Climb to Mount for second shot Basketball: With a fury-driven mistake, Melvin Whitaker blew his chance at an ACC career. Mount St. Mary's is offering not without criticism a new start.

May 27, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Melvin Whitaker came here a little more than two years ago as a promising basketball player with hopes of making a name for himself at the University of Virginia. He accomplished that, though not the way he planned.

Whitaker left this college town last week without having attended a class or played in a game for the Cavaliers. He left not as a transfer from Virginia, but as a transfer from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

And he wasn't going yet to Mount St. Mary's College, the school Whitaker committed to in March and hopes to play for next season, but to the Southampton Correctional Center, a medium-security facility in southeastern Virginia.

Now 22, Whitaker seems to display the kind of maturity and levelheadedness that he lacked on that March afternoon in 1996 when he slashed Virginia football player Maurice Anderson with a box cutter after the two had exchanged words and elbows during a pickup basketball game at a campus gymnasium.

The incident left Anderson with a facial wound that required 75 stitches and a permanent, 3-inch scar. It left Whitaker with a 3 1/2 -year prison sentence for malicious wounding and a reputation he hopes he might someday erase.

"I've tried to learn from that, to keep cool and think things through," Whitaker said at the Charlottesville prison one morning last week, a few days before he was moved. "When you're playing ball, you're living in the fast lane and things can get out of hand.

"But I don't want to forget what happened. Being in here will be a reminder for me of how I want to live my life when I get out."

With time off for good behavior, Whitaker is scheduled to be released in October. Though he hoped to get out before classes begin in the fall, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center likely will suit up in late December at Mount St. Mary's, with the possibility of bringing the small school in Emmitsburg both acclaim and ridicule.

The news that Whitaker had signed a letter-of-intent last month while in prison raised issues that Jim Phelan had never encountered in a 44-year career.

"We don't recruit players like this," said Phelan, the winningest active coach in NCAA Division I. "I'm not talking about players who are in jail. I'm talking about players of Melvin's ability. He kind of recruited us in a way."

The relationship between the former McDonald's All-American -- Whitaker still holds the record for blocked shots in the prestigious high school all-star game -- and Mount St. Mary's began in the months between the incident at Virginia and Whitaker's sentencing in August 1996.

After returning home to Raleigh, N.C., Whitaker was invited to spend a few days with Jeff Null, a former classmate at Oak Hill Academy and the son of a dentist in Gettysburg, Pa.

Dr. Cleveland Null also happened to be the dentist of Mount St. Mary's assistant coach Don Anderson and would become a friend of the Whitaker family, helping foot the attorney's bills during the trial.

"He called me to see if they could come over and play ball," recalled Don Anderson, a former head coach at Gettysburg College. "He also asked me if I could talk with Melvin. Basically, I wanted to see if Melvin needed to talk to a priest or talk about what happened. As far as I knew, he was still committed to Virginia."

A few months later, as Whitaker's case was about to go to trial, Don Anderson heard from the player's attorney. Anderson said the attorney was going to suggest to the judge that Whitaker be placed on probation and, as part of the probation, attend Mount St. Mary's. Anderson was asked to speak on Whitaker's behalf at the trial.

In preparation for Whitaker's possible application for admission, Mount St. Mary's officials began checking into the player's background.

"At the time, we thought Melvin would be put in a juvenile offenders program," said Mount St. Mary's athletic director Harold P. Menninger. "We wanted to know more. We wanted to know what he was like in high school, what he was like at Oak Hill, what he was like at the military prep school [Hargrave] after Oak Hill."

No previous incidents

All the reports were consistent: The coaches and administrators at Garner High School in Raleigh, where he spent his first three years, as well as at Oak Hill, from which he graduated, and Hargrave Military Academy, where he went while trying to get his Scholastic Assessment Test scores up to NCAA standards, said that the incident at Virginia was out of character for Whitaker.

The incident took place while Whitaker was living and working in Charlottesville before what would have been his freshman year at Virginia. Whitaker was advised by his attorney to plead guilty and thought a deal had been struck with the prosecutor's office for him to enter a program for first-time offenders.

Instead, the judge sentenced Whitaker to prison.

"It blew everyone away," Menninger said.

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