INDIANAPOLIS — One by one, his family fell from his grasp.
There was his mother, the woman he can not even remember, who died 10 days before his second birthday. There was his father, who worked too many jobs and whose body grew too weak to watch over him any longer. There was his older brother, the one he worshipped and lived with, who got arrested one too many times.
The only family he knew was gone and, at 16, Shawn Vanzant was alone.
• • •
He is on the basketball court at Lucas Oil Stadium on the eve of the Final Four. There are more than 20,000 people who have come just to watch the teams practice, and Vanzant is one of the first on the court with his Butler University teammates.
In the first row, near the Butler band, sit three bleary-eyed men from Tampa. Jeff Litton and his sons Zach and Josh have driven more than 16 hours straight through the night to arrive in time to watch the workouts.
The family he learned to love is here and, at 21, Shawn Vanzant is never alone.
• • •
In the middle of the 2005-06 season, the best player at Wharton High came to coach Tommy Tonelli and explained that he had to leave. With his brother heading to jail, Vanzant had nowhere to go and he was making plans to live with a grandmother in Cleveland.
Just hang on, Tonelli said. Give me a little time. And the coach contacted Lisa Litton.
She had taken on the role of team mother after her son had told her the team used to eat Wendy's burgers for their pregame meals. Lisa was having none of that and began cooking four-course meals for the entire team before games. Now Tonelli was asking for something more. He wanted to know if Vanzant could stay with the Litton family until other arrangements could be worked out.
"It was supposed to be for a couple of weeks," Jeff Litton says. "Turned out to be a couple of years."
It would be nice to say Vanzant and the Littons bonded immediately and all was swell in the New Tampa suburb where they lived. But, of course, it did not happen exactly that way.
Shawn and Zach had been friends at school and ate lunch together every day, but they came from different worlds. The Littons had three boys and a houseful of chores and expectations. Vanzant had practically raised himself and was accustomed to freedom. Lisa made sure, after one too many curfew-breaking moments, that Shawn understood he was now living a new life.
"I didn't have a lot of rules when I was living with my dad," Vanzant explains now. "Going to the house, it was a lot different. I definitely had to adjust to it."
Shawn and Zach ended up sharing a room and too many laughs to remember. Every night they would watch snippets of their favorites movies — Wedding Crashers and Bad Boys II — then cackle deep into the night. Never once, Zach says, did Shawn ever complain about the misfortunes in his life.
He would talk about playing basketball with his brother Wesley and the good times they shared. And he might mention something about Wesley's legal troubles — he was arrested numerous times on cocaine and heroin charges — but never dwelled on it. Wesley Vanzant is in a prison work camp near Ocala and is due to be released in August 2011.
"My brother was a lot more athletic than I am. A lot more. He was a great shooter, better than I am," Vanzant says. "It just happens, he chose a different lifestyle than I did. But he always made sure I never went down that path. And I love him for that."
Vanzant signed with Butler after leading Wharton to a 29-2 record and a district championship in 2007. He has been a role player in his three years at Butler but has been in the regular rotation this season, averaging nearly 15 minutes a game. The junior says he is 25 hours from getting a degree in sociology.
On one of his last days in Tampa before leaving for college, Vanzant and Jeff Litton found themselves driving alone down the road.
"He asked me, 'What can I do for you? With everything you've given me, what can I give you?' " Jeff Litton says. "I told him, 'What you can do for me, Shawn, is, when you finish your education, you do this for a young man in your life.' And he said, 'Pops, I'll do that.'
"And I believe he will. He's that kind of kid."