Julius Page thought he had thick skin when it came to death. Death and violence were the bullies that cruised the streets in the Buffalo neighborhood where he grew up. Even while he was at Pitt, Page occasionally got word that another friend or relative had been gunned down.
Still, Page was unprepared for what happened last Friday night. Anyone would be. It wasn't a bullet that took out Tom Washington, coach of the fledgling Pennsylvania Pit Bulls of the modern-day American Basketball Association. It was a heart attack.
"I've seen a lot of stuff growing up," Page said. "I've seen and heard it all. But not at a basketball game."
The basketball court always has represented a place of refuge for him. It's not supposed to be a place of death.
Washington, 60, was coaching the Pit Bulls in their first game. A crowd of about 850 at Penn State McKeesport's Wunderley Gymnasium watched the Maryland NightHawks take a 17-point lead at halftime, then saw the home team storm back to take a 120-102 lead with 7:59 left in the game, a 35-point swing.
Page and his teammates gathered around Washington during a timeout.
"He was standing right in front of me," Page said. "We were in the huddle. We had just made this big comeback, so everything was good. He didn't say anything. He just fell when we broke the huddle."
Page and the other players -- including another former Pitt player, Jaron Brown -- had known Washington only about two weeks because the team had been assembled quickly.
Washington, a Philadelphia native who was living in Wilmington, Del., had made a good impression on Page.
"I didn't know him very well, but I thought he was real cool," he said. "It hurt me to have that happen. Basketball is just a game. That was real life.
"They cleared the fans out. I just stood in the corner and prayed to myself, but it didn't look very good. Then, we went to the locker room. But it was hard to deal with, so we just went our own ways.
"Hopefully, we can use this as motivation. This is a guy that left his hometown and came here to coach. He wasn't with his family for his last couple of weeks so he could coach us."
Pit Bulls officials have vowed to continue, and they can't be knocked for that. The team has been off this week and resumes practice this weekend. It will resume play next weekend.
Page, a 6-foot-3 guard, had hoped for something more than a spot on one of a gazillion expansion teams in the obscure ABA.
Just two days before tryouts for the Pit Bulls, Page was trying to reach Brown when Brown called and said "a guy named Freddie Lewis" was looking for him. Lewis is the president, general manager, assistant coach and chief nail-hammerer for the Pit Bulls.
Page liked the approach to the game that Lewis and Washington took so much he wishes Pitt's Jamie Dixon had used it last season, when the Panthers reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row.
"We play more uptempo here, so you can score more points," Page said.
Statistics for the suspended game last week are not available, but Page is believed to have scored at least 25 points.
He thinks he got a bad rap as a senior last season when his scoring average dipped from 12.2 points a game to 11 and his floor shooting percentage fell from .370 to .329. In addition to a nagging ankle injury, he said, he was simply following orders.
"In high school, I averaged almost 30 points a game," he said. "At Pitt, I changed the way I played the game to fit the system."
That doesn't adequately explain his cold scoring touch in the clutch last season, but it's no surprise he prefers the Pit Bulls' system.
"This is how I played in high school," Page said. "This is how basketball is supposed to be played. There's more man defense, and not the set offense. I'd just rather be loose.
"Last year at Pitt, we could have gone farther. We should have been more of a fast-paced team. With the players we had, we could have scored 90 points a night."
If opening night was an indication, that's the kind of production the Pit Bulls can expect. Page just wants to get noticed and get his pro career on an upwardly mobile track.
"I have to prove myself all over again," he said. "This is a stepping stone for me."
One with a stage he can dig.
"Now I can show off a little bit, do a 360 now and then," Page said. "But I'm just happy I'm doing something."
It's doubtful Page is going to springboard from the ABA to the NBA, or that he'll score anything approaching 25 points a game in a more established league. But it's a start, sadness and all.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721.