January 18, 2009

Tiffara Steward Featured in Newsday

At 4-6, Steward is Coming up Big for Farmingdale

BY STEVEN MARCUS | steven.marcus@newsday.com
January 18, 2009


Tiffara Steward's recent visit to a restaurant recalls her favorite story. As her family is seated, a hostess asks Steward if she wants a coloring book and crayons. The family erupts in laughter.

"I say she's 20," said Steward's mom, Vanessa. "Then we all laugh so hard."

Other venues, more giggles. Tiffara is offered child admission at movies. At the mall, everyone assumes her 6-2 boyfriend is her big brother. But the biggest reaction comes on the court at Farmingdale State, where Steward is a junior on the women's basketball team.

"Walking onto the court, she stands out," Steward's mother said. All eyes are on the player whose stature goes beyond her height of 4-6, which might make her the nation's shortest college basketball player.

Her numerous skills earned her a starting role at guard this season.

"She is all over the ball," coach Chris Mooney said. "She really frustrates the other team."

Mooney recruited Steward at Sewanhaka High School, where she was all-conference in 2006. "She was the best player on the team," Mooney said. "She was so quick, could shoot and was so good defensively."

At Farmingdale, she has 11 three-pointers, 32 steals and 15 assists this season. She is averaging 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in 26.7 minutes for the Rams (8-4, 6-1 Skyline Conference). She had nine points in a team-high 38 minutes in yesterday's 76-66 win over Mount Saint Vincent.

Watching her play, it is hard to fathom the medical issues Steward has overcome. She was born three months premature, weighing 2 pounds, 15 ounces, on May 12, 1988.

"At first, the doctors thought she just needed to gain weight," her mother said. "Then they noticed she didn't have a cornea in her right eye. Then scoliosis. Some of her vertebrae didn't develop. She had a hernia. By the time she was 3, she had six surgeries. They told me she would be 4 feet and they talked about her as being multiple handicap."

Steward also has congenital hearing loss in her right ear.

At first, Steward's mom was distraught. "I said to my mother, 'Why did my child come out with all the defects?' She said, 'The Lord doesn't give you anything you can't handle.' I put everything out of my mind and treated her like the other kids. She responded the same way. I never heard her say, 'I wish I was taller."'

To be sure, issues remained. "When she was in kindergarten, she looked like she was a year and a half old," Steward said. "One teacher wanted to put her in special ed, thinking she would get hurt. But she was a fighter. She'd get on the monkey bars and do everything that was age-appropriate. We gave her the mind-set: 'Never let your disability hold you back. Don't use it as a crutch.' But when I sit down and think about what she's done, it is remarkable."

Her athletic ability seemed to be natural. She started playing basketball in fourth grade and quickly was moved up to the sixth-grade team.

"I'm just like any other person trying to be competitive," Steward said. "I really didn't think, 'I'm short, I have to do something extra."'

She believes being diminutive helps in basketball. "I'm closer to the floor," she said.

Steward was curious to learn if she is the shortest college player. The NCAA has no such statistics, but the most famous small former NCAA players were 5-3 Muggsy Bogues, who became the shortest NBA player, and 5-2 Shannon Bobbit, now of the WNBA's Sparks.

Steward copes with any disadvantages. She sits up front in class to compensate for her hearing loss. Everyday life does have its challenges.

"Hey, going to the supermarket and the shelf is how high?" she said, laughing. "You have to find a way to get up there."

She drives a car with the help of clothing acting as a cushion. Other than that, her life is average. Except in basketball, where her ability puts her above many taller competitors.

"My first reaction when I saw her, I didn't think she could play," teammate Michelle Conte said. "But she is so small, it is hard to play defense on her. As a bigger person, to bend down like that is more difficult."

Steward enjoys that advantage. "They say, 'She's short, I got her.' But after a few times up the court, it's: 'She's quick. I can't keep up with her.'

"Height? I really didn't give it a thought that I was at a disadvantage."

Perhaps her opponents are.

 

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-- Story taken from www.newsday.com --

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