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Hugs and hoops
Montana's Shaunte Nance-Johnson was all smiles March 8, 2009, as she gets a lift from teammate Mandy Morales following Montana's 70-60 victory over Portland State. The win gave the Lady Griz the Big Sky Conference Women's regular season championship and the right to host the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Her tears flowed like spring thaw on the Clark Fork.

Five-hundred miles to the west, Shaunte Nance-Johnson's brother, Jaquan Miller - whom she thinks about often and plans to give a kidney when he's healthy enough for a transplant - was fighting for his life in a Seattle hospital. He's the only blood relative she has in this world, other than a grandmother who is battling leukemia.

So Shaunte had light representation and heavy emotions two weeks ago on senior day for the Montana Lady Griz. But husband Anthony Johnson was there, and he's her knight in shining armor (not to mention a king locally after scoring 42 points for the Montana men on Wednesday).

Plus the father of her adopted family was courtside, offering words the senior guard will take with her long after she stuffs her Montana sneakers in a storage box.

"Right when I hugged Robin, he said ‘I love you kid,' " Shaunte said, referring to UM coach Robin Selvig. "That was the thing that really flooded my heart. That and my brother is not doing good, and I want to be there for him."

Nance-Johnson's teammates have seen her cry on more than one occasion this season. There were more tears Friday when Montana's season came to an end at the Big Sky tourney.

But for Shaunte, life is more than OK. Her two seasons in maroon and silver have been heaven compared to the hell of her childhood.

"Growing up with someone I thought was my father that passed away when I was 4, a mother that passed away when I was 12, my grandfather passing away four months after my mom died, four months after that my grandma getting throat cancer ...," she lamented. "Living with family members, being adopted, living back with my grandmother ... I've been moving, shuffling. My whole life is being able to adapt and transition in different situations, being a chameleon. I've used it as a positive."

Nance-Johnson's senior season didn't go as planned. A few years ago that might have really dampened her spirits, especially after working so hard in the summer. But there are other things besides basketball. Other goals that are more important to her.

"No, I didn't score 20 points a game," she said. "No, I'm not Mandy Morales.

"But I hope my legacy in Missoula is far beyond what I did on the court. Like what I did in the community and what I plan to do further. I know the struggle of being a young kid without having any family around."

Along with her husband, Shaunte is involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Special Olympics and a program that involves mentoring local African-American children adopted by white parents. She and her husband have touched our town in ways most of us never see.

In return, Missoula has touched Shaunte, a 5-foot-5 ray of sunshine from Tacoma, Wash. She realized a goal this winter in earning a starting spot for Montana, proving to herself no matter how dark the days or long the odds, dreams come true if you stay positive.

"I want to be able to share that with my own kids someday, that it's OK where you come from," said Shaunte, whose legacy of giving carried onto the court where she led Montana in assists with 103.

"Don't soak in the negative. Turn those negative situations into positive and make something out of yourself. If you can't be the best basketball player, strive to be the best person."

Nance-Johnson's favorite part about playing for Selvig, whom she hopes to follow into the coaching ranks, is his temperament. He never gets too caught up in the pain of disappointment, never holds a grudge or loses his sense of humor.

In other words, he's a lot like Shaunte, which might explain their fondness for one another.

Sports columnist Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

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