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With her, you can measure heart

Of all the things her grandmother taught Florida's Vanessa Hayden, love is foremost.

Vanessa Hayden dreamed of the day Florida basketball coaches would come to her Orlando home on a recruiting visit. Nervously, she guided Carol Ross and Joi Williams to the couch.

Minutes later, she wanted to crawl under it.

"My grandmother was the worst," Hayden said. "She was hugging them. She brought out Concord grape soda and told them to, "Drink up.' And she told Joi, "I'm going to give you permission, if Vanessa acts up, to spank her.' "Oh, my goodness, Grandmother!' "

As she tells this 2-year-old story, Hayden's head is shaking and her smile spreading, the way it always does when 71-year-old Adella Hayden comes to mind. It is a reflex as natural as the bond between a child and the only parent she has known.

Raised by her grandmother in perilous inner-city Orlando, Hayden is a living tribute to the no-nonsense nurturing of a woman who learned about life the hard way.

Hayden is a freshman center for Florida, which plays Holy Cross today in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gators (23-5) are the No. 3 seed in the West Region.

"God has given my grandmother some kind of gift," Hayden said. "She knows everything. She's amazing. She's my role model. She's my idol. I love her so much."

When Hayden was born, she went home from the hospital with Adella Hayden, her paternal grandmother. Her father will be released from a prison work camp in 2002. Her mother is dead. Shy about the details, Hayden is comfortable with the limited role her parents played in her upbringing.

"I don't have any anger or hurt. I've come to the understanding that my mother and father both loved me," said Hayden, 18. "That's what my grandmother told me when I was in doubt, "If they didn't love you, you wouldn't be here with me.' "

Hayden is a power post _ emphasis on power _ a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder with soft hands and an eye for passing lanes.

Never shy about her size _ she loved it when her first-grade teacher called her Momma Long Legs _ Hayden relishes muscling to the basket and blocking out for rebounds. She averages 10 points and nine rebounds off the bench. Her nickname is the only one that fits: Big V. She dreads conditioning and loves setting picks.

"It's like going 100 miles an hour and running into a brick wall, and then you slam to the floor," UF guard Monique Cardenas said of a Hayden screen.

"But it makes it less painful when she offers her hand to you to help you off the floor. Vanessa's a big girl and she's got a big heart."

It must be genetic.

Adella Hayden grew up on a Depression-era "dirt farm" in tiny Wedowee, Ala., near the Georgia border. The oldest of 12 children, she began changing diapers at age 6 and has been raising children ever since.

"I was born to help people," said Adella, a former elementary school teacher and retired nurse who attended Alabama State University. "By doing that you are never lonely. I play with all the children. I make them behave. All the children in the neighborhood call me Grandma."

Hayden was 10 when a local AAU basketball coach knocked on her grandmother's door wanting Hayden _ tall for her age, but lean _ to play for his team.

"I said, "No, I'm not going,' and my grandmother said, "Oh, you're going. You're going to be something good,' " Hayden said. "I hated it for the first three months. Then I loved it and she had to tell me to come home; I was at the gym all night."

Hayden spent summers traveling with her AAU team, homesick for her grandmother and the crowded three-bedroom apartment that was home to seven children, all within 10 years of age. Most were cousins. Hayden knew them as brothers and sisters.

"People would think I'd be happy to get away, but I missed my family so much," Hayden said. "But my grandma said, "No, you're not coming home, not until you finish. You don't leave people hanging.' "

One of the nation's most sought-after post players, Hayden would come home after scoring 17 points and blocking 5.6 shots a game for Boone High School and sleep on the couch _ feet hanging over one arm rest, neck jammed against the other.

"It was a war in that house," Hayden said. "We fought over crazy stuff, mostly over the remote control and the last apple in the refrigerator. But I loved it. I would not change my life."

At Florida, Hayden lives in a dormitory, two people sharing a room she calls "spacious." Everywhere she looks _ from the bed only she sleeps in to the bank of videocassette recorders in the women's basketball office _ she sees privilege.

"I'm privileged here, and I don't take anything for granted," she said. "My grandmother taught me to be thankful that I'm not out on the street without anyone to care for me."

No chance of that in the Hayden family. Though one generation has moved on, Adella Hayden has recently taken in a member of the next, the baby boy of one of Hayden's sisters.

"I said, "Grandma, what are you doing? Stop, please. Leave people's kids alone. Grow old, have fun,' " said Hayden, the smile spreading again. "But it keeps her young and happy. That's just how my granny is."