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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Utah St. coach gave player, imprisoned for rape, a break

Seattle Times staff columnist

The gym was David Pak's sanctuary. The game was his haven.

At the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, Calif., where he served the last years of an eight-year sentence on a rape conviction, Pak shot free throws. He worked on his ball-handling, and pushed himself through drills that helped him kill time as he served time.

Basketball kept Pak sane when prison life started feeling crazy. Basketball gave him a place to go to get away from his mistakes.

"Man, basketball has meant a lot to me," Utah State point guard David Pak said Tuesday afternoon by telephone from Logan, Utah. "Being in there, even though what I did was really bad, I didn't really feel like I had much in common with the other guys in there. So you keep to yourself a lot.

"Basketball was a place to go. It was something I was able to do by myself to keep me out of trouble. And now, playing in college, basketball is going to allow me to get my degree. Something, otherwise, I never would have been able to do."

On Oct. 1, 1993, David Pak, then a senior in high school, broke into a house carrying a 6-inch knife, according to court documents, and forced a 23-year-old woman into a room and sexually assaulted her.

He was arrested several days later and pleaded guilty to one count of forcible rape and one count of forcible rape with a deadly weapon. He served a little more than eight years, four at Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, Calif., and the rest at Stark in Chino, a center for men 18 to 25.

"It's only second nature to be scared when you're in there," said Pak, who is now 29. "Sometimes things can get out of hand and, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the middle of something. There's a lot of fighting. Sometimes you don't know what's going to happen and, all you can do is try to stay away from the trouble. For me, basketball helped."

Pak's remorse for his crime is palpable. He doesn't ask for sympathy. He did, however, ask for a second chance.

Utah State coach Stew Morrill, has dedicated his life to giving people second chances. Morrill and his wife, Vicki, have hosted more than 50 foster children.

Morrill has offered scholarships to junior-college kids who were considered high risk. His success rate is high — on the floor and off. His team, which plays Washington on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, has eight junior-college transfers.

Pak, of course, is his most controversial.

On the recommendation of a counselor in the youth correctional system, Pak got a chance to play junior-college basketball at Saddleback College in California. He was the Orange Empire Conference MVP in his second year.

"No question when I got out I think I was very realistic," said Pak, who is averaging 7.7 points per game as the Aggies' starting point guard. "Getting out, I didn't know what to expect, but I got a chance at a junior college.

"I still just tried to take things as they came, but coach Morrill offered me a scholarship and it changed my life. I can't say enough about what he did for me. He gave me the chance to get an education. He's taught me so much about basketball and he's made me a better person. And he's given my family something to be proud of me for."

Pak wears uniform No. 2 to remind himself of his good fortune at this second chance. During his incarceration, he was twice denied parole. And his victim attended both hearings.

"The first time, it was very devastating," Pak said. "Everyone at the institution, all the counselors, were saying I was getting out and I had my mind set on it. When it was denied it was crushing. The same thing happened the second time.

"My mom and my sister were there and after that happened I just made up my mind that I wasn't going to get paroled and I never allowed myself to get excited again."

Pak is a realist. His crime will follow him every day of his life. There are people who won't forgive him. There is a victim who carries a burden heavier than his.

And, although he always has felt welcomed at Utah State, when he plays on the road, he hears it from the students who have done their research and know about his background.

"I just believe everyone deserves a second chance," Pak said. "I think a lot of good people make mistakes and don't get second chances. But people can learn from their mistakes and be better people because they learn from their actions.

"Being incarcerated, you learn not to think too far ahead. You take things as they come. But when I got a D-One scholarship, I started thinking about what kind of criticism I might get. I started imagining what I might hear when people heard about my situation."

This month, Pak, a sociology major, plays the final collegiate basketball games of his life. And then this point guard, who has been given a second chance by a coach who believes in forgiveness, will start returning the many favors he has been granted.

"After graduation I want to offer my services anywhere, to any facility that wants me," Pak said. "I want to help counsel kids. I want to motivate kids. I want to show them, step by step, how they can get a second chance."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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