me, and a lot of people, every day."
The men responsible for the shooting, William Holmes III, of Penn Hills, and Derek Lee, of the North Side, both pleaded guilty to five counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault. Mr. Holmes was sentenced to 18 to 40 years in prison; Mr. Lee to seven to 14 years.
Although he never scored a point for the Dukes, never yanked down a rebound, set a screen or blocked a would-be layup by a driving opponent, Mr. Ashaolu nevertheless had a tremendous impact on Duquesne's basketball program.
"Sam graduating today, when you look back on where he was, Day 1," Mr. Everhart said, before he stopped in mid-sentence, searching for the right words.
"He's a walking miracle. Sam is absolutely a walking miracle."
Colin Dunlap can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1459.