DeJuan Blair: Answering The Call

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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A community is calling Spurs rookie DeJuan Blair. A community that mourned the slaying of his best friend. A community that watched asbestos-laden plaster shut down his high school. A community that is losing people and jobs and historical landmarks. DeJuan, will you come back and help?

There's no need to ask, really. Blair remains so emotionally connected to the Hill District in Pittsburgh it's as if he never left. His college basketball coach saw him at a University of Pittsburgh football game in September. Friends saw him back in the 'hood over the summer. Blair says he's planning a fundraiser in The Hill next year.

Blair may have left The Hill when he signed to play in San Antonio. But The Hill never left him. "I want to give something back," he says, "and make a difference."

The Hill gave Blair a childhood, a hoop and a dream. It gave him lots of friends and a future. It gave him a broken heart.

He remembers the phone call like it was yesterday. It startled him awake at 4 a.m. in Florida, where he was competing in an AAU tournament. His best friend, Antonio Hampton, had been fatally shot at a party.

"I was shocked," Blair recalls. "I cried all night. I cried all day."

Hampton and Blair grew up together, a couple of houses apart, like brothers. They were inseparable until the shooting. "If he was alive," Blair says, "he'd living with me right now."

The Hill was once a thriving community of culture, a gathering place for artists, writers and jazz musicians. Today it's an urban patchwork of public housing projects, vacant homes and shuttered businesses. The decay breeds crime, violence, drugs. Television writer and producer Steven Bochco based the police serial drama, "Hill Street Blues," on the neighborhood. Every episode contained a warning at police roll call: "Hey, let's be careful out there."

Bochco included that line for a reason. "As far as tough neighborhoods go, it's the toughest in Pittsburgh," says University of Pittsburgh basketball coach Jamie Dixon.

The Hill claimed Blair's best friend and closed his school. It also provided inspiration. Before he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh -- just 600 yards away from his home -- Blair began lifting his community. As a senior, he led Schenley High to the state championship. He announced his decision to attend Pittsburgh at a recreation center in The Hill. After his first season at Pitt, Blair became larger than life on The Hill.

He visited schools, hung out at the rec center and gave motivational speeches. Recalls Dixon, "His freshman year I said, 'Hey DeJuan, you are not going to be here for four years. What I want from you is to impact this city, I want you to be a person of stature because of the things you do beyond your playing career.'"

Blair took the charge seriously, so seriously he often showed up at schools without telling officials at Pittsburgh who arrange such events.

"He'd go out and speak to a high school on his own," says Pittsburgh media relations director Greg Hotchkiss. "He'd go out and do community service on his own.

You'll see DeJuan reaching out to the San Antonio community and you'll love him there. He's a unique individual. We really enjoyed him here."

Blair, it seems, will fit nicely into an organization with a history of outreach. Since 1988, The Spurs Foundation has donated more than $14 million to area charities. Every year, the Spurs family makes more than 1,000 community appearances. In 2003, the NBA renamed its Community Assist Award after Hall of Famer David Robinson, who spent $9 million to build a private school on the East Side.

Back East, Blair touts his neighborhood every chance he gets. In one YouTube video, he poses with his old high school principal. He takes some reporters to the Ammon Community Center. He takes others on a drive across The Hill.

"He's a celebrity, the guy they look up to," says Hotchkiss, who once accompanied Blair and the media on a tour of The Hill. "But I think they respect him because of the person he is. A down-to-earth guy. Not real flashy."

How much influence does Blair wield?

"I've gotten calls from people who want DeJuan to protest for certain rights and causes," Hotchkiss says. "They're building a new hockey arena downtown in an area that borders The Hill District. People don't like the fact that it's getting built there. They organized and wanted DeJuan to show up and protest. He hasn't done much in politics. But he could get into that."

Blair's popularity extends beyond The Hill. He rode in a car with the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Super Bowl parade, an appearance that blindsided the University of Pittsburgh media relations staff. "Oh my goodness, it's Blair," Hotchkiss recalls saying. "The parade stops, the players go to a podium to speak, and there was DeJuan on the stage."

Sometimes Blair hangs with Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. Sometimes Blair hangs with kids from The Hill. He tells them to stay in school, to stay out of trouble, to follow their dreams.

The kids know Blair isn't the only one to make it out of The Hill. One success story grew up next door to him. Aaron Gray now plays for the New Orleans Hornets.

There's a lot of history on The Hill. Lena Horne and George Benson used to perform at a jazz club. Former Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell owned a fried chicken store. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and others used to play Negro League baseball. Now comes Blair, a young man who wants to lift The Hill as if it were a ball in his hand.

"I want to go back and have an 'Antonio Hampton Day' in May," Blair says. "I want to raise money for kids in the district."

Some of those kids are aimless, fatherless, bereft of hope. Blair cannot repair the brokenness. But he can extend a hand, and lift those who are willing, one at a time.