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By: Chris A. Weber
The teenager heads out the front door of his family's modest suburban Pittsburgh home and cuts across the lawn. Once on the street, he walks briskly, dribbling his basketball until it gets too hilly. Then, he cradles it as he hustles his way through the neighborhood. After he crosses a busy two-lane artery, he resumes his dribble all the way to the outdoor court near the local fire hall. For hours and hours, he stays there, playing pickup ball with his friends—shooting, passing, and dribbling away the summers of his youth.
"One hoop was two inches too high and the other was too inches too low," Herb Sendek recalls, clearly amused at the memory. "There were a lot of guys who wanted to play, but it was only the winners who stayed on. If you wanted to keep playing, you always hoped to shoot at the basket that was two inches too short because that helped the shooting percentage. If a guy could shoot well on the other one, you knew you had a player in the house."
Two inches too high. Two inches too low. Driven to stay on the court, it didn't matter which goal he faced. Sendek had to adapt.
The son of a basketball coach, Sendek has always felt the game flow in his veins. His childhood bedroom, a shoebox roughly the size of the three-second lane on a court, was plastered with photos of ballplayers pulled from issues of Sports Illustrated. "When he was very young, he'd tag along with me," says his father, Herb Sendek Sr., a retired mathematics teacher who coached in western Pennsylvania's junior college ranks. "I'd come home, pick him up, and take him to practice. He didn't mind missing meals."
"By the time I was in diapers, I was running around gymnasiums rather than playing in sandboxes," says Sendek.
The youngster loved the game. He never shied away from picking up the phone and talking with players and coaches who were looking for his dad. "He knew the ballplayers," says Sendek Sr. "I'd hear him converse with the players. He did that so well. Where he picked that up, I don't know. One time, a coach called me when I wasn't home. He told me later that he talked to Herb and was amazed at how well he was able to tell him about the skills of his own players. We're talking about a kid who was only 13 years old!"
Sendek's mom, Janet Sendek, wasn't surprised. "What did you expect..., he had a full-size basketball in his playpen from the time he was six weeks old."
Actually, there was a lot to expect—Sendek never gave a reason for anyone to believe otherwise. As a high school student, the two-year letterman and senior captain on the Penn Hills Indians' basketball team was class valedictorian. For his efforts, Sendek earned an appointment to West Point, though he ultimately chose Carnegie Mellon, where he was awarded a Carnegie Merit Scholarship. Naturally, the Industrial Management major played for the Tartans basketball team.
Beginning his junior year, though, the 6-foot-1 guard and the rest of the squad found themselves suiting up for a new head coach. Sendek was a capable reserve as a freshman and sophomore, but he saw very limited action as a junior under the new coaching regime. By the first week of Sendek's senior season, he and two other members of the varsity squad were cut. Meanwhile, Greg Gabriel, a standout senior guard and Sendek's roommate, quit, partly out of loyalty to his friend and teammate.(Continued …)