Bonnies freshman finds spirit of season

The St. Bonaventure community rallied to help freshman reserve Tatiana Wilson and her family. Craig Melvin/St. Bonaventure

OLEAN, N.Y. -- Home for the holidays.

It isn't a complicated sentiment. In fact, few phrases are as unapologetically positive as one that conjures up images of family, friends and warm laughter on a winter night. The travel headaches of trains, planes and automobiles aside, the crass commercialism and shopping mall madness forgotten, going home for the holidays means a chance to retreat from both the pursuits and perils of everyday life. At least, that's the version most of us want to believe.

For Tatiana Wilson, going home for the holidays this year is another reminder that she can't pause, can't stop moving forward. Life seems unwilling to give her the luxury to do otherwise.

A little more than a week before Wilson, a freshman at St. Bonaventure, was to travel from the school's campus in far western reaches of New York to her native New York City for a brief Christmas break, she learned there was no longer a home there to which she could return. Early on the morning of Dec. 13, fire destroyed her family's residence in Queens. Her mother and five younger siblings escaped through a second-floor window. Her mother, Tameka, suffered a broken back, and sisters Amari (broken leg) and Shaina (third-degree burns) also sustained injuries, but they made it out. Tatiana confirmed Monday night that all had been released from the hospital and were staying at her aunt's home. Their health was all that made it out with them.

Wilson learned of the fire that evening after practice. The next day she took a final exam. And she went to practice.

"She's one of the strongest people I think I've ever been around," senior teammate Jessica Jenkins said of the freshman. "I know what she's going through right now is really tough, and a lot of people would bring that to practice. It would be real easy for her to feel bad for herself, but she's not doing that.

"She's the same person she always is, making jokes in practice. She can make anybody laugh at any time. That's just kind of her personality. … She's just one of those people, when she walks in the locker room, she's going to do something to make you laugh."

Wilson's first reaction upon learning of the fire was that it couldn't be as bad as it sounded, that surely her mom's message meant only that some part of the home had been damaged. Only through subsequent conversations with her brother and four sisters did she understand the full extent -- that everything the family had was gone. All she could do then was laugh, shake her head and keep repeating "My house burnt down," as if the repetition might reduce the absurdity of it all.

When she told coach Jim Crowley and the rest of the coaching staff the following day, they talked to her about going home. She said she didn't want to leave.

"I'm the type that hides my emotions, kind of," Wilson said. "That's why when I found out, I kind of was smiling. Bad stuff tends to happen, so I was hoping it was a lie or something. Part of me wanted to go home, but my mom understands I have responsibilities at school, and I'm pretty sure that she wouldn't want me to come home."

Her uncle, Steven Scott, definitely wouldn't have wanted her to put off exams. Wilson lived with her uncle and aunt through much of her teen years and regarded Scott as a father figure. He stressed that she do whatever needed to be done to further her education, just as she stresses now to her little brother, D.J., whose much longer commute to school she worries about now in the wake of the fire. But she couldn't turn to Scott for advice in this instance. He passed away in September, not long after she left for her first semester of college.

It's one more thing that won't be there when she returns later this week.

"I know people are going to feel bad and sorry and stuff, but I don't want that to affect everything," Wilson said. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me on the court or in the class. I don't really want no excuses, you know? So I try to be as normal as possible, so people won't think, 'Oh, she's sad.' … I just want to play and go to school."

There are people looking out for her and her family, beyond just the players and coaches in her immediate basketball family at St. Bonaventure. The athletic department worked with the University Ministry and organized an assistance drive for the Wilson family. Within a few days of news of the fire, more than two thousand dollars had been donated, along with dozens of boxes of clothes, school supplies and other items for Wilson's siblings. More donations were collected when the men's basketball team played NC State in Rochester, N.Y. on Dec. 20.

For someone in relative anonymity at the end of the bench who is completing her first semester in an unfamiliar place, the response didn't go unnoticed.

"I knew this was a great community and school and everything when I came here, but seeing this, it just makes me more happy that I chose this school," Wilson said. "I'm just thankful that everybody is trying to help my family and stuff and they actually care. Because where I'm from, it's like, I don't know -- it's like different."

She struggles to put the differences into words, but everything about her speaks of someone used to fending for herself.

Wilson wasn't the star in high school, didn't average double-digit points per game for South Shore High School. But she made a difference for a team that reached a championship game at Madison Square Garden, saving her best scoring days for the postseason. Now she's back a the other end of the ladder, trying to earn minutes from the end of the bench for St. Bonaventure. Her uncle made sure she understood the value of education, but she admitted that the new levels of time management and responsibility that came with the experience took some getting used to. She makes it clear she's well aware there is still room for improvement. Little in life has come easy, leaving her with the choice of what to do about it.

"The thing about her is she keeps coming," Crowley said. "She's had practices where she hasn't done well. She's had practices where she'll guard Jess Jenkins, and Jess will just terrorize her. But you know what? The next day she comes back and she wants to guard Jess again. She keeps coming. She'll make a mistake, and we'll get on her, but she'll keep coming. I love that about her. That's why I feel like we'll get something sometime. She just keeps coming."

She'll go home this week and look at the burned-out remnants of the place she used to live. Then she'll go be with her brothers and sisters.

Home for the holidays with a spirit much stronger than that which drives most of us at this time of year.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.