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A brother, a mentor, and a hero

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000

A boy follows a man down a sidewalk, bouncing a basketball along the way. The smaller figure attempts to match stride with the larger one, and failing that, scurries to make up the difference. The afternoon is filled with chatter and laughter on a day that seemed like nothing special at the time, a day precious only in its memory.

This is where the road to the Final Four begins, on an ordinary day in an ordinary street, with a 10-year-old trying to keep up with a brother much older, much wiser than he. This is where the dream takes hold, with a kid trying to walk in footprints that will leave a lasting impression.

Even now, in the celebration of the moment, Udonis Haslem remembers the lessons handed down from Samuel Wooten. Even now, when basketball has become something to behold at the University of Florida, where he cannot go anywhere without strangers wanting to wish him well, the images of how it all began remain clear. Even now, there are times he hears the voice of an absent brother still whispering his encouragement.

This is the center's story. It is a tale of warm beginnings and great endings with heartbreak mixed in somewhere along the way. It is the tale of games that everyone watches, and games no one did. You figure out which are more important.

It begins this way for most players in the Final Four, these journeys through the neighborhood to the nearest park and the best available rim. For Haslem, the difference was that he was traveling with a brother -- a half-brother, if you want to be technical about it -- who was 18 years older than he was.

"They were men's games," said Haslem, now 19, of those days in Jacksonville. "No one there would ever pick me on their team. But my brother would. I think he thought I had some potential, and he wanted me to live up to it. Eventually, it got to the point where I was the one picking the teams."

Basketball came quickly for Haslem, whose father played at Stetson. As a sixth-grader, he was 5-7. Two years later, he tore down a rim dunking a ball. But all players need someone to nurture them, to show them the little tricks of basketball and of life. For Haslem, Wooten was always there. He was the one who guided him to basketball after a flirtation with football. He was the one who loaned Haslem his car, who made sure he had a little money in his pocket, who steered him clear of the little pockets of trouble most teenagers encounter. The age difference didn't seem to matter so much. The last names, either. They were close. They were brothers.

Which, of course, is why it hurt so much when Samuel died last year at 36.

Haslem isn't exactly sure when Wooten learned he had cancer; Wooten made sure he was the last to know. After all, the family had moved back to Miami by then, and Haslem had begun to play for powerful Miami High.

"It was hard on me," Haslem said. "But he wouldn't let anyone feel sorry for him. Every once in a while, he'd talk about how his body was aching. But I was the last person he would tell."

Instead, Wooten would make his way to the gym, once again, and sit on the top row with the rest of Haslem's family and grin.

"He was always there," said Miami High coach Fred Regueira, an assistant at the time. "If Udonis played, Sam was there. You could tell how close they were. With the age separation they had, he was almost like an extra father. If Sam could talk to Udonis now, he'd tell him how proud he was of him."

He could have played big time, Haslem will tell you. Wooten was 6-61/2, and he had hops. But even as Haslem grew into the force he would be -- 6-7, 260 pounds -- his brother was withering away. He ate as much as he could, and he drank protein shakes. But eventually, he began to lose weight. He died last year, leaving Haslem with only tears and memories of their days together.

"If I could talk to him, I'd thank him," Haslem said. "He's a large part of why I'm here today. He instilled this work ethic in me. He kept me focused. He taught me how to play basketball the right way."

Around the Gators, that's the description you hear the most about Haslem. He plays the right way. He runs. He plays defense. He boards. He takes charges. He blocks out. Oh, in the wild pace of Florida's games, with all the emphasis on three-point shooting, the inside players tend to get lost or written off as interchangable parts. But Billy Donovan will tell you that it was Haslem's presence inside that confounded Duke in the Gators' upset of the Blue Devils. He finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block.

Against North Carolina on Saturday, it again appears Haslem's role will be critical. He is giving up 5 inches to the Tar Heels' Brendan Haywood, who had 28 points and 15 rebounds against Missouri. But if the Gators have shown nothing else this tournament, it's that they don't exactly stand around and look shorter. And nothing equalizes height quite as much as forcing it to sprint the length of the court.

Those are the lessons a boy learns along the way, following an older brother down the path. Those are the gifts that linger still, from hardtops and good memories, that will accompany Haslem into the Final Four.

A few days ago, before the Oklahoma State game, Haslem was thinking of his brother again. He took a strip of tape with Wooten's name on it, and he fastened it around his right ankle. It was his way of saying thanks, his way of bringing Wooten along to the game.

This time, Haslem will be the one leading the way.

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