Jan. 24, 2007

By: Michael N. Graff
Staff writer for The Fayetteville Observer

The e-mail flashed across Eric Tucker's screen like a streak of hope last spring.Coach, you probably don't remember me. But you used to call me "South Carolina."

It'd been two years since Tucker had seen Shacovia Sheppard in one of his gym classes at Fayetteville State, two years since her hell-bent style of play earned her an invitation to walk onto the Broncos' women's basketball team the following fall, two years since Tucker nicknamed her after her home state.

And two years since she'd vanished. Reeling from his worst season as the Broncos' coach, Tucker read along with excitement. And then shock. I know I haven't talked to you in awhile. But I'm in Iraq. After her freshman year, Sheppard walked into her mom's home in Charleston, S.C., and announced her intentions to join the Army Reserves. No more school loans for her single-parent mother. No more worries, Sheppard figured. But only two months after basic training, her unit -- the 414th Transportation Company out of Orangeburg, S.C. -- was called up. In a blink, Sheppard went from gym class to the desert. "Just like that," she says.

Now, two years, a tour of duty and an e-mail later, South Carolina is back, playing a breakneck forward for Fayetteville State. For Tucker and the Broncos, it's better late than never. "She is about the hardest player I've ever had," Tucker said. "Military people do it right, or they don't do it at all."

Tucker wasn't the only one awaiting word from Shacovia during the past two years. Back in Charleston, Bernadette White wanted daily calls from her daughter. And when she didn't get one, she tried to patch through using the Red Cross.

The oldest of Bernadette's four children, Shacovia shouldered a load of responsibility in a home without a father figure. Knowing she'd left three teenagers with her mom, Shacovia's conscience filled with guilt when Bernadette took out an $8,000 loan to pay for her first year at Fayetteville State. Without warning, Shacovia sought her own solution.

Then, when Shacovia's unit was called up, the sense of guilt shifted. "When she went to Iraq, that threw me," Bernadette said. "I felt really bad she went in because of me. As long as she was in school and maintaining her grades, I didn't have a problem with the school loans." Bernadette took five different types of blood-pressure medicine during Shacovia's deployment.

One of only 11 women in the 414th, Shacovia was a gunner, a job that put her behind a 50-caliber every day. "That was my friend," she said. Despite seeing the worst and constantly hopping around roadside explosives -- some of which were stuffed in dead donkeys, she said -- Shacovia's company returned entirely intact.

"At any minute, something could happen," Shacovia said, pausing to clear her throat. "And one minute, it could be the wrong thing that happens. Sometimes driving at night, we'd see another convoy get hit. And you say, `If we left before them ...'"

On road trips, Tucker often spots Shacovia in front of a television watching the news -- a strange sight on a team made up of 18- to 20-year-olds."When she watches it, she looks with a more serious stare," he said. "The others, they'll just go past CNN. She'll stop on CNN." She doesn't shove it onto her teammates though. Like her grandfather, who fought in Vietnam, Shacovia would rather not discuss the war. While basketball is hardly life or death, Shacovia, a 21-year-old with a mind for deep thoughts, says it's still important. "You have to have something to love, something that makes you feel better about everything that's going on," she said. "To me, basketball always makes me feel better. Basketball is always there. You can just go outside and pick it up. It's always in your reach."

Before Shacovia ever entertained the thought of joining the military, she told her mom she wanted to be buried with a ball. She learned the game from her father, who now lives in Charlotte, and regularly joined games with him and his male friends. In fact, the only times she faced girls on the court came during school ball.

During a pickup game at a playground one day, she blocked a boy's shot. "He got teased about it," Shacovia said, "so he quit." Despite being all-region performer at Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston, the 5-foot-10 forward wasn't recruited. She came to Fayetteville State planning to concentrate on her academics as a freshman, then try to walk on as a sophomore. But plans changed.

Sitting in the bleachers in Capel Arena this week, Shacovia lifted her sleeve to reveal a scar on her wrist. Playground ball in Iraq was an entirely different game. The courts were rigid, the action on them rough. Still, she asked in whenever she could, no matter how dangerous the court or how muscle-bound the competition. "It's so smooth," Shacovia says, looking at Capel's glossy floor. "I missed it so much. I don't mind diving at all here. I'll be all over the floor."

Averaging six points and five rebounds, her game is hardly fluid. But her energy is undeniable. Even the Broncos' men notice. "Shoot, she plays like she was in Iraq," said Hazael Andrew, the center on the men's team. During a 19-point, 12-rebound effort on Tuesday, Shacovia took an elbow to her teeth. As she bent down and cupped her mouth, Tucker paused and considered a substitution. But the war veteran shook her head and pulled her hand away, just the latest sign of the grittiness Tucker first noticed two years ago. "In a gym class where the girls are guarding their fingernails, she didn't meet that criteria," Tucker said. "They say you don't have to eat the whole cow to know you're eating beef. Well, I knew I had some sirloin when I saw her play."

One that took him two years, a tour of duty and one out-of-the blue e-mail to finally enjoy.

Staff writer Michael N. Graff can be reached at or 486-3591.



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