The bodyguards are gone now, and so is the pain, but not the memory. Paul Afeaki can still see the 45-caliber pistol sticking out of a partially opened car door - pointed at him - and the flame flashing out of the barrel. Nevertheless, life is returning to normal for Afeaki. Well, almost. As recently as Tuesday morning, police called again, asking him to look through more pictures. In the meantime, Afeaki has returned to school and the basketball court, and his wife's terror is slowly receding.
Speaking publicly for the first time since he was shot by an unidentified assailant on Valentine's Day night, Afeaki said Tuesday that he is ready to play basketball again for the University of Utah, although his coaches aren't so sure. He began practicing for the first time in weeks on Monday, and practiced again Tuesday. Following both practices, he did extra running to catch up on his conditioning.Afeaki, who splits time at center with starter Walter Watts, hopes to play in this week's Western Athletic Conference post-season tournament in Laramie, Wyo. (Utah opens play Thursday night against the winner of today's Air Force-San Diego State game). His return, if it happens, couldn't be more timely. Watts has a knee injury that could curtail his playing time.
"As of Monday, I'm playing," said Afeaki. "Coach (Rick) Majerus told me to be prepared."
But Majerus has said that Afeaki probably won't be able to play, largely because of the tenderness of the gun-shot wound in his left shoulder.
"It's not as tender as before, but if anyone came down on it, it would open the wound," said Afeaki. "They're going to put a big pad on it. I'm excited. I've just been sitting around waiting for someone to tell me I can play."
That presents another problem: Afeaki's conditioning. Afeaki's workouts have been limited to a Stairmaster and a stationary bike while waiting for his shoulder to heal. "My legs are fine," he says, "but my wind is so-so."
Afeaki wants to make it clear, however, that he is not complaining. "I'm just glad I'm here to talk about it," he says.
Afeaki's life, after all, was spared only by an inch or two, which might have been granted to him by an unidentified woman who may have harassed the assailant just long enough to shake his aim.
The bizarre incident began shortly after the Utah-Wyoming game of Feb. 14. According to Afeaki, he his wife Nicole and their infant son David drove to a couple of fast-food restaurants to get dinner. En route home, they were stopped at a stoplight, when a driver to their left indicated that he wanted to cut in front of him to make a right turn. When Afeaki didn't give way and proceeded straight ahead, the car - a Honda - quickly pulled in close behind Afeaki's vehicle and followed him, blinking his bright lights on and off repeatedly.
"I thought at first that it was (teammate) Jimmy (Soto) because he has the same kind of car," recalls Afeaki. "So I messed around with him. I put on the brakes a couple of times. But then I could see it wasn't him. When I looked back I could see a man fighting with his girlfriend. They were yelling at each other."
With the Honda following so close behind him that "I couldn't see his lights," Afeaki eventually pulled over, hoping the man would pass. Instead, he pulled over, too. Afeaki got out of his car to confront the man.
"`Everything happened so quickly," says Afeaki. "The most I had to look at (the assailant) was 5 to 10 seconds. As I walked to his car, his head was down. I guess he was looking for the gun. I guess he thought `Look at this guy' (Afeaki is 6-foot-10). Then he looked up and opened the door. His left foot came out and his hand, holding the gun. I told him to put away the gun. His wife or girlfriend or whoever she was was trying to pull him back in (the car). That gave me a little time to back up. I took one or two steps back, and that's when he shot me. At the same time, he was trying to slap her hand away with his other hand. That's what helped me.
"What scared me the most was when the gun went off. I saw the flame come out of the barrel. I thought, `The man shot the gun.' It knocked me down. I looked back up, and he was almost fully out (of the car) now. He was doing something with the gun. Maybe it was jammed . . . It was an automatic (pistol). I know an automatic when I see one. My father-in-law has one. (The assailant) could have put a couple of bullets in me."
After telling his wife to drive away to safety, Afeaki recalls, "I ran about a block before I realized I was shot. My shoulder started going numb. I put my finger right on the wound. It was dark, so I couldn't see, but it felt wet and it smelled like blood. I ran straight home and went to a neighbor's. I started blacking out and did at one point."
The bullet entered and exited the trapezius muscle at the top of Afeaki's left shoulder. Says Afeaki, "Doctors told me a couple of inches either way and it could have been fatal. It would have hit a major artery in my neck if it had been an inch and a half to (his) right. Or if it had been a little lower it would have hit another main artery under the collarbone. I wouldn't have made it a half block. I probably would have bled to death. Three nights later it really hit me that it could have been fatal. I was laying in bed playing the whole thing back and forth. That scared me."
What worried Afeaki more, though, was the safety of his family. "I didn't know what kind of nut (the assailant) he was," he says. "My wife was real shaken up. She was real nervous about everything, every little phone call." For five days, members of the University of Utah campus police department guarded the Afeakis around the clock. "They were there all night," said Afeaki. "They would alternate every few hours. It was real nice, and what was really nice is that they did it on their own time. I felt bad for them. I told them to come in, so they could at least watch TV."
Since the shooting, Afeaki has played a waiting game - waiting for the shoulder to heal, waiting for his assailant to be caught. Understandably, Afeaki was able to provide only sketchy details about the gunman, and police have told the Deseret News that they are losing hope that they will find the man.
"We're just hoping the girlfriend will come in sooner or later," says Afeaki.
Afeaki, meanwhile, still hasn't told his parents of the shooting. They live in their native Tonga, and says Afeaki, "Mom has a bad heart. If I told her, she'd be on the first plane over here. I'll tell her this summer when she comes here to visit."