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Brian Francis | | March 21, 2014

Francis: Tufts' smallest member provides the biggest inspiration

STEVENS POINT, Wis. -- One year ago Friday, Shannon Curley from Billerica, Mass., spent her 12th birthday undergoing a bone marrow transplant as part of her treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was around Christmas of 2012 when the basketball-loving teen was first diagnosed with the rare disease.

“It was not as bad as I thought it would be,” Curley said, “but it was hard being away from sports for so long.”

In October of 2013, Tufts “drafted” Curley prior to the start of the season. This was done as part of a connection with Team Impact, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses by establishing and expanding vibrant team-based support networks. 

“She has just been the most amazing addition to our team,” senior Liz Moynihan said. “She has changed our team, changed the way we play, and just knowing she is on the bench we have so much more to play for.”

On “Draft Day,” Tufts had a day of special events which included Curley signing her letter of intent and presented with a hat and uniform – resembling the NBA-draft day protocol. Although she will not be listed on any roster or media guide, she was honored with a No. 32 during her draft day but remains No. 1 in the hearts of Tufts players, coaches, and fans.

Now in remission, Curley has made significant progress since joining the Tufts and has sat alongside the Jumbos in nearly each one of their historic victories in 2013-14.

“To think where we were a year ago,” Carol Curley, Shannon’s mother, said, “to be in Stevens Point at the [national semifinals], I would have never believed it.”

Following the bone marrow transplant, Shannon was put in isolation. Her immune system was suppressed and very limited with indoor activities. The Tufts players continued to visit Shannon, despite knowing they could not go inside the house.

“Team Impact has been great,” Carol Curley said, “and the girls have been phenomenal. Always including her and making her feel part of the team. They would come over and carve pumpkins in the freezing cold.”

With her isolation lifted in February, Shannon was able to start playing the game she loved once again. The Jumbos paid a visit as their “draft pick” made her way back on the floor.

“It was awesome,” Shannon Curley said. “They came to my second game back and I have just learned so much from them.”

Shannon Curley was seated on the bench last weekend as the Tufts held off Ithaca 61-59, earning their first berth in the national semifinals. As the buzzer sounded and the final shot from Ithaca fell off the rim and to the ground, the Jumbos stormed the court with Curley sprinting beside her teammates.

“My most vivid memory is when buzzer went off against Ithaca,” Moynihan recalls,  “the team rushes the court and you see Shannon running alongside us.”

On March 21, 2014, Curley is celebrating her 13th birthday as a member of the Tufts (30-1) program in its first appearance in the national semifinals.

“This is the best birthday ever,” Shannon Curley said, “to be here with the team.”

“She’s an inspiring kid, the way she has dealt with her illness,” Tufts head coach Carla Berube said. “It’s definitely made us a stronger team.”

Following the victory against Ithaca, the Curley family was uncertain if they would be able to make the cross-country trip to Stevens Point for the national semifinals. But assistant coach Kate Barnosky set up a website asking for donors to help raise money to fund the trip.

“Within five hours we surpassed the amount we wanted to donate and it wasn’t just parents, it wasn’t just  Tufts, it was the entire community,” Moynihan said. “ So she will be joining us, she will be on the bench with us, and I couldn’t be happier.”

“It was a shock,” Carol Curley said. “I was thrilled. It was exciting and overwhelming.”

The website can no longer be found as it had to be shut down because the massive volume of donations would have kept pouring in due to the overwhelming support. On the site there were messages stating, “Shannon we need you there,” and “we need you with the team!” showcasing the enormous impact Curley has made on the Jumbos magical journey.

“It really says a lot about Shannon and team impact,” Berube said. “She really touches the hearts of people around our program.”

“It’s crazy,” Shannon said. “I never thought I’d actually be [in Stevens Point]. I thought I would have to watch it on TV. They really do a lot for me.”

Curley arrived in Stevens Point on Friday and will be joining the team as they enter Quant Fieldhouse in the afternoon. While she claims the Jumbos continue to inspire her daily, both Berbube and Moynihan simultaneously shared, “She inspires us way more than we inspire her.”

“It’s amazing how things have worked out this season,” Moynihan said, “it just seems like it’s meant to be.”

Stemming from an organization called Team Impact, Curley’s impact on the team is of Jumbo proportions as Tufts continues their quest for the national title.