Leaping Hurdles and Blazing Trails on Court

Leaping Hurdles and Blazing Trails on Court

Story by Peter Applebaum, NY Times


Farmingdale, N.Y. - You would not have trouble coming up with reasons to be skeptical about Tiffara Steward’s prospects as a college basketball player.

She’s all of 4-foot-6 and 90 pounds, too small to get on some amusement park rides, often handed the children’s menu at restaurants. She’s blind in her right eye, which has no cornea. She’s partly deaf. She was born three months premature, weighing 2 pounds 15 ounces. She has scoliosis, which left one leg shorter than the other. Some of her vertebrae didn’t develop properly. She had six operations by age 3.

And in her blue jeans, black vest and Size 1 Air Jordans, bouncing a ball on the rubberized court where the Farmingdale State Rams play on Long Island, she could be mistaken for someone’s kid sister who managed to sneak into the gym.

Yet, throughout the Rams’ 18-10 season, fans were treated to the spectacle of this little blur hounding opposing ball handlers, hoisting up threes, running the point. Believed to be the shortest college basketball player, Steward, a 20-year-old junior, nonetheless was a starter and a co-captain of a team that made it to the Skyline Conference Championship (losing to Mount St. Mary College) and to the second round of the Eastern College Athletic Conference’s Division III tournament (Lehman College). Even in Farmingdale’s one game against a Division I team, an 85-25 dismantling by the Big East power Rutgers University, she hit a three-pointer — to a standing ovation in Rutgers’s gym.

It’s almost impossible this time of year not to be sucked into America’s best sporting extravaganza, the pageant of endless surprises — like Syracuse University’s six-overtime victory against the University of Connecticut last week — that is college basketball in March.

But sometimes the most amazing miracles don’t play out at schools whose gear is sold at the mall and whose games are punctuated by Dickie V yelling about diaper dandies. For a miracle that makes Syracuse-UConn look like a backyard barbecue, consider Steward’s career, which is most remarkable for what has been taken for granted.

“When she was first born, I said to my mother, ‘I never touched drugs, I never touched alcohol — how could God give me a child with so many disabilities?’ ” recalled her mother, Vanessa Jones-Steward. “And she said, ‘God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,’ and since then, that’s how we’ve looked at things. We never thought of her as disabled; we never said there was something she couldn’t do. And once she started to play sports, we’ve never thought she was any different than anyone else.”

That turned out to be fairly easy, because as tiny as she was, Tiffara Steward was a prodigy. She played a grade or two ahead in youth leagues in her hometown, Elmont; starred at Sewanhaka High School in basketball; and is also a standout in soccer, volleyball and softball. It was easy to forget what wasn’t there.

Chris Mooney, her college coach, remembers first seeing Steward at a high school tournament. “She was the best player on the court,” he said. “You’d see this little girl, racing up and down the court, nonstop, up and down, up and down. I couldn’t believe how fast she was.”

HER specialty is defense, and she regularly takes the other team’s best ball handler out of the game by denying her the ball or hounding her into turnovers.

“She’s the toughest kid on the team,” Coach Mooney said. “She’d run through a wall for you.”

Though Steward’s older brother and sister played college ball, she never expected to do the same until Farmingdale called. She had been considering going there or to Syracuse to study business, but the offer to play made it an easy decision, even though Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships.

“I was working at the Splish Splash when they called and said they wanted me to come and play at Farmingdale,” she said. “And I said: ‘Basketball? I can play basketball and go to school?’ It’s cheaper and it’s the same program, so it was an easy decision.”

Her teammates, who share a dorm suite, say they’ve long since forgotten there’s anything much different about Steward, though publicity this year has made her a minor celebrity. Workers at the campus KFC have taken to asking for her autograph.

Still, in her own world, family and friends manage both to forget and to remember what makes her special. Her older brother, Gregory, now a teacher’s aide and a coach at their old high school, remembers an English class where he was asked to write an essay about someone memorable in his life.

“It took me about two or three minutes to think about it,” he said. “And it took me no time to write it. It was all from the heart. It was about how I look up to my little sister.”

Her favorite player, not surprisingly, is Nate Robinson, the Knicks guard, who at 5-foot-9 is the N.B.A.’s shortest player this year.

Steward’s mother stopped by the college on Friday, and the subject of whether her daughter’s vision had ever been an issue arose.

"No," Tiffara Steward said. "I guess I don’t know what I’m missing."

"Which is nothing at all," her mother said.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

 

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