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Steeled by life, Cards' Dean doesn't flinch on tough shots


His mother lay down to take a rest. He kept bugging her, asking for something or other, and she told him that she would get up in a minute. She died as he stood there.

The boy, only 6 years old, went to live with his grandparents. Within a year, they were dead, too. Both of them. Then he moved in with an uncle, who did not last much longer.

Three years, four people gone from a child's life. What are the odds? Taquan Dean tells the story and shrugs.

The 21-year-old guard would rather talk about his Louisville team reaching the Final Four in St. Louis. He is a big reason for the Cardinals' success and if top-ranked Illinois, their opponent on Saturday, plans to get after him, well, good luck. This is not a young man who rattles easily.

Watch him in tense moments, in close games, the way he stays loose, never hesitates to shoot. It is not unusual to see a glimpse of a smile sneak across his elfin-looking face.

"Life is hard," he says. "Basketball is fun."

Especially these days. The 6-foot-3 junior ranks among the top three-point shooters in the nation and is the sidekick to Louisville superstar Francisco Garcia. Coach Rick Pitino calls them his Batman and Robin, adding, "I don't mean Batman is better."

On top of everything else Dean has endured, this season he has come back from a major injury and mysterious illness - diagnosed only a month ago - to put together a torrid stretch in March.

Earlier this month, he was named Most Valuable Player in the Conference USA tournament. Then came two clutch efforts in the Albuquerque Regional of the NCAA tournament.

First, he carried the Cardinals through a sluggish first half against top-seeded Washington, giving Garcia time to heat up. Next, against upstart West Virginia, his team down by 20 points and his buddy in foul trouble, he calmly made a string of three-pointers in the second half that paved the way for an overtime victory.

"He hit some tough shots," West Virginia guard Patrick Beilein says. "He just took it upon himself to make things happen."

Nothing he does surprises Garcia, who is also his roommate. "I mean, he's going to play through everything," Garica says. "He's one of the toughest kids that I have been around."

This attribute clearly dates to his early years. Dean ended up living with his aunt, Louise Carter, in Red Bank, N.J. Saddled with so much death, so much loss, he turned to basketball for solace.

"Starting in seventh grade, I would do this every day - I would get up at 4 in the morning and run a couple miles, then go to the YMCA and shoot a thousand shots and go to school," he says. "Then, in the middle of school, I'd shoot some more. Then I'd do homework and go to the gym. I was at the gym all the time, lifting weights."

Growing up in a poor neighborhood, there wasn't always a court available. "I'd shoot into garbage cans, you name it," he says.

His life took a turn for the better when Kevin and Jackie Owens took him in and moved him to a better area. He became an All-State player, leading Neptune High to the 2002 state championship game in his senior season.

Louisville caught his eye if only because a couple of Jersey legends - Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson - had played there. Also, as a fan of the game, he knew about the newly hired Pitino. "It just felt like the right place to go," he says.

Only one problem: The Cardinals weren't exactly knocking down his door.

Somewhere along the line, the team had sent him a form letter, the kind that go to lots of prospects. He fished it out, found a telephone number and called. Pitino - initially startled at being recruited by a recruit - checked around and discovered the kid was for real. Dean signed a letter of intent without so much as meeting his new coach in person or visiting campus.

From the start, Louisville felt like home, his teammates like family. Especially Garcia. Not only did they share dreams of leading the slumping Cardinals back to prominence but, off the court, they understood each other, could communicate without talking, even if it took a while for Dean to finally discuss his childhood.

"I was like, wow, how could you go through so much and be here playing basketball?" Garcia says. "The life he was living, it was tough."

So, when his brother was murdered in a South Bronx housing project in 2003, Garcia knew where to turn. Dean "was a big friend and a big brother to me," he recalls. "He knew what to do."

By then, the pair had become front men for Pitino's rebuilding program, breaking into the starting lineup as freshmen, named co-captains the next season.

While Garcia drew most of the attention - he was taller, more naturally talented, quicker to the basket - Dean established himself as a fearless perimeter shooter and had the ball-handling skills to switch to point guard as a sophomore. And Louisville started winning again.

"If it wasn't for Francisco and Taquan coming and just because they knew me from the past we would really be up the creek," Pitino says, looking back. "They helped us."

But if it seemed that things might finally be getting easy for Dean, more challenges were in the offing.

In January 2004, he suffered two partial tears in his abdominal wall, an injury that kept him in pain the rest of the season and required surgery over the summer. This winter, he struggled getting back into shape.

"Every muscle in my body ached," he says. "I didn't want to wake up, didn't want to go to practice. I was telling the coach and the trainers but they said I was out of shape. I knew something was going on."

Instead of growing stronger, he felt worse and worse, his numbers erratic. Finally, in February, doctors discovered that he had a recurring form of mononucleosis that had afflicted him as a child, then lain dormant for many years.

Dean had a choice: Sit out or play through it. For him, that wasn't really a choice at all.

Slowly, the illness has subsided and his statistics are proof, his scoring average up to 15.8 over the past 10 games. The tournament is "my dream," he says. "I can remember watching this on television, seeing all the cameras flash, all the people going crazy. Now that I have a chance to be a part of it, I'm not going to let this stop me."

Still, in Albuquerque, he admitted to feeling the effects of playing at high altitude. Against West Virginia, he was in and out of the game with cramps, missing a shot at the end of regulation when his leg locked up, dragging himself back onto the floor to sink a three-pointer early in overtime. Ellis Myles, a forward on the team, says: "That's just Taquan."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Final Four

At Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

Saturday's semifinals

Illinois (36-1) vs. Louisville (33-4), 6:07 p.m.

North Carolina (31-4) vs. Michigan State (26-6), 8:47 p.m. approximately

Monday's title game

Semifinal winners, 9:18 p.m.

TV: All games on chs. 13, 9

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