Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — A year ago at this time, Herb Pope was lucky just to be alive.
The 6-foot-8 Seton Hall forward collapsed during a workout at Walsh Gym in April 2010. He underwent heart surgery to deal with a birth defect — an anomalous right coronary artery — that Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said they “usually only find in an autopsy.”
“Everyone’s got to remember, this time last year he wasn’t even cleared to walk,” Willard told SNY.tv Friday after practice.
A sluggish Pope played the 2010-11 season with the Pirates, but weighed 262 pounds and was a shadow of his former self. After a stellar sophomore season in which he averaged 11.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, Pope’s totals dipped to 9.8 points and 7.9 boards.
Flash forward a year and a slimmed-down Pope looks like a new man. He has completely revamped his diet, dropped to 240 pounds and appears poised for a breakout senior season.
Asked during an exclusive interview with SNY.tv what was responsible for his life-changing makeover, Pope had only two words: “John Lucas.”
Beginning July 9, Pope spent seven weeks training with other players in Houston under the former NBA coach and player.
“I’ve known him since high school because I went on a recruiting trip with his son Jai to Oklahoma,” Pope said of Lucas, whose son, Jai, is now a senior guard at Texas.
The toughest part of the workouts?
“The hardest part was running the three miles at like 7:30 in the morning in that Houston heat at the park outside and then going inside to a gym with no air conditioning,” Pope said.
The morning run was followed by workouts (9-11 a.m.), counseling (11-12), weightlifting (1), basketball (2:30) and more running (6). He was in bed by 8:30 most nights.
“It was basically like a mini-NBA training camp but I never was ready for anything like that,” he said.
Pope cut fried foods and junk food from his diet and now eats a lot of grilled chicken and fish.
“Just light things,” he said. “Try to eat more proportions out the day instead of one big large meal. I feel a lot better. I feel great.”
As far as his heart condition, Pope said, “I’m in tip-top shape. I’m great. I passed everything with flying colors.”
Pope went so far as to say it’s “the best I’ve felt ever.”
For a man who has almost died twice — he was also shot four times at a party in his hometown of Aliquippa, Pa., in 2007 while trying to leave a party — that is some statement.
Pope feels more than ready for Willard’s new up-tempo style of offense.
“Coach Willard definitely wants [to increase] the tempo of our playing style,” he said. “Now I’m sprinting. Nothing prepared me for what he’s about to put us through. It’s going to be a vigorous next 23 days, but I’m up for the challenge.”
Willard, whose team is coming off a disappointing 13-18 season and opens the season Nov. 12 at home against St. Francis (N.Y.), is impressed by the changes in Pope.
“It’s just him to getting back to being the athlete that he is,” Willard said. “He’s made some sacrifices.”
With the departure of leading scorer Jeremy Hazell and forward Jeff Robinson, Willard will rely heavily this season on Pope, senior point guard Jordan Theodore and sophomore wing Fuquan Edwin, all of whom figure to start along with sophomore forward Patrik Auda and perhaps freshman shooting guard Haralds Karlis.
If Pope can rebound to his form of two years ago, or exceed it, he could be a major factor in the Big East.
“I’m trying to play better than I played two years ago because I’m looking to be more of an offensive threat, as well as continue to rebound the ball,” Pope said.
The rest of the Big East knows Pope is a future pro who can be a dominant big man if fully healthy.
“I’m just focused on this year and trying to win,” Pope said. “I’ve never been to the [NCAA] tournament and I don’t want to go out losing.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.