Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pittsburgh's Finest

DeJuan Blair had become accustomed to playing basketball in the city of Pittsburgh, and it shows in his play. Pittsburgh is a blue-collar city where nothing comes easily. In the Steel City hard work breeds success, making DeJuan Pittsburgh’s perfect poster boy with his raw, hard-nosed game. Growing up in the city’s notorious Hill District, he learned the game in a town that is not necessarily known for its basketball prowess. The consistently cold weather in Pennsylvania’s steel city fits better with the heavily hockey and football-centered fan base. The recent successes of the Steelers and the Penguins have supplied the city with ample pride, pushing basketball far down the proverbial pecking order. However, during his mega-successful stint at nearby Schenley High School, DeJuan became somewhat of a household name around Pittsburgh, winning over locals with his monstrous on-court game and his friendly off-court demeanor. DeJuan became Pittsburgh’s own version of Mr. Basketball, leading Schenley to a 103-16 record during his tenor as their prized frontcourt force.

It is not every day that Pittsburgh has a basketball product to peg as its own, therefore when it came time for DeJuan to decide on a college, one can imagine the pressure pulling for him to stay in Pittsburgh. Despite numerous offers coming from more well-renowned basketball powerhouses such as Florida, Indiana, Wake Forest, and Tennessee, DeJuan decided to keep it local, choosing to attend the school in which he lived but a few blocks from for most of his life; The University of Pittsburgh. This decision raised some eyebrows, because although the program was steadily improving under Coach Jamie Dixon, it was still not the conventional pick for a sure-fire NBA prospect. But for DeJuan it was about more than that. Pittsburgh is where his family was. It is where he learned a love and respect for the game. It was basically all he had ever known. What better way for a basketball player to repay the city that raised you then by pushing the basketball program to the next level, which in effect is exactly what DeJuan did in his two years at the University of Pittsburgh. Pairing with future pro Sam Young the two took Pitt’s program to the pinnacle, capturing the school’s first ever number one ranking, eventually falling one Scottie Reynolds’s floater short of the school’s first Final Four appearance since 1941. The loss capped off a sensational season for the Pitt Panthers, and DeJuan himself, who earned co- Big East Player of the Year Honors, along with being selected as a consensus first-team All-American.

Although surely still stinging from the emotional Elite 8 loss, DeJuan decided that it was time to move on from the city of Pittsburgh, both literally and metaphorically. Feeling that he had proved all he could at Pitt he declared for the NBA draft. Considering that there is no professional franchise planted in Pittsburgh, this decision represented a move away from everything DeJuan had been familiar with, both on and off the court; a step forward. Heading into last June’s draft DeJuan battled constant questions regarding his durability and size, and injury issues, and faced doubt regarding whether or not he would be an effective NBA player. After an illustrious college career such doubts would surely bother most college kids, but not DeJuan. Instead of letting the skepticism and doubt derail him, he simply worked harder just like he learned on Pittsburgh’s playgrounds, pushing himself to remain a prominent prospect.

The hard work appeared as though it had begun to pay off, as most had Blair listed as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft, some even suggesting him for the lottery. But, just like he had become accustomed to balling in Pittsburgh, DeJuan had also grown accustomed to set-backs and skepticism, so when the entire first round passed without David Stern uttering DeJuan’s name he did not take it personally, but rather morphed it into motivation. So when San Antonio wisely used the 37th pick on the undersized forward out of Pittsburgh, they got themselves a hard-working motivated player, who appears to be a perfect piece for the Popovich system, and the pick immediately showed dividends. From posting a double-double in his first appearance to the subsequent 20-20 explosion in January to finally his monster performance in the recent Rookie/ Sophomore game, DeJuan has already worked to disperse any doubt regarding his durability, or the translation of his skills from the college to the pro game. Learning from a first ballot hall of famer doesn’t hurt either, and Tim Duncan has been more than eager to take the young Blair under his wing, guiding him and becoming one of his biggest off-court cheerleaders. Maybe Tim sees some strong potential in the youngster; potential that has already been proven to the city of Pittsburgh, and is beginning to become apparent to the city of San Antonio and its fans. Potential that will soon be apparent to everyone else.


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