The Story of Kent State’s Pope
Please help us raise money for the John Whorton Memorial Fund.
I’ll never forget the pinkish-purple haze of that autumn sunrise over the Kent State library when I decided to quit playing basketball at Kent State University.
“Huff,” my teammate John Whorton said. “I gotta talk to you about something.”
I must have had my head down when he noticed me because I didn’t see anyone looking at me. Not the coaches, not the guys, not anyone.
“What’s going on?” he asked, putting his anaconda arm around my shoulder. “You doin’ all right, man?”
Our 1998–99 team was ahead of us, jogging out the Memorial Athletic Convention Center’s weight room, which we called the MACC, moving from underneath the bowels of the court towards the outdoor track about a half mile away.
My “last man out” mantra was different than my Petoskey High School days. I was the last man out this time because I couldn’t move my legs. Most of the guys were already a hundred feet in front of me.
John’s words stopped me.
“Huff, you doin’ all right, man?”
“Fuck no, I’m not doing all right,” I said, anger slipping from my lips.
Tears leaked from the corners of my eyelids, and waves of overwhelming sadness, anger, and frustration pulsed through me. It was a tough epiphany to know, no, believe you aren’t good enough for your lifelong dream of playing D1 basketball.
“What’s up, Huff? Talk to me. I see you keeping your distance lately.”
“I dunno, man, I said, wiping the snot from my nose and tears from my eyes. “I’m just not fast enough. Strong enough. I can’t even feel my legs, nonetheless, keep up with you guys. The worst thing is I miss home and feel like no one’s got my back here.”
“Yeah, okay, but what did you expect, Trev?”
“What do you mean? I expected — ”
“No, when you came here, you expected it to be easier, right?”
“I dunno, I guess I thought I’d do better. I thought I’d be able to hang.”
“But you aren’t in Petouskay. You aren’t the big fish, you’re the small fish now. You know when I got here, I weighed 300 pounds and wasn’t recruited much? No one believed in me either — ”
“I didn’t know that, Pope,” I said.
“You know what GW and the coaches and the upperclassmen did? They crushed me, man. They beat me in practice every day. They put me on a diet. They ran me into the ground. I dropped 80 pounds in a year, brother. I wanted to quit. But this is the part I need you to listen to, your expectations can’t surpass your reality, Huff.”
“But Pope, c’mon man — I’m the only freshman. You had other freshman. I’m from a farmtown in Northern Michigan. You guys are from the inner city. Ya’ll don’t believe in me. Coach doesn’t even look at me. I took Scottie’s place and no one cares if I stay. You had Al, Geoff, Ed, JC, Ryan, and Kyrem. Ya’ll have your team — .”
“What’d you think was gonna happen Trev, you gonna step into a starting spot? Everyone on this team can hoop man, even Lehrke-dog!”
“Exactly. I can’t guard nobody and can’t feel my goddamn legs.”
“Trev, stop walking,” Pope said. “I’m serious. I want you to stop and listen to what I’m about to tell you.”
It was around 7:00 am when I decided to quit playing basketball for Kent State University. I was the only incoming freshman of the 1998–1999 season, and we had just finished another grueling hour-long weight room session with Ken Long, our wild-eyed, uber-intense former NFL strength and conditioning coach.
“Out to the blue monster,” Coach Long yelled. “Time to turn and burn it at the blue, fellas.”
“Coach,” I asked. “Can I eat breakfast?”
“No, it’s time to run.”
“But we just lifted,” I said. “Dont’ we get to eat breakfast?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass if you ate or not, you should have eaten before weights. The early bird gets the worm — LET’S GO FELLAS, GET TO THE BLUE!” Coach Long yelled as he started shuffling up the basement stairs out of the MACC.
I had been up since 5:45 am. I was tired and, like most of the preseason, dragging ass. The physical and mental load was beyond anything I’d ever experienced. Every day of the week, we’d have ultra-competitive two-hour open gyms, early morning skill development sessions plus weights with Coach Long, followed by extra conditioning on the track (aka, the blue monster).
Our season’s mantra was, “Taking care of business.”
Kent State basketball felt more like the Navy Seals than business to me.
GW told the team in our preseason meeting about the required conditioning goals, his dark almond eyes glinting, “Bench 300 pounds. Squat 400. Guards have to run under a 5:00 minute mile. Bigs run under 5:30, or you keep running until you make it.”
“That ain’t nothing, GW,” Pope said, smiling. “Light work for us, coach.”
The worst part about all of this preseason bullshit was I couldn’t feel my legs and still had to get to all my classes. I struggled walking, nonetheless getting up my stairs in Dunbar Hall after our mandatory study hall every evening.
To be fair, I wasn’t even supposed to be at Kent State.
Scottie Effertz left the team unexpectedly, and I was brought in on a last-second scholarship offer on a whim because I had shot the lights out in my random non-official visit in August. Coach GW didn’t want me. He never really spoke or looked at me. I was the last high school player signed at the D1 level.
And I knew I was the low man on the totem pole depth chart.
Coach Heck and Coach D would meet with me, but even their enthusiasm and support weren’t helping anymore. I had Drew, JC, ED, Shaw, Nate, Lehrke, ET, Al, and Kyrem ahead of me in the rotations. Worse, since I had signed so late, I was put in the non-athlete dorm with a non-athlete roommate named Randy.
Randy loved to smoke Malboros every night before bed.*
Worse than inhaling secondhand smoke every night, I weighed 215 pounds and couldn’t bench 300 pounds, squat 400 pounds, or even run close to a seven-minute mile. To make matters worse, Lehrke, the team walk-on, had already dunked on me in our first open gym. Ray Ray, our 6–6 power forward from Texas, posterized me on a transition break. Pope, Ed, JC, Kryem, and the upperclassmen had sent me packing to the sideline in every pick-up game I’d been in since class started.
Don’t even get me started on JC, Shaw, or Andrew picking me up full court.
I was fed up.
I had nothing left to give.
It was official — I was going to talk to Coach Waters and tell him he could have the scholarship back.
Then I looked up and noticed how big John Whorton was.
No, seriously, in the sunrise, Pope seemed larger than life.
There was steam coming off his shoulders. He looked like a demi-god of muscle. His teeth gleamed inside a wide bright smile that sat under a broad button nose and charming round dark eyes. He donned a tapered haircut, and his circular ears tucked low behind his high cheeks.
John Whorton could run for president one day, I thought.
“Trev, you can’t quit yet,” Pope said. “And I’ll tell you why you won’t.”
“Pope, I dunno,” I said, on the brink. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
“Huff, stop talking and listen — .”
And there I was, a short white kid from a village most known for its selection of ski slopes, listening to Kent State’s Pope.
We didn’t have seven-foot Black men where I grew up (or any Black people, for that matter) in Petoskey. Everyone on our team called John Whorton “Pope.”
I never knew exactly why they called him Pope — but I’m sure it was because of how he made you feel when he looked or spoke to you.
Ed Norvell said he called him that because John was always preaching to him like the Pope.
Pope was a young man living with a wise old soul. He debated with the coaches often and never held onto his opinions. His demeanor and delivery came with supreme intelligence, confidence, and sincerity. And if you gave him the ball on the block, he’d turn whoever was guarding him into shark chum. He’d spin defenders into confusion with an endless array of up and unders, ball fakes, footwork, and jump hooks. It didn’t hurt that his shoulders were wider than a set of cement blocks and his hands softer than feathers.
I naturally liked Pope, even if it seemed like we came from opposite ends of the Earth. He would ask me about Petoskey (Patoouuuskaaay, he would say), and we’d talk about life other than hoops.
“Huff, seriously — I’ll tell you why you’re going to make it through preseason and be better for it.”
I could barely raise my eyes. I felt the emotion rumble through my body. I felt the heaviness of my legs. I felt the tear from my soul, wanting to walk away from the only dream I’d ever wanted to achieve. I felt the weight of letting my family down. Of letting myself down. Of letting the team down.
I felt my D1 chance slipping away.
“Pope, let it go man. I’m done, I’m going to give GW his scholarship back— .”
“No, you aren’t,” Pope said calmly as I tried to regain my breath. “You think you’re done, but you aren’t. This is just the beginning. Trust me— it will get better, and if you quit now, you’ll regret not sticking this year out.”
I felt the weight of Pope’s hand on my shoulder.
“What do I do, Pope? I’m lost man. I feel really lost here.”
Over 20 years have passed since Pope talked to me outside the MAC Center and stopped me from quitting.
My perception of reality in 1998–99 couldn’t have been more wrong.
As a freshman, I was going through what I should have — suffering through the muck, the preseason, the homesickness, the questioning, and developing mental fortitude.
And I loved my coaches. I loved my team. I loved Ken Long, GW, and Steve Nordwall once I got to know them. I learned to believe in myself (but that freshman year, I tell you what!)
Looking back, I was just a kid, and Pope was already a man. And he taught me you don’t quit just because it gets hard.
You quit because you don’t love it anymore.
And I loved basketball more than anything. And Pope knew it. He saw it before anyone else.
Over the years, from college to the pros to Pope’s scare with COVID after our careers ended, we’ve talked on the phone. We’ve shared texts. We’ve discussed press breakers, his wife Angel, and his kids.
I went back and watched the video of his Angel and how they won a million dollars together on LeBron’s game show.
But for those who don’t know Pope, he’s always reaching out. To the team. His spirit lives in keeping our KSU brotherhood alive. He’s a constant in our Kent State basketball WhatsApp group.
I’m in the ICU guys, but I just got released, Pope texted us a few days ago in our chat.
What’s going on, brother? You good Pope?
What’s happening, Pope?
You all right, Pope?
The regulars flooded their support.
I’m cool I guess, I’m finally at home, he texted.
Pope’s last text was at 9:04 am on Tuesday.
It read, lol.
I imagine Pope smiling as he wrote it — full of laughter as his wide eyes punched in the last letters to his old team.
He was probably grinning ear to ear as he told JC how whack his game was.
I was behind on the chat (per usual), but I tried to catch up and read the texts about John’s health concerns.
Then there was silence.
Pope, you all right?
Pope, you okay brother?
I reminisced reading our thread among the guys — usually led by Pope towards JC, Ray, Ed, ET, Lehrke-dog, Al Boogie, Mike P, Geoff, and the occasional Shaw or Kyrem sightings.
I feel lucky to have stayed connected to Pope and the team for so long.
And suddenly, I’m crying now, and I have to remind myself it’s okay to cry.
I have to remind myself I don’t have to be tough and push through this moment as Pope asked me to 20 years ago. I don’t have to push through these feelings and outrun them. I have to honor him and the memories he left with us.
And I know many of my Kent State teammates— from Ed to Ray, to Al and Geoff, to JC and Lehrke, to E-Haut to ET, Big John, to Shaw, to Drew (who is probably somewhere in Sweden sipping Scandanavian espresso as we speak). The guys who came after us to Kent State, I want them to know how I think back on our early Kent State team memories with so much admiration and respect.
Pope was one of the leaders and pillars of our Kent State success and foundation.
Without him, the other upperclassmen of Ed, JC, Geoff, Al, and Lehrke made Kent State basketball wouldn’t be what it is today.
Pope changed the course of my life.
Over twenty years later, it’s sad to say there aren’t more big blue monster track runs to conquer with Pope. No more MAC titles to win. No more Coach Long weights to slay, no more 5:00 minute miles to run. No more Wallys to double team.
But while our team was together, we competed furiously and won three MAC championships, played in three NCAA tournaments, got to two Elite Eights (in the NIT and NCAA), and set hundreds of school, individual, and team records.
Ironically, Pope and I played against each other in the top league in Germany during my rookie season in 2003. He was already an established veteran, and I was struggling through the rookie ranks again.
But seeing, talking to, and playing against him reminded me of that life-changing day as a freshman.
Do you want to know what Pope said when he told me not to quit Kent State?
“Let’s make a deal, Huff,” Pope said, smirking.
“What’s the deal,” I asked quietly, chuckling for the first time in weeks.
“You can quit at the end of season, even at Christmas if you still feel like it. But until you stick out these next few months. I know you can help our team win if you push through this preseason challenge.”
“Yeah, I’m serious — just promise me you won’t quit until then, if that’s still what you want, okay?”
Pope dapped me up and pushed me towards the big blue.
“Now, let’s start running. Your legs will feel better if you keep moving, and I promise you this — you belong here, Huff.”
You belong here, Huff.
I’ll remember those words and that moment until my last day on Earth.
Pope was the first teammate at Kent State that believed in me.
I’ll always miss that grin, happy outlook, chortling laugh, those rolling shoulders, and that calm voice that never led me astray.
And Pope, I hope you get this message wherever you are:
Thank you for talking to me that day — even though you left this world too soon, KSU’s brotherhood will always miss your trash talk, wise words, endless questions, banter, and unconquerable spirit.
You will always be the one and only Pope of Kent State.
Oh, and Pope, I promise you this.
I’ll remind myself even the smallest acts of kindness and belief in someone can change the trajectory of their life.
Even if you can’t shoot the three for a lick.
Rest in peace, my Kent State brother. I’ll miss you.
The John Whorton Memorial Scholarship Fund is taking gifts:
- Charge your gift online. The university’s secure online giving site can process your credit card contribution to provide immediate support (pay pal, venmo, credit card) — on the site that will be created.
- Charge your gift by phone. If you would prefer to speak to someone from Kent State to make your credit card donation, please call 330–672–2222.
- Mail us a check or money order:
Kent State University Foundation
350 S. Lincoln Street
P.O. Box 5190
Kent, Ohio 44242–0001
Memo: The John Whorton Scholarship
*Correction, Randy messaged me and told me it was once, but I think it was more than once. We can agree to disagree. Lol.