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'A gift from God' (cont.)

Posted: Friday May 12, 2006 12:53PM; Updated: Friday May 12, 2006 1:26PM
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By Marty Burns, SI.com

Larry Hughes left Saint Louis University after his freshman season to help pay for Justin's (far right) mounting medical bills.
Larry Hughes left Saint Louis University after his freshman season to help pay for Justin's (far right) mounting medical bills.

Vanessa went on to say that she and Larry had arranged to take Justin to Cleveland next week to get some more tests done and to see about getting him on the list for another transplant.

"We're pretty much day-to-day right now," she said. "But our spirits are high. Our hopes are high."

Less than 24 hours later, as I was sitting at my keyboard working on this story, I got the news: Justin Hughes had died.

The man of the house

After Justin was born, Larry became the man of the house. By then his father was around even less. Soft-spoken and mature beyond his years, Larry would come home after school every day and look after his younger brother. Somehow Larry avoided the gangs that were prominent in the area and never complained even though Vanessa estimates that she moved the family five or six times before Larry turned 13.

"We lived in the projects. The gangs were popular. So I just kept moving," she explained. "You can't run from crime, but I'd find someplace else. That's how I did it. I just tried to keep him protected some way. It might have been wrong, but I didn't have a book on how to do it."

Vanessa also set an example for Larry and Justin by working hard and sacrificing to try to make life better for them. She got up every morning and went to her job at the bank, earning promotions along the way from data entry to microfilm clerk to the bill collecting department. Even after Larry made it to the NBA and offered to set her up, Vanessa continued working as a bank supervisor until retiring a few years ago to run Larry's business affairs.

"At first I was on public assistance," she said. "Back then it was the thing to do. Just go get welfare. That was the thing in the projects. You won't have to worry. Just get money for milk and eggs and food.

"But that's not how I wanted to live. I wanted to make things better for my kids. If you need it, that's one thing. But I knew I could work and make it on my own. I wanted to make my sons proud of me."

Larry was too quiet and reserved to say much, but Vanessa is certain that he noticed her efforts. She believes it helped him learn to take responsibility and make the right decisions.

At age 12 Larry began playing basketball and soon after was making a name for himself as a blue-chip prospect for Christian Brothers Academy in St. Louis. By the time Larry was 17, Kansas, Syracuse and Michigan were just a few of the Division I schools that were offering him scholarships.

When it came time to choose, however, he opted to stay at home and play at Saint Louis University. "I think he was just a little afraid to leave me and Justin at that time," Vanessa said. "He took the man's role. Kids feel what you're going through. Larry knew that it wasn't easy for me. But he was always right there."

After a year at Saint Louis, Larry decided to turn pro. Although Vanessa's job provided benefits, Justin's medical bills were piling up. Larry was selected No. 8 overall by the 76ers.