One free throw. For one trophy.
That's the lifelong dream of more than 1,600 young men and women who'll begin play today (the guys, anyway) in the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments. At some point in their lives it's probably been the dream of every kid who's ever launched so much as a single shot toward a rusty rim.
And on Monday night, March 10, inside the Signal Mountain Town Hall Gym, it was the dream of 12-year-old Vanessa Steen as she stood at the foul line with less than 20 seconds left in a tie game.
Within the very narrow world of Signal Mountain Youth Basketball, nothing less than the championship of the 4th and 5th grade division was at stake for Vanessa and the rest of her undefeated, pretty-in-pink, Fighting Flamingo teammates. Well, a championship and those all-important trophies for the winners to eventually place on their bedroom dressers, presumably right next to their One Direction poster. So Vanessa was understandably, in her words, "Very, very nervous."
Then again, what's one free throw when you once spent three and a half days buried beneath the rubble of your Port-au-Prince, Haiti, elementary school after the 2010 earthquake?
What's one measly free throw when one cinder block landed on your head and your left leg, already weak and deformed from Blount's disease, was all but crushed by multiple blocks?
What's one itty, bitty free throw when that earthquake forced your grandmother "Nanna" to place you in an orphanage because the 'quake didn't just destroy your St. Vincent's School for the Handicapped, but also the Port-au-Prince prison that housed the country's most violent criminals, who were now free to terrorize the land?
What's one teeny, weeny free throw when even in those years before the earthquake hit, the pain in Vanessa's legs from the Blount's disease was often so intense that it forced her to run on her hands?
Because God is so often very, very good, Vanessa has only the vaguest of memories of her 86 hours under the cinder blocks that took the lives of several of her classmates. "I just remember the shaking," she said.
But that was just the beginning of how she got to Signal Mountain, and became the adopted daughter of Ruth Ann and Hayne Steen, and the older sister of 11-year-old Sam and 9-year-old Sadie.
Along the way there was an extended stay in Denver, where she endured multiple surgeries at Children's Hospital Colorado to correct her deformed legs. Vanessa was also supposed to be adopted there, but the potential father developed a degenerative brain disorder. Having already planned to adopt internationally, the Steens heard of Vanessa's plight and flew to Arizona -- where the family from Colorado had moved -- to meet her.
"We got there on Sept. 28, 2012," Hayne Steen said. "On Oct. 4, we brought her to our house."
At that moment, she had never been on a sports team in her life. Nor was she in much physical shape to start.
Evoking a ballet term regarding knees bending out, Ruth Ann said her new daughter, "She looked like she was doing a 'plie.'"
Embracing a less high-brow image, Hayne said, "She looked like she was doing the Funky Chicken when she walked."
Because Hayne is a family counselor and Ruth Ann works with a non-profit, the Steens weren't financially capable of funding the kind of operations Vanessa needed. But the Shriners Hospital in Lexington, Ky., was.
In order to advance the good work originally done in Colorado, the Shriners agreed to pay 100 percent of the bills needed for three more corrective surgeries. The first was completed in July of last year, replacing plates in her hips and knees, a procedure that dramatically straightened the right leg and has gradually improved the left leg that was further damaged in the earthquake.
"And no braces," Hayne said. "It's been a miracle."
Or maybe she's been a miracle for Thrasher Elementary, the textbook example of grace and courage and toughness. Her first year there, another student started mimicking her walk, "a waddle," Hayne calls it, which so infuriated a third student that his actions in her defense caused the young man to be suspended.
"His mother called to tell us," Hayne said. "She was more proud than angry."
He also said, "Vanessa's one of only a few kids of color at Thrasher, yet the community could not have been nicer from the very beginning. We've seen such incredible hospitality."
And despite having to learn to read two years ago, she's become an important member of the school's competitive robotics program that's won numerous awards for creating a robot capable of helping natural disaster survivors.
"She spoke for the team at the competition, and all the judges were in tears," Hayne said.
Yet it was Vanessa who was near tears on the day of the big game. Behind on her vaccinations, she was forced to suffer through four of them that morning.
"She's terrified of needles," Hayne said. "Her arms were so sore afterward that a few hours before the game she said to me, 'I really wonder if I can even shoot the ball tonight.'"
But basketball has stolen her heart so completely it's a wonder she wasn't born a Hoosier rather than a Haitian.
"Whenever the Town Hall has 'open gym,'" explained Ruth Ann, "Vanessa's first question is, 'Can we go and shoot?'"
Having stolen the ball in the final seconds of the championship game, she tried to shoot the game-winner after running from one end of the court to the other as fast as her wobbly legs could carry her.
"Something right out of Disney," said her coach, Andy Tucker.
But Vanessa got fouled, forcing her to shoot free throws, "something she's struggled with," Hayne said.
The first one went in and out. Vanessa told herself, "Follow through."
Tucker's daughter Cate decided to give her teammate a pep talk, saying, "Vanessa, if you make this, we win the championship."
Recalled their coach with a chuckle, "You know, just to put a little more pressure on her."
Vanessa fired again at the regulation rim 10 feet above the floor. She banked it in. The Fighting Flamingos won 14-13. Her teammates mobbed her, causing the hero to observe, "That was really fun."
Days later, the image still fresh in his mind, Coach Tucker referenced the musical video that CBS plays at the close of every Men's Final Four and said, "All it lacked was 'One Shining Moment.'"
Whatever happens throughout this year's NCAA tournaments, it's hard to imagine any moment outshining Vanessa's.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...