By Lenn Robbins
This is a basketball love story, as true as any from the heartland of Indiana to the blacktops of New York City.
It is a love story of a sport and a girl.
It is a love story a girl and her family.
And it’s a love story of a family and a university.
This Hoosieresque story is taking place on Long Island, where Leah Burden, 19, a sophomore on the Stony Brook women’s basketball team which is making history. This the university where her parents – Bobby and Anne Marie – competed as varsity athletes, met, and fell in love.
The No.14-seed Seawolves qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever by winning the America East. They’ll face No.3 seed Arizona Monday (2 p.m.; ESPN2.) in the Alamo Dome in San Francisco.
Who could have imagined all this began years ago when Leah started taking hundreds of shots on the basket in driveway of their Carle Place home. Bobby, her father, served as a human rebound machine.
And when Bobby wasn’t around, Leah would play suicide pickup games with her two older sisters, Samantha, 25, and Kacey, 22, both of whom played at St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II school in Sparkhill, N.Y.
“They’re your sisters, they just push you around a lot, foul the heck out of you,” Burden said with a laugh. “We definitely go at it. There’s no mercy with them.”
The tender mercies of family stepped forward in Burden’s junior year of high school when she the tore the ACL in her left knee. She was still drawing interesting from schools in the Virginia area and upstate, but Stony Brook never backed off.
The question was, would Burden herself back off. The rehab from ACL surgery can wear on a player mentally as well as physically. Burden had a great support staff. Her mother and father constantly pushed the rehab. Her older sisters said she’d come back. Her younger sister, Renee, is a multi-sport star at Carle Place High School and would keep Leah up to snuff on town basketball news. Her grandmother, Anne Donini, was a constant companion at rehab.
“I was one of the first people I knew to tear their ACL,” said Burden. “It was like nothing I ever experienced. There were times I thought I was going to quit. But then I thought, ‘How could I quit on family? How could I quit on my grandmother? How could I quick on my team? Most oof all, how could I quit on myself?”
Burden never quit. She’d go to AAU games and sit on the bench. She’d show up at Stony Brook practices while still in high school to show the staff and players she was all in. Burden has seen action in just a few games this season but she’s making the most of the experience, and what an experience is turning out to be.
She remembers watching the clock tick down in the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor as the No.2 seed Seawolves upset the No.1 seed University of Maine, 64-60. She remembers squeezing the hand of fellow sophomore, Hailey Zeise, until both lost feeling in their hands.
“I just had so much emotion I couldn’t even believe my eyes,” said Burden. “I wasn’t even taking in everything that was going on. Everywhere at once. I couldn’t think about anything else other than, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to Texas.’”
Yes, the Seawolves headed to the site of the Final Four, looking to boost Stony Brook’s profile. Of course, that will happen big time if the Scarlet Knights do some damage by beating Arizona and have women’s college basketball fans googling Stony Brook, N.Y,
“We want to get our name out there to prove that maybe were not the big-name team or the bigger school that we aren’t as good. It’s way to prove that hard work just pays off. The conference of your team doesn’t define the greatness of your team.”
Robby, Samantha and her fiancé will meet the Seawolves in San Antonio for Monday night’s game. They might share a laugh about those driveway foulathons. Or they’ll laugh about how Robby, a former football player, would see Anne Marie, working out on the track while trying to stir up the courage to ask her on a date.
There are a lot of love stories in the NCAA Tournament but none better than the one taking place at Stony Brook.