Former Pitt star DeJuan Blair stands tall as an NBA rookie
DeJuan Blair earns his spurs in NBA
The Spurs' DeJuan Blair works on his free throws under the watch of assistant coach Chip Engelland at his team's practice facility in San Antonio.
Spurs DeJuan Blair pulls down a rebound in front of the Mavericks' Drew Gooden Jan. 8 in San Antonio.
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SAN ANTONIO -- In a rare moment of solitude away from the whirlwind existence of being a rookie in the National Basketball Association, DeJuan Blair sometimes kicks back in the posh suburban Texas home he is renting from teammate Tony Parker and reflects on the life-changing decision he made nine months ago.
Just one week after Pitt was eliminated from the NCAA tournament in March, Mr. Blair decided to leave school two years early to begin his professional basketball career. After he plummeted to the second round of the NBA draft in June, there was much debate as to whether he made a mistake, but he has zero doubt that he made the correct choice to pursue his dream.
"I just sit back in the house. I just think, man, I made the right decision," said Mr. Blair, who earned All-American honors at Pitt last season after a celebrated high school career at Schenley. "It's just wonderful. I feel so blessed."
Who can blame him for feeling that way?
Mr. Blair, 20, is currently the starting power forward for the San Antonio Spurs -- a team loaded with veteran talent that is aiming to dethrone the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and make a run at a fifth championship in 12 years. He will earn $2.7 million over four years.
His life away from basketball is just as exciting. It's not uncommon for him to make the short trip from his gated community to the new $7 million dollar estate that Mr. Parker and his wife, actress Eva Longoria Parker, built from the ground up. Mr. Blair is a frequent dinner guest of the couple.
And when Mr. Blair needs the support of his family, all he has to do is drive a short distance to his aunt's home. Sharene Dixon, a Pittsburgh native, moved to San Antonio to help him make the transition to the NBA.
Ms. Dixon and her husband, Brian, and two sons -- Aiden, 5, and Adrian, 3 -- give Mr. Blair the comforts of home when he wants to escape the pressures of basketball life.
"It's very important for him to have us down here," Ms. Dixon said. "After every game he comes to my house. It can be for 15 minutes or sometimes he'll stay the night. He's very close with my boys."
Ms. Dixon and her family are regulars at Spurs home games. When the Dallas Mavericks visited the AT&T Center for a Nov. 11 game, she lost sight of Aiden and Adrian.
By the time she located them, they were on the court during a timeout trying to get Mr. Blair's attention. Security guards had to stop them from entering the team huddle.
"Her kids are my two favorite things," said Mr. Blair, who is 6 feet 7 and weighs 265 pounds. "They love me to death. They call me Juan Juan. They go berserk every time they see me. They lift up my day when I'm down. They're always having fun and smiling. It's amazing having them down here."
Ms. Dixon left a high school teaching position in Maryland to be with Mr. Blair in San Antonio. She has a deep connection with him. She was 12 years old when her sister, Shari, gave birth to Mr. Blair in April 1989. When Ms. Dixon went to college at Robert Morris University, she often took in DeJuan and his brother, Greg, for long weekends.
"Besides my mom and grandma, she's my favorite person," Mr. Blair said. "She's like my best friend. I talk to her every day."
Shari Blair did not want to leave Pittsburgh because Greg is enrolled at Lackawana Junior College in Scranton, Lackawanna County. Greg is a football player and hopes to land at a Division I school next year.
"Having my sister down there is the next best thing," said Ms. Blair, who visits DeJuan about once every two months.
When Greg enrolls at a four-year school, Ms. Blair plans to move to Texas to be with her son. For now, she is living in the home in Robinson DeJuan purchased for the family, who previously resided in the Hill District, a short distance from Pitt's campus.
"Anytime you're successful and you're from a poor neighborhood, you're always looking forward," Ms. Blair said. "It's a better education for my daughter [in the Montour School District] and a better neighborhood."
Ms. Dixon has plans to continue teaching in college next year and to pursue a doctorate at the University of Texas San Antonio. Eventually, her family will return to the East Coast.
"He's not going to need me forever," she said.
For now, she's enjoying watching Mr. Blair get his start in professional sports. She was hoarse by halftime of last week's game against Dallas because she spent an hour yelling at officials who whistled Mr. Blair for two early fouls in a loss to the Mavericks.
But mostly, it has been happy moment after happy moment.
"It's surreal," Ms. Dixon said. "The first game I cried. I didn't believe he was out there. It's always been a dream. Dreams do come true."
When the Memphis Grizzlies selected Pitt's Sam Young with the 36th pick in June's draft, the Spurs' front office celebrated in its draft war room. Without a first-round selection, the Spurs had targeted Mr. Blair and were elated when he fell to the second round.
Many of the Spurs' assistant coaches and front-office personnel are friends with Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon, and they had the inside scoop on Mr. Blair. They understood some risks were involved, including the possibility that he could have a short career because of his two surgically repaired knees that no longer have anterior cruciate ligaments. But they also knew that the easiest thing to project from college to the NBA was the ability to rebound. And Mr. Blair was without peer when it came to grabbing offensive rebounds for Pitt the past two seasons.
"There always is concern, but of all the skills that seem to convert the most from college to the NBA, rebounding is the most predictable," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. "When you dominate rebounding the way he did, at the rates he did, that was very helpful for us."
Mr. Blair has quickly earned the respect of the coaching staff and his teammates. He has started 15 of 38 games and is averaging 7.2 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game.
"He's amazing, man," said Spurs veteran Antonio McDyess. "He's a rare rookie, I would say. It seems like he has the experience already, has been a rookie. He has come in and been very humble, willing to learn. He's been great. When you're a rookie in the NBA and you want to learn, you're only going to get better.
"You don't usually get that. You get rookies coming in thinking they're the man, they're going to destroy the league. DeJuan is humble and the sky is the limit for him because of that."
Those sentiments were echoed by others in the locker room. Teammates said Mr. Blair has an uncommon professionalism for someone who will not turn 21 until the spring.
"He's been a great fit for this team," said forward Richard Jefferson. "He's an extremely hard worker. He pays attention. He's a smart kid. One thing that helps him is that there are a lot of other young guys here, too. We're all learning. Things are working great for him. He's contributing quite a bit."
Adding players such as Mr. Blair and Mr. Jefferson was a priority for Mr. Buford after the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs by the Mavericks in the first round last spring. The Spurs won an NBA championship as recently as 2007, but Mr. Buford decided that the team needed a makeover to challenge in the NBA's Western Conference.
"If you look at us, we're not an overly personality-based team," he said. "Getting some fresh oxygen on the floor, on the bench, someone who is not afraid to be a kid and have fun, over an 82-game schedule and hopefully more, that's welcome. This group has played together a long time. We want new blood that can play, is energetic and can have fun. He's really been a welcome presence."
Mr. Blair has experienced the typical highs and lows for a rookie in the NBA. On Wednesday night against Oklahoma City, he scored 28 points and pulled down 21 rebounds, both career highs. In the previous three games combined, he only managed eight points and five rebounds.
"He's a young basketball player," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's got a hell of a lot to learn about a hell of a lot of things. But his future looks bright. He is certainly coachable and hard-working. There is no reason why that won't continue. But he is by no means ready to become a foundation of a program or anything like that yet."
Mr. Parker, the Spurs' star point guard, was 19 years old when he was a rookie nine years ago and understands what Mr. Blair is going through during his first season. Mr. Parker knows making Mr. Blair comfortable in his surroundings is an important aspect of easing his transition to the NBA.
Ms. Longoria Parker, a star of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," has become a big fan of Mr. Blair. When she is not working, she is a fixture at Spurs games and prepares meals when Mr. Blair visits.
"I love Eva," Mr. Blair said. "She's a wonderful person. Since she's a star, you would think she would be different, but she's wonderful. She cooks. She has a great personality. They're perfect for each other. They opened their house for me and took me under their wing. I really love them. They're good people."
Another Spurs' stars is a mentor, as well. Tim Duncan, the future Hall of Fame center who entered the NBA as a 21-year old rookie out of Wake Forest in 1997, learned at the feet of David Robinson when Mr. Robinson was in the twilight of his career. Now, Mr. Duncan is passing on his knowledge to Mr. Blair.
"DeJuan has been great for us so far," Mr. Duncan said. "He's a young guy and he's willing to learn. He's willing to do the work it takes. You put those two things together and it's easy to extend a hand to help someone like that.
"He brings a lot of good energy and a lot of things we need for this team. As he continues to bring those things to the team, he'll continue to earn his minutes and he's going to continue to help us."
Mr. Blair is trying to soak up as much knowledge as he can. He remembers watching Mr. Duncan, Mr. Parker and the Spurs win championships when he was in elementary school and high school. Now Mr. Blair is starting alongside them and hopes to help them win another ring.
"I call him my big brother," Mr. Blair said of Mr. Duncan. "He took me under his wing. He tells me everything. He gives me advice. It's amazing learning from him. From me watching him growing up to right now playing with him is amazing. He's there when I need him. When I'm doing something wrong, he'll tell me. He'll tell me when I'm doing bad or good. Coming from him, to hear him say 'Good job,' it's amazing."
Mr. Blair is the rare athlete who is competing at the highest level without an anterior cruciate ligament in either knee. Other athletes, such as the Steelers' Hines Ward and former Spurs guard Sean Elliott, have played with only one ACL, but Mr. Blair is the only known professional athlete to compete without either ACL.
It's the No. 1 reason he was he selected in the second round and not in the NBA lottery. Other factors such as his height and weight were minor issues with NBA teams. The unusual medical report was the big red flag.
"The thing the doctors can tell you is his career likely will be shorter rather than longer," Mr. Buford said. "What that means, we don't know. We want to be conscious of that. We want to be attentive to his health and do every thing we can to provide him with training and treatment that will allow him to play as long as he can and at the highest level he can. He has approached it with a very professional attitude."
While his knees are sore, Mr. Blair said they have not forced him to miss any practices or games. The same was true of his time at Pitt.
Because Mr. Blair bucked the long odds of getting to the NBA on his damaged knees, Ms. Dixon presented Mr. Blair with an engraved wallet for Christmas. It reads: "Against all odds."
"They said he was too short, too fat, had no ACLs," she said. "But he's out there doing it."
Mr. Blair does not worry about the knees and said he believes he can have a lengthy career.
"I played on them at Pitt, at Schenley," he said. "It's been good. I'm being cautious, but at the same time I'm not worried about them. This is what got me here. They'll take me where I want to go. I'll take care of them. I'm not worried about them. Maybe when I'm 40, I'll worry. But that's 20 years from now."
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First Published January 17, 2010 12:00 am