By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
OLNEY — The annual Danny Rumph Classic each summer has carried a great tradition. It is in its 17th year this August, being held at the Tom Gola Arena. At the end of the court, the Rumph honor rolls consists of two black vinyl signs by the scoreboard, filled with a who’s-who of area stars under the emblazed red lettering outlined in white, “MVP,” from the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus), to Sharif Bray, Dionte Christmas, Maalik Wayans, Reggie Redding and Hakim Warrick.
At the very bottom of the list is 2021 MVP Wali Hepburn.
Hepburn, in all due respect, may cause a few that are not hardcore area hoop heads to ask, who?
Some may remember him as a star guard for Neumann-Goretti, where he graduated in 2007, and then went off to Shippensburg University. Then, like what happens to many, he seemed to disappear. His path was altered, though his journey continues in a great direction thanks to a loving, supportive family and his close basketball friends.
That Hepburn is even here is amazing.
Once nearly out basketball, Neumann-Goretti product Wali Hepburn continues to play at a high level. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
In his freshman year, after redshirting in 2008, he failed out of Shippensburg and lost a child. His future looked in disarray, staring blankly at the ceiling of his friend’s car while taking the two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Philadelphia, thinking how he was going to tell his mother.
“It was the longest, scariest ride of my life and the hardest discussion of my life when I told my mom (Cindy Hepburn) that I got kicked out for academics,” recalled Hepburn, 32, the 6-foot-4 combo guard who grew two inches after he turned 20 and was home for two years, before he got his life back together.
“Rock bottom was getting kicked out of Shippensburg. I gave up on myself. I thought I should have been playing and I wasn’t. I got depressed and would play video games and go to practice. That was it. The whole culture of college was a culture shock to me. I did a bunch of nothing.”
Next thing Hepburn knew he had a 1.0 GPA. In January 2010, he needed a 3.0 to remain at Shippensburg. He came away with a 2.8, falling just shy, when then-Shippensburg coach Dave Springer caught Hepburn between classes to tell him he wanted to see Hepburn in his office.
That ended Hepburn’s stay.
His appeal got rejected.
“I didn’t know how to tell my mom, but I had to tell her,” Hepburn recalled. “I was expecting my mom to let me have it. She didn’t. She told me she was going to support me in whatever I did, but I would have to figure it out.”
That took two years. He took odd jobs, one was as a furniture mover, working in 90, 95 degrees.
“I had to figure something out and my whole thing was getting back into school,” Hepburn said. “I remember writing the appeal letter and including everything that went on with me that year. I lost one of my best friends, who was murdered. My girlfriend at the time had a miscarriage. All of that was going on.
“That put me in a deep depression. My appeal letter still got rejected.”
The day after Mike Nestor was named head coach at Lock Haven, one of his first calls was to Hepburn. Nestor showed faith in Hepburn, on and off the court, first getting him into school and then allowing him to flourish on the court.
“I was seeing guys I went to school with really doing well, guys like Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson and I was determined to get back on my feet,” Hepburn said. “It was the greatest feeling ever seeing my first report card. A lot of people counted me out. It’s really a shame, but it’s the nature of the neighborhood. They see someone suffer a little taste of adversity and they never make it back.
“You know Philly. You know how Philly can be. I was hearing the rumblings. You hear the nature of the Philly fans. They can be hard. It can be the same way with the people. It’s a life thing that I was dealing with. But that actually fueled me. I didn’t want to be another statistic.”
Wali Hepburn hopes his story is one that can be shared with the next generation of Philly hoopers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Hepburn went on to graduate Lock Haven in 2015 with a communications degree and he currently works as a counselor for special needs children at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. He’s dabbled professionally in the ABA, and played last summer in the Dominican Republic, and has played in El Salvador and in Canada.
More importantly, Hepburn carries a great tool with him that he shares with his students at First Philadelphia Charter: An inspiring life story of never giving up on yourself.
“If I could go back in time and see the younger me, the depressed kid who got kicked out of Shippensburg, I’d tell him better things are ahead and to not give up,” he said. “I knew my talent and abilities. It was a matter of the world seeing it. It also helped growing two inches.”
The sulking Hepburn transformed himself into a Division II 2014 All-American. It was the exclamation point to a list of accolades in which he led the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) with 21.9 points per game that season, which earned him PSAC East Player of the Year and a PSAC first-team selection.
Above all else, Hepburn was the engine that drove the Bald Eagles to their most successful season in over two decades at that time. Until then, Lock Haven’s 17 wins were the most in 25 years and it marked Lock Haven's first winning season since 1993. The Bald Eagles also advanced to the PSAC Tournament for the first time since 2003 — and have not had a winning season since.
He's still the fourth all-time leading scorer in Lock Haven history, finishing with 1,635 from 2012-15.
“My mom gave me the confidence something had to be done, and it was up to me to do it,” he said. “I still love to play, and I think I can still play. I’d be willing to coach someday. I would like to give Europe a shot. I’ve been representing myself and hoping someone can see the way I’m playing.
“I play the way I do for everyone who saw me through my journey. I do it for them, because there were a lot of people who didn’t think I’d make it. Maybe one day my name will be called.
“If not, I’m ready to share my knowledge with the next group of Philly kids coming up. I have a story to tell them. It’s been a long journey to get here. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t take that journey.”
For most players who reach 32, with thousands of miles of hardwood runs on their legs, you would figure the grind would wear them down.
He can still play well—and against NBA-caliber players. It’s probably the best he’s ever played in his life.
Last Saturday afternoon for REX6, the defending Rumph champions, Hepburn scored a game-high 23 points, including eight in the fourth quarter, in a 75-71 victory to eliminate Khalif Wyatt’s 8EYE team. He followed with 29 in an elimination game loss later in the day to F.O.E.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.