Building A Legacy
Blair's impact already being felt
By Tony DeFazio
DeJuan Blair sat silently in front of his locker in the visiting dressing room of Time Warner Cable Arena. It was two hours before his San Antonio Spurs were to take on the Charlotte Bobcats, and the rookie from the Hill District was reflecting on just how much his life had changed over the last 12 months.
earlier, Blair turned in a 28-point, 21-rebound performance against
the Oklahoma City Thunder, the first 20-20 game by an NBA rookie
since Blair's teammate, two-time league MVP Tim Duncan, turned
the trick 12 years ago.
A year and a day earlier, Blair recorded 13 points and 18 rebounds as his Pitt Panthers won their second consecutive game as the No. 1 ranked team in the country, beating South Florida 75-62.
And three years earlier, Blair and four of his best friends were on their way to winning the Pennsylvania state basketball championship at soon-to-be-defunct Schenley High School.
"Nothing's changed all that much, really," Blair finally said quietly.
The young man is just 20-years-old. Forgive him if his game is a little more developed than his perspective.
Blair made an easy decision leave Pitt for the NBA last spring. He averaged a career double-double, led the Panthers to a Big East Tournament title as a freshman, and averaged 16.8 points and 13.8 rebounds per game during their Elite 8 run his sophomore season. The 6-7, 265-pound man-child was a projected lottery pick.
But when medical exams showed that Blair was missing ACLs in BOTH knees-a reminder of the injuries that cost him parts of two high school seasons-he plummeted all the way into the second round of the NBA Draft, where the Spurs scooped him up with the 37th overall pick.
Once again, Blair was forced to prove himself to a sea of cynics.
"Nothing comes easy in the NBA. I know I have to earn respect all over again," Blair said. "I'm still learning."
As usual, he's been a fast learner. Blair's 7.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game average, in just over 18 minutes per contest, earned him a spot on the Rookie Challenge Roster at the NBA's All-Star Weekend in Dallas this month.
While the results on the court are similar, there is a different air about DeJuan Blair today. He's no longer the gregarious, always-smiling, larger than life presence that ruled Oakland during his brief time on campus. Today Blair is living away from home for the first time in his life, a subdued rookie on a team full of grizzled veterans who are used to playing at an all-world pace, and fighting for basketball's ultimate hardware.
"Ever since his post-draft press conference, when he was very impressive and almost bubbly, he's been very quiet," said Jeff McDonald, who covers the Spurs for the San Antonio Express News. "He's been a man of few words."
Blair's teammates, including veteran guard Tony Parker-from whom Blair rents a house-have been willing to pass on advice to the new guy, including Parker's suggestion to "speak softly as a rookie."
Indeed, Blair has been humble in his first NBA season.
"The thing with DeJuan is he's been humble. For a rookie, that's the thing," said veteran forward Antonio McDyess. "He knows he's got a lot to learn and that's making him a better player. And it's not always like that. A lot of rookies think since they were the man in college that they're the man here, but DeJuan isn't like that. He works hard, he listens and that's why he's going to get better."
Former NBA guard Brevin Knight, the older brother of Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight, is very familiar with the Pitt program and Blair in particular. Knight says that playing with veterans like McDyess, Parker and Duncan has accelerated Blair's development and maturity on and off the court.
"He has veteran guys who are willing to teach, and guys who have done everything including won championships," said Knight, now the radio analyst for the Charlotte Bobcats. "He's with an organization that has done it all, and an organization that understands about grooming players, so he'll have an opportunity to get better, play and improve from this point. He just couldn't have picked a better place to go."
difficult thing for any 20-year-old to grasp, perspective. It's
especially difficult when you've accomplished so much on the hardwood,
and in such a small window of time, as Blair has.
But maybe Blair doesn't lack perspective after all; maybe his life hasn't changed much because he hasn't changed much, despite the whirlwind success he's enjoyed.
"Nothing changed when we went to college or now that he's in the NBA. We always talk. Anytime anything comes up, for either one of us, we're always the first call," said D.J. Kennedy, Blair's good friend and teammate since the third grade, and currently a junior guard at St. John's. "That's the biggest thing with DeJuan. He's still the same guy without the money or with the money. He's a caring person, a loving person and I don't think that'll ever change. DeJuan's been the same person since he got the money."
Blair's uncle disagrees.
"He's driving a much nicer car," joked Cameron Saddler, whose older sister Shari is Blair's mother. Saddler-a freshman wide receiver and kick returner for Pitt's football team-talks to Blair regularly. In fact, Saddler's older nephew was a guiding influence in Saddler's choice to play football at Pitt.
"Making the decision to come here was a hard decision and Juan helped me out a lot with that," Saddler said. "He was just like, 'Why leave home? You can still play the best and still go home and eat mom's food, and go be with your family on holidays.'"
It's that sense of family that has kept Blair grounded during a time when sudden success and money often lead young men astray. Blair's Aunt Sharene and Uncle Brian moved their family from Pittsburgh to San Antonio to help ease his adjustment.
And while Blair is probably lucky to have good people in his life, it is his conscious decisions that have made it that way.
"He surrounded himself with some great people," said Dan Barto, who helped train Blair for the NBA Draft at IMG Academy in Florida. "DeJuan has shown a track record of being able to deal with adversity and deal with tough choices. Most athletes do a terrible job of staying home and going to school because there can just be so many distractions. But he did a tremendous job of staying at home and being successful in a very difficult environment. He did it because he's able to stay focused."
This time Saddler agrees.
"He's always the same. You never could get a read off of Juan. You don't know if his dog just died or if he just hit the lottery," Saddler said. "He's just gonna hug you and kiss on you and be all lovey-dovey and that will not change. Never."
Partially because of his success, partially because of his easy-going attitude and partially because of his sense of home, Blair has established quite an impressive legacy in a very short time.
When the Spurs played the New Orleans Hornets Oct. 28, bartenders all over Pittsburgh were being asked to change the TV station so patrons could watch their favorite son go off for 14 and 11-on national television-in his NBA debut.
When the Pitt football team honored the 2008-09 basketball team during a game this fall, there was Blair, waiving to the appreciative crowd from to the 50-yard line with that trademark smile plastered across his grill.
"We assumed there was no way he would be able to make it - they had practice," said Pitt media relations associate Greg Hotchkiss, who worked closely with Blair during his two years at the school. "But he practiced Friday afternoon, flew in late Friday, got up and went to the game. Then he went right back to the airport and flew to Texas, got off the plane and practiced. That's DeJuan."
At any Pitt basketball game at the Petersen Events Center this season, you can see numerous San Antonio "45" jerseys throughout the student section. And at malls. And local high schools. And on basketball courts across the region.
Blair's eyes widened when told about the kids in Pittsburgh sporting his jerseys.
"I don't know anything about that," he said rather dismissively, before the idea seemed to set in. "Really, though? That's pretty impressive… Wow. It's pretty neat to have that going on. I'm glad they do. But that's all bigger than me."
In a sense, Blair is correct. It's certainly not unique to see kids wearing the jerseys of their favorite athletes. It is unique, though, when the jersey they're wearing is that of their neighbor - a neighbor they can look up to.
Darrelle Porter, another former Pittsburgh City League and Pitt basketball star, coached Blair in AAU leagues. Porter feels that Blair's legacy, while still growing, is already firmly in place.
"People in the neighborhood got a chance to continue following him through high school and then throughout his college career," Porter said. "Even though people didn't know DeJuan personally, they felt like they knew him because they could follow him.
"He probably doesn't see it all now because he's so busy doing other things, but the impact that he's had around here? Twenty years from now, people will be doing things because of the things he's done," Porter continued. "Kids are going to the basketball court emulating him. When they get a rebound they're calling out, 'I'm DeJuan Blair,' just like he probably used to call out, 'I'm Michael Jordan' or 'I'm Charles Barkley.'
"Just that alone, especially for the kids in the Hill, who grew up in a tough environment… to see the success that he's had, it impacts a lot of kids, and I think a lot of adults too. It's so nice that he comes back and works with the little kids, playing baseball, basketball, going to football games. He's so humble that I don't think he recognizes all that, but he sure enough touches a lot of people."
Kennedy, who's having an All-Big East-caliber season in his own right-and likely has a pro career in front of him as well-says that both he and Blair are fully aware of their place in that legacy.
"We're definitely aware of it. It was a goal we were trying all of our lives to achieve," Kennedy said. "But we're aware of how we'll go down in history. Once we get a lot older, like in our 40s or even our 30s-no matter what happens from this point on-I'm sure we'll look back on those days as the best days of our lives… that whole team, the championships."
While Kennedy and the rest of that high school team all share a piece of that legacy, it's Blair who has accomplished their shared goal first. And as promised, Blair is sharing it with his friends.
"Just try to inspire people as best I can," Blair says quietly as he reflects on his budding legacy. "Learning how to do that is something, but I think just by being there and trying to be like I always have been. Just be there for the people I need to be there for, that's really all I'm trying to do. Whatever I've been through I can be helpful in that way. And just trying to inspire people, I think that's the main thing."
Maybe that sense of perspective is developing after all.
Tony DeFazio is the editor of the Pittsburgh Sports Report. He visited with Blair when the Spurs played Charlotte last month.