INDIANAPOLIS -- Everybody at the Final Four has a story. There are numerous players and coaches, who each overcame obstacles to reach college basketball's grandest stage.
Some of these stories are about inspiration and perseverance. Others feature trust, heartbreak and love. And then there is Shawn Vanzant's story. His story is about all of those things – inspiration, perseverance, trust, heartbreak and love. Especially love.
A junior guard for the Butler Bulldogs, Vanzant's story might be familiar to movie fans. Consider it a basketball version of "The Blind Side."
Lisa Litton's personality is very similar to the character that Sandra Bullock played in the movie. Lisa also doesn't waste time thinking – she reacts. She does what needs to be done at that precise moment.
One such moment occurred more than four years ago. It was just minutes before the start of basketball practice at Wharton High School in Tampa, Fla., during Vanzant's junior season in 2006 when he told his coach he needed to talk. Immediately.
Vanzant was visibly upset. Back in 1997 he had moved to Tampa with his father, James, and older brother, Wesley. He had lived with his father for a few years, until his father ran into a streak of bad luck, which included diabetes, arrests and financial problems. With his father unable to properly support him, Vanzant moved in with his older brother in the fall of 2005.
That arrangement lasted several months until Vanzant approached Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli before practice one February afternoon.
Vanzant told Tonelli that he had to move back to Cleveland to live with his grandmother because his brother had gotten into a lot of trouble and he could no longer stay with him. According to Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office records, his brother's trouble consisted of a Feb. 1, 2006 arrest on seven charges, including six felonies, among them selling cocaine. Wesley Vanzant would spend the next 2½ months in jail. Shawn, meanwhile, had no idea where he would sleep that night.
"I don't have anywhere to go, anywhere to stay," said Vanzant, who spent a couple of nights sleeping in his car.
Shawn explained to Tonelli he couldn't return to his brother's apartment because the guys involved with his brother's drug dealings were coming around, looking for money.
"It's not a safe place," Shawn said.
Tonelli assured Shawn that everything would be alright. But Tonelli couldn't admit to Shawn he was unsure what to do. Tonelli had no answer, no solution.
Then Tonelli turned around. There was Lisa Litton, pulling up to the curb, in her black Cadillac Escalade to pick up her son, Zach from JV basketball practice.
"It was like God sent a guardian angel," Tonelli said.
When Tonelli approached Lisa's car, she immediately sensed something was wrong. Tonelli said "you're not going to believe this," and then explained what Shawn had just told him.
"As soon as she heard of his circumstance, she didn't flinch," Tonelli said. "If he needs a place to stay we'll take care of him and that's that."
The arrangement was only supposed to be temporary.
"We knew after a couple of weeks this was going to be for the long haul," Lisa said. "We were accepting of that. We sat the boys [the Littons' three sons, Josh, Zach and Chase] down and said we now have another family member. Everything will be done in fours. Are you cool with that?
"They said we never thought you weren't going to keep him."
Lisa Litton has cancer. Again. She also has lupus. Yet, the 45-year old is -- literally – one tough mother.
"Even with her health condition, she's always upbeat, never complaining," Shawn said. "She's a warrior. Just a loving person and a caring person. She will always do something for you before she does something for herself. I can go on ..."
When Lisa was pregnant with Chase 14 years ago, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She beat it. Eighteen months ago, she was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic inflammatory and incurable disease that occurs when the body's immune system attacks the tissues and organs.
Six months ago, she found out she had breast cancer. The area was taken out, but then another lump was found. She's currently undergoing chemotherapy and if the cancer spreads, she'll have to get a mastectomy.
"Sometimes lupus kicks your butt," Lisa said. "Now it's kind of a double whammy, trying to fight cancer with a non-tolerant immune system. But I have kids that need me.
"My life is not about me, it's about my boys. I'm going to do whatever it takes. I take a lot of pride and joy in watching my boys play sports. And when I say 'boys,' I mean all four."
When Jeff and Lisa started dating, she told her future husband she wanted four sons. But after Chase was born, doctors told Lisa she could not have any more children. Years later, Shawn arrived.
"Well, you got your fourth son," Jeff told Lisa.
Shawn said initially he was kind of skeptical how this would work out. "I didn't want to impose on their life," he said. "When I met them they were more than welcoming. It felt good."
When Shawn lived with his father and brother, he came and went as he pleased. "I didn't have a lot of rules," he admitted. That wouldn't be the case living with the Littons.
When Shawn had moved in with the Littons, Jeff and Lisa sat Shawn down and went over a few basic household rules. The Littons' oldest two sons had a midnight curfew on weekends, but they decided to let Shawn have an extra hour until 1 a.m.
Not long after Shawn moved in, he went out with friends one night. Shawn wasn't home by 1 a.m. He still wasn't home by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. either. Finally, he got in just before the sun rose. When Shawn walked in the front door, he was greeted by Lisa, who was inside waiting, sitting on the stairs. It was 5:30 a.m.
"Shawnie said the batteries on his cell phone died and that's why he hadn't called," Lisa said. "I looked at him, he has that typical Shawnie look, he puts his head down to the side, he knew he was in trouble. 'Your phone died?' I said, 'Did everyone else you were with's phones die?' "
Shawn never had a curfew when he stayed with his father or brother. "I don't know what I was thinking," Shawn said. "That didn't go too well. But I quickly learned that's not the way it went."
Only a few weeks later, Shawn approached his three new brothers. Shawn wanted to know if it would be alright if he called their mother "Moms."
"I didn't want to step on anyone's toes," Shawn said. So he called Jeff "Pops" and Lisa "Moms."
Shawn's biological mother died Oct. 1, 1990 -- 10 days before Shawn's second birthday -- from cancer of the uterus.
Like Shawn, Lisa also knows what it's like to grow up without a mother. Lisa's mother may or may not be dead. Lisa really has no idea.
When Lisa was 6 years old, one day her mom just disappeared. She walked out the door, leaving behind Lisa's father and a confused daughter with beautiful, blond curly locks.
"I don't know why she left," Lisa said. "I've never seen her since."
Shawn and Lisa often discuss what it was like growing up without a mother.
"We always talk about that together," Shawn said. "That brought us even closer together. It was definitely harder on her, because she has a memory of her mother. I was so young [when my mother died], I didn't have a memory. It's easier for me to cope with."
Shawn also had to cope with his father's health issues and his brother's legal problems. James Vanzant is now living in Cleveland. Shawn said he rarely speaks to his biological father.
Wesley Vanzant, Shawn's 28-year-old brother, is an inmate at the Marion Work Camp in Lowell, Fla. Wesley -- or Prisoner No. T21433 -- has been incarcerated in Marion since April 29, 2009 and is scheduled to be released on Aug. 3, 2011.
"We were so close, we did everything together," Shawn said. "Not having him around is the most drastic change."
Wesley taught Shawn how to play basketball growing up. "We would play to 10 and he'd let me get to eight or nine points and then wouldn't let me score again," Shawn said. "He was more athletic than I was and a better shooter."
When Shawn was in middle school, Wesley bought Shawn a brand new basketball. They played a game of one-on-one. Shawn lost and promptly punted the ball into a pond.
While Shawn looked up to Wesley on the court, his older brother made it clear not to follow his example off the court. Wesley was arrested 17 times in Tampa between 2000 and 2007, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
"He just happened to take a different lifestyle," Shawn said. "He made sure I didn't go down that path. And I love him for that. I give a lot of credit to my brother. I'm blessed to have him."
While Shawn hoped Wesley was able to watch Butler's national semifinal game against Michigan State on television Saturday night, "Pops" and Josh and Zach Litton watched Shawn inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
From 10 rows up, they saw Shawn grab a crucial late rebound and before diving out of bounds, toss it back for an assist on a late Butler basket. Then with two seconds remaining and Butler leading 52-49, Vanzant fouled Michigan State's Korie Lucious -- in what will be known forever as "The Greatest Foul in Butler History."
Lucious made the first free throw, intentionally missed the second, but Butler grabbed the rebound, securing the 52-50 victory. Vanzant played 18 minutes, finishing with four rebounds, two assists and one point.
It made the 14-hour drive from Tampa to Indianapolis worth it for the Littons. But it meant even more to Shawn. "They don't know how much that means to me," Shawn said.
Lisa and Chase stayed back in Florida because Chase had an AAU game Saturday in Orlando and, well, Lisa can't really endure a 14-hour car ride in her health.
So instead, she hunkered down in front of a television in a restaurant for the first half and listened to the second half on her car radio. Before the game, she said she would "be screaming as if I'm sitting behind their bench."
And she'll be texting also. Texting Shawn.
Lisa is a texting fool. Especially when Butler plays. Wearing her pink Butler T-shirt that's been through everything -- she's run in it, she's slept in it, she's even gotten sick in it after the chemo treatments -- Lisa sits in front of the TV or computer and watches Butler -- and Shawnie -- play.
Whenever Shawn makes a good play or needs encouragement, Lisa fires off a text message at that instant to Shawn's cell phone. Yes, she knows, he won't see them -- she averages sending him about 10 per game -- until sometime later after the game.
"When the game is over, he has a list of things I've sent him," she said.
Shawn said the texts usually say stuff like "good defense" or "good shot" or you need to do this or that.
When Butler played Northwestern on Nov. 18, Vanzant was poked in the eye by NU's Jeremy Nash and had to leave the game. So, naturally, Lisa picked up her black Blackberry Curve with the pink crystals and started typing:
Shawnie, Do you want me to come to Butler and kick that guy's ass?
Two minutes later, Lisa's cell phone rang. It was Shawn calling on the way to the hospital to get his eye checked out.
During Butler's miraculous run to the school's first Final Four, it has inspired thousands. It's also done wonders for Lisa's battle with cancer and lupus.
Ever since the NCAA tournament began three weeks ago, she hasn't deleted any of Shawn's text messages.
"I have every text message from when he started the tournament," she said. "When I'm doing what I need to do, I'll go back and read them. Each one gives me strength."
Hey Shawnie I'm just checking in to make sure you're staying focused and working hard. I Love You Shawnie and I'll check in later. Pink Strong for Moms
I am Moms and thanks for checking in on me. I appreciate it. Hope you're doing well. Love you too. Pink Strong
While Lisa continues her battle, Shawn fights on as well. He admits there are similarities between his life and the one of Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher, featured in "The Blind Side."
"I don't think my situation was anywhere close to his," Shawn said. "His situation was 10 times worse. At the same time, I do see it because his family brought him in and helped him out, gave him clothes and shelter.
"I do see Lisa as the mom in that. It fits her to a 'T,' the whole personality."
Lisa said although Tonelli warned her before seeing the movie to "bring your tissues," she cried "like a blubbering idiot" during the movie.
"What touched me was it's nice to see there are people out there doing what we're doing," Lisa said. "There are a lot of people that are willing, it's not just my common normal family. There are more stories out there."
Now you know their story. It's about love.
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at email@example.com or on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY