Butler’s Vanzant keeps Final Four trip in family
Lisa Litton still gets those looks when she talks about her son,
It happened again last weekend in New Orleans when a fan asked
which Bulldog player was her child. Almost as soon as the words
came out of Litton’s mouth, the other woman blurted out, ”You’re
Litton, who is white, and Vanzant, who is black, have gotten
accustomed to the dropped jaws and dumbfounded stares over the past
six years. To them, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else
thinks. She is Vanzant’s mother and he is her son, and there’s no
doubt about that.
”I asked Shawn what should I say when people ask,” said
Litton, who became Vanzant’s legal guardian while he was in high
school. ”Shawn said I shouldn’t say anything because, ‘If I say
you’re my mom, that should be good enough.”’
Litton, her husband, Jeff, and their three biological sons –
Vanzant’s second family – have certainly influenced how things
turned out in Vanzant’s life.
From imposing curfews to teaching Vanzant individual
responsibility, the Littons provided Vanzant with stability at a
time he had seemingly lost everything.
Vanzant’s mother died before his second birthday.
His father, who is diabetic, became so ill he could no longer
take care of the children.
Vanzant’s older brother has been arrested, convicted and
incarcerated, and at age 16 when most high school boys are learning
to drive, Vanzant was trying to survive. His grandmother, in
Cleveland, offered to take him in. Vanzant wanted to stay with his
friends in Tampa, Fla., but didn’t think he had much of a
”I told Coach (Tommy) Tonelli that I was going to have to move
and he said he’d take care of the situation,” Vanzant recalled
Lisa Litton dove in headfirst.
When Tonelli explained the predicament, Litton invited Vanzant
to spend a few nights in her house. That invitation turned into a
lifetime commitment when Vanzant’s father signed the guardianship
papers over to the Littons.
It wasn’t always a perfect match.
Sure, Vanzant and Zach Litton had become close friends through
basketball, and Lisa Litton knew Vanzant from chauffeuring him to
and from games and practices. What she didn’t know was why her
son’s friend always slept in the car.
At night, the teenager ran wild into the wee hours with no
adults imposing rules or curfews, and Litton wasted no time in
letting Vanzant know things would be different in her house.
On that first Friday, Vanzant came home at 5 a.m., four hours
later than the curfew. To his surprise, Lisa Litton was sitting on
the staircase waiting for an explanation. When Vanzant said his
cell phone battery had died, Litton asked if everybody’s cell phone
batteries had died – prompting Vanzant to duck his head and walk
”My reaction was ‘Oh no, here we go. She’s going to plant her
feet,”’ Jeff Litton said. ”The next day, I told Shawn, ‘Look,
I’ll help you out as much as I can.’ But she was going to beat the
same drum as we did for the other kids.”
Lisa Litton now admits she was a bit more lenient with Vanzant
than the other children because of his background.
But once the quiet kid with the good grades and solid basketball
skills understood the rules, he adapted. Vanzant spent more time
running on the basketball court than in the streets, chasing his
dream of playing at Butler.
It was the only college he seriously considered.
”I knew what they were like, and I thought I could fit in
perfectly with the small guards there, and the campus was
beautiful,” Vanzant said.
At Butler, Vanzant had to start all over.
He didn’t fit the standard prototype of a Butler player. He
wasn’t from Indiana, wasn’t the most skilled shooter and didn’t
come from the most stable background.
And he didn’t talk much about his past with teammates,
”I didn’t really know where he came from until I actually read
about it,” senior forward Matt Howard said. ”He’s a teammate and
a brother, and that’s the way we’ve always approached it.”
Coach Brad Stevens didn’t mind, either.
Stevens, then an assistant on Todd Lickliter’s staff, had
already determined that the Littons’ guardianship would not raise
questions with the NCAA, and that Vanzant would be perfect in
”All you had to do was get to know him and you knew he’d have
nothing but success here,” Stevens said.
Back home, things were getting tough.
Lisa was diagnosed with lupus and breast cancer, and at first,
Vanzant wasn’t sure how to react. When he’d call from Butler,
Vanzant struggled to find the right words to convey his
The medical treatments prevented Litton from traveling to Indy
to watch her son, so she followed the games on the Internet and
sent dozens of text messages expressing her thoughts – even during
games, a tradition that continues today.
”After the game, I go through them,” Vanzant said with a
Finally, last April, Litton convinced her doctors she and the
family needed to travel to Indy for the national championship game.
Litton spent much of that night on her feet with other Butler
parents, cheering, covering her mouth and texting Vanzant.
Butler lost the game 61-59 to Duke, but the next day Vanzant’s
parents, whom he calls mom and pops, got their first look at Hinkle
”I just showed them around,” Vanzant said. ”I try to see life
differently now. I feel a little calmer and more relaxed than when
I was on my own. Where I came from, it was hard to be
Now, as Vanzant’s college career winds down, things have changed
The Littons made the eight-hour drive from Tampa to New Orleans
for last weekend’s regional round games and are heading back to
Houston this weekend. Litton is still receiving chemotherapy,
though the dosages have been reduced and she’s getting them only
once a week.
Vanzant has emerged as a key cog in the Bulldogs’ lineup,
leading Butler to 13 straight wins, a fifth straight NCAA
appearance and an improbable second straight Final Four.
”I bear-hugged that kid after the (Florida) game and I said,
‘You don’t know how proud I am of you and what you’ve overcome,”’
Jeff Litton said. ”He said, ‘Pops, I love you, too.”’
And mom feels the same way.
”When I’m feeling really sick or down, I always think of his
strength and maybe words that he has spoken to pick me up and get
me through that tough time,” Lisa Litton said. ”He has changed my
life and truly blessed all of us.”