Pope fights through physical, emotional pain to enjoy senior season
by Chris Hunt
It looked like just another ordinary rebound in a summer AAU game.
After completing his junior season with the Hopewell High school boys basketball team, 6-foot-7 center Elliott Pope was a veteran of such AAU contests. Growing up, Pope had made a name for himself playing in the interior for several Charlotte-area teams. Over the years, he’d seen countless errant shots, just like one that was headed in his direction.
He didn’t know it at the time, but this simple rebound would drastically change his future.
Pope grabbed the life-changing rebound last July, when he was playing for the Charlotte Nets in the Prep All-stars tournament at UNC Charlotte. He was competing in front of a gym full of college recruiters, including coaches from Furman, Wofford and Gardner-Webb, programs that were interested in his services.
Just days before the tournament, Gardner-Webb coaches had invited Pope to their open-gym session to get a better look at his potential. Furman and Wofford were also on UNCC’s campus to evaluate him.
That fateful day, Pope was reaching for more than just a rebound; he was trying to grab the approval of college coaches who expressed interest in him. Pope was trying to secure a basketball scholarship.
As he’d done many times before, Pope reached toward the sky. But this time, after he came down with the basketball and planted his leg to find a target for an outlet pass, he felt an undeniable pain in his right knee – the same knee that had been troubling him for 10 games.
He immediately knew something was wrong.
As Pope hopped on one leg, his eyes frantically searched for his parents in the crowd for help. But instead of finding those warm, familiar faces, Pope saw a sight he’ll never forget. He watched as the coaches from Furman, Wofford and Gardner-Webb – the coaches who were there to see him play – get up and walk out of the gym, taking his dream to play college basketball out the door.
“I looked up to tell my parents something was wrong, and I just saw all three of the coaches get up and walk out,” said Pope. “I can’t tell you how big of a shock that injury was. It was surreal. It was like everything (I worked for) evaporated in front of my eyes.
“The floor fell out from under me.”
Days later, the news from Pope’s doctor was just as unkind as the college recruiters’ collective rejection. Pope had torn a quarter-sized piece of bone in his femur. The bone shard had lodged itself from his knee, locking up the joint.
Pope was facing microfracture surgery to repair his leg. That procedure would cost Pope his senior season. It would also make it tough to find a college program willing to take a chance on a player who hadn’t competed since his junior year.
He wanted a second opinion.
After consultations with four different doctors, the news improved somewhat. Half the doctors recommended a procedure that would put Pope back on the court in four months, enough time to save his senior season.
Pope was faced with a dilemma.
“I didn’t know who to believe,” said Pope. “Two doctors were saying a year of rehab, and two doctors were saying four months.”
On July 28, Pope had surgery.
No superstars here
For three years, Pope waited for his chance to start on Hopewell’s basketball team. After a year on junior varsity as a freshman, Pope spent two varsity seasons as a reserve on Hopewell’s star-studded conference championship squads. As a junior, his minutes increased, but he still filled a supporting role.
Pope watched and learned as the Titans won their first 28 games, losing only in the 2008-09 regional finals. He spent practices banging under the boards against 2010 I-MECK 4A conference Player of the Year DéMon “Boots” Brooks, now a freshman on the Davidson College team. Pope accepted his role, never questioning then-Hopewell coach Eric Davis’ vision for him. He attributes his maturity as a player to that time.
Entering the 2010-11 season, it was supposed to be Pope’s turn to make an impact. Hopewell’s entire starting lineup from last season had graduated, leaving Pope – one of only two battled-tested players returning – with the reins of the team. Before leaving last spring for a coaching job at West Brunswick High, Davis told Pope numerous times that the team would lean heavily on him in the 2010-11 season.
“I’d been waiting for three years to play,” said Pope. “I got to butt heads with Boots in practice and learn my way. I did what Coach Davis told me to do, and before he left, he said next season would be my team.”
But that was all before his knee injury left the 2010-11 season in doubt.
So here was Pope, four months after surgeons inserted eight pins and numerous dissolvable screws into his knee, sitting among his teammates in the locker room. He had gambled on the procedure that would put him back on the court in four months, a decision designed to save his senior season.
By all accounts, he was just lucky to be in the locker room.
Pope’s knee was on the mend, but he wasn’t close to game shape before Hopewell’s first practice. After intense therapy, Pope wasn’t allowed to run until Nov. 1, and then it was just light jogging. Doctors instructed Hopewell’s coaching staff to be stingy with Pope’s playing time early in the season. Pope wasn’t scheduled to play full speed until January: That’s not exactly the way he wanted to begin his senior season.
At the time, improving as a basketball player wasn’t as high on his priority list as getting healthy was.
Physically, Pope was limited, but that didn’t mean he still couldn’t make an immediate impact on his young teammates. Instead of leading the Titans on the court with his play, as he’d expected to do last summer, he would have to find an alternative method. So when first-year coach Damon Bost asked his seniors to speak to the team and tell them what they expected out of the 2010-11 season, Pope was ready with a gut-wrenching speech that had everyone, coaches included, excited to take the court.
That day, he took out a lot of frustration stemming from his four-month setback. He told his teammates to appreciate basketball and be thankful for the chance to play full speed. Then, he told his fellow Titans it would take a team effort for Hopewell to win its fourth consecutive conference championship.
“Elliott got up and said, ‘I don’t see any Division I recruits in this room,’” said Bost. “He said, ‘I don’t see any college coaches coming to watch us, including myself, so we’ve got to focus on a conference championship.’ Elliott’s probably got the best chance to get a college scholarship, but there he was, setting his sights on a (team goal).
“It was bittersweet because this was supposed to be his chance to play. It was supposed to be his breakout year.”
Under tight supervision, Pope played sparingly during Hopewell’s non-conference schedule – a few minutes here, a few minutes there. The design was just to get his legs under him, not for him to win basketball games. At that point in his rehab, conditioning and leg strength were bigger risks to injury than the stability of his knee. Without Pope at 100 percent, the inexperienced Titans won just three of their seven non-conference contests. That’s quite a change for a team that lost just four games the past two seasons.
But just days before the Titans were scheduled to play in the Prep All-Star Tournament at Queen University Dec. 20-22, Pope made another critical decision: He looked down at his right knee and took off the cumbersome brace he’d been dragging around all fall.
It was now or never, he said to himself.
“The knee felt real good, so I told Coach Bost to let me play, and we beat one of the best teams in the county,” Pope recalled.
With Pope at full strength, the Titans defeated West Mecklenburg in the first round of the Prep All-Star tournament as Pope exploded for 20 points and eight rebounds. The Titans lost the next two games to Gastonia Forestview and Arden Veritas Christian, but Pope’s efforts landed him a spot on the all-tournament team.
“Elliott kind of had a breakthrough performance at the Queens University tournament,” said Bost. “His focus is improving because he’s not worried about what he can’t do physically.”
Pope’s versatility is perhaps his best asset. He isn’t the most physically gifted athlete, but he’s honed his basketball skills with hours of practice. He now blends nasty dropsteps in the post with the ability to step out and connect on perimeter jump shots. His versatility makes him tough for defenses to cover.
“Elliott doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he has a soft touch around the rim,” said Bost. “He has a high basketball IQ and can play inside and out, low post or high post. He can even step out to the 3-point line.”
Looking back, not only did Pope’s choice of surgery save his senior season; it might have drastically improved his chances to find the right college team. While Pope hasn’t spoken with Gardner-Webb, Furman or Wofford since his injury, he’s now in contact with coaches from Pfeiffer University, Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College and Tennessee’s Maryville College.
In some ways, the day those other coaches walked out of the gym might have been the best thing that’s happened to Pope on the basketball court.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but it would be tough to take a scholarship from one of those teams (that walked of out the gym),” said Pope. “That image of them walking out of the gym is what drives me this season.”