Saturday, November 4, 2006

September 25th, the first anniversary of when he was shot, came and went for Andray Blatche. He was more worried about preparing for the preseason — a difficult preseason, it turned out, that so far has kept him out of the Wizards’ short-range plans.

“I didn’t pay no attention to it, really” the 6-foot-11, second-year forward said this week, referring to the infamous date. “I didn’t recognize the day was coming and I didn’t recognize the day had passed. It was just another day.”

It was not just another day, however, for Blatche’s mom, Angela Oliver. That’s how mothers are. Bad things, in this case the near-death of a son, tend to linger for a long time. Like, forever.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” she said from her home in Greenville, S.C. “When the date was coming up, I was so frantic. I said to him, ‘Please excuse me. I’ll probably call you three or four times a day.’ He dealt with it for a week, me calling him so much.”

Blatche has dealt with worse. A month after his 19th birthday last year, he was shot in a carjacking attempt outside his former home in Alexandria, Va. The bullet pierced his right wrist and then his chest, about an inch from his heart. Blatche was lucky. After spending two days in a hospital, he was telling reporters about the shooting in a press conference a week later.

Blatche’s recovery was such that the only visible evidence is four dime-sized scars, two on his wrist, one on his chest, one on his back (the result of entrance and exit wounds). Not only would it be a cliche to suggest that there also are mental and emotional scars, it would not be entirely true. He said he doesn’t dwell on what he calls “the incident.” He admits he occasionally “daydreams” about it, but how could it not flit across his mind once in awhile?

“I was almost dead,” he said. “One bad move right or left and I could have been dead. I think about it, but I don’t think about it.”

Blatche, drafted by the Wizards out of prep school in the second round in 2005, is “long,” in NBA parlance, and mobile — typical of the new breed of forward. He has been loosely compared to Kevin Garnett, the prototype of the breed. After a preseason game against Dallas, teammate Etan Thomas told Blatche he has the ability to play like Dirk Nowitzki.

But after missing all of training camp while recovering, Blatche’s rookie season was a wash. He had trouble breathing, which affected his conditioning. Blatche hardly played, except for when he spent a couple of weeks with the Roanoke Dazzle of the NBA Development League. This year, despite showing promise for the team’s summer league team, he has shown limited progress. He shot less than 27 percent during the preseason and his defense needs a lot of work.

“For one play that looks great, there are about 12 to 15 plays he needs to get better at,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said.

Physically, Blatche is fine now. And neither himself, nor anyone with the Wizards, attributes his slow development to any residual mental or emotional effects of the shooting. The given reason is always the same — youth and inexperience. As a writer once noted of a young Bill Walton, “Tall is not grown up.”

“He’s got skill, but his youthfulness gets in the way,” Jordan said. “Whether it’s emotional, mental or physical youthfulness. It’s a process with young guys.”

Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who took Blatche with the 49th pick, agrees.

“There’s no question about his skill level,” Grunfeld said. “For a person his size, he handles the ball very well. He’s a good passer and has a good feel for the game. But there is a certain amount of learning that still has to be done. If he puts in the hard work that he has to, if he continues to mature and grow, I think he has a bright future. But it takes time.”

• • •

Blatche has made some concessions to “the incident.”

He has a self-imposed curfew. And during the summer, he moved far outside the Beltway, to a gated community in Manassas. He said he has to leave at 7:30 a.m. to make practice at 11 because of rush hour traffic. It is unusual, if not unique, for a professional athlete in the District to live as far from town in travel time. But Blatche sees the inconvenience as a relatively small price to pay for feeling safe.

“To get to my house, you can definitely tell if someone is following me,” said Blatche, who shares the house with a friend, Jamar Sampson, a student at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park. “When I go home, nobody is going the same way I’m going. I’m not afraid to go out by myself or be myself. I’m just real cautious.”

Oliver, meanwhile, could not be happier with her son’s living situation.

“When I was there, I saw the gate,” she said. “They don’t let you in unless you’re on a list. That was really, really peaceful for me.”

Oliver remembers waking early on the morning her son was shot, sensing that something was wrong. She called his cell phone. No answer. About 20 minutes later, she said, Sampson called, then handed the phone to a police officer.

“He said he’d been shot,” Oliver said. “But he was talking. That was good news.”

Blatche, along with a friend and former Wizards center Peter John Ramos, had been out clubbing in the District, well into morning (“caught up in the nightlife,” is how his mother put it). Even though he was underage and had been denied entrance before, Blatche was admitted to this particular club. The shooting occurred at 6:13 a.m. after Blatche drove a woman who was ostensibly drunk back to his house in her car. Ramos and the friend followed, in Blatche’s Escalade.

Outside of the house, a car with two masked men pulled up, apparently intent on stealing the Escalade. Blatche was shot. The assailants got away (they have not been caught) and the woman disappeared. Blatche thought he was shot only in the wrist but after the paramedics arrived, he learned the bullet also passed through his chest. He was airlifted to Inova Fairfax Hospital and underwent surgery.

Oliver, meanwhile, immediately called Blatche’s agent, Eric Fleisher, who got her in touch with a friend of his in Greenville and told him to drive Oliver to the hospital.

“We made it in record time,” Oliver said.

During the ride she talked to Wizards personnel and a doctor at the hospital and was assured that Andray was stable. She stayed at the hospital, sleeping on an empty bed in the room, and remained with her son for two months while he underwent physical therapy.

• • •

Blatche grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and is by all accounts a good-natured young man with a big heart.

“A nice kid, a super kid,” said Raphael Chillious, his coach at South Kent, a Connecticut prep school Blatche attended after high school. He was and is somewhat of a prankster.

“Oh, he was the most mischievous child,” Oliver said. But he was unaccustomed to violence.

“He’d never been part of gangs or anything like that,” Oliver said. “He always stayed away from that.”

Oliver, who has another son, 14-year-old Trey, said the neighborhood kids always gathered at their house in Syracuse.

“He’d say, ‘Mom, we’re hungry. Can you cook us something?’ ‘ she said. “We probably cooked out every day in the summertime.”

Blatche’s father, Everett Blatche, went to prison on drug charges when his son was 12 and was released when Andray was 17. The elder Blatche has returned to his old job in asbestos removal and stayed out of trouble, but the two are not close.

“Even when he came back he didn’t show the same support he was showing,” Blatche said. “But my mom, no matter where my game was at, she’d come see it. She was my mother and my father. I give her the world for all the support she gave me.”

Blatche bought his mother the house in Greenville. Oliver moved there last year with Trey, a ninth-grader who stands 5-8, wears a size-12 shoe and recently tried out his middle school basketball team while wearing one of Andray’s old jerseys. Also living at the house is the 13-year-old adopted son of Oliver’s late mother.

Oliver moved because she has a lot of family nearby and “was ready for a change,” she said. “It was getting kind of hectic back at home. I think it made [Andray] comfortable I wasn’t in Syracuse. It was getting a little rough.”

At Henninger High School in Syracuse, Blatche grew four inches in 10th grade and became a top prospect. School, however, was not a priority. He often skipped class in favor of an extra lunch period.

“Like any kid, he made some young mistakes on and off the court,” Henninger coach Eric Saroney said. “Nothing of a serious nature. He was not always the most willing student.

“But I enjoyed the [heck] out of coaching him,” Saroney added. “Even though he was the star, I never had to battle selfishness with him at all. He didn’t care about numbers. He just wanted to win.”

Syracuse and West Virginia, among other programs, recruited Blatche. But he knew he wasn’t college material and set his sights on the NBA. He packed up and went to South Kent, a different world entirely both in landscape and environment.

“We treated the Wal-Mart like it was Six Flags,” he said.

He still found ways to get into minor trouble. Instead of taking an extra lunch, he often missed lunch entirely because he was so tired. Blatche and a couple of pals once slipped off-campus and drove to Storrs, to attend Midnight Madness at UConn. The punishment was always the same. It was called “The Hours,” a unique form of discipline in which Blatche had to haul rocks in a bucket from one spot to another.

“That was hard,” recalled Blatche, who said the experience changed his life. It made me more disciplined. An all-boys school, shirt and tie every day. Church every day. Everything was mandatory.”

Said his mom, “It helped him grow up a little bit. Every year he’s been away, he’s matured.”

The process is ongoing.

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