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Original Issue

"She Played from Her Heart"

ALL THE explanations have sunk in. Enlarged heart. Went out doing what she loved. It was her time. But here's one thing Shannon Veal's parents can't figure. They'd videotaped dozens of her games over the years, and on Feb. 18 her father had the same camcorder charged and ready. But when he hit the button? Nothing. Gilbert kept trying throughout the first quarter, but the damn thing wouldn't work. Never happened before. Maybe it's as his wife, Adrianne, says—some images aren't meant to be preserved. Gilbert has his own theory: You don't really see a game when you're taping it. And on this night, in the Glen Oaks High gym in Baton Rouge, he was meant to see every last moment.

"I actually watched," Gilbert says. "That's what wakes me up at night. She just crumpled."

At age 10, Shannon Veal discovered that she had diabetes and a horrific jump shot; by 17, she was arcing three-pointers like skyrockets despite fingers pinpricked by constant blood checks. The 5'8" junior point guard had emerged as a prime talent, poised to lead the Panthers to their third straight Class 4A title. With Glen Oaks up by 14 in a regional playoff against Helen Cox High, coaches from Shannon's beloved LSU sat scouting her for the first time. She had just hit a free throw for her 13th point when, with 1:34 left in the second quarter, she signaled to coach Harold Boudreaux for a substitute. She backpedaled downcourt, slapped at her leg, then dropped. Her head hit the floor. Her body convulsed, her eyes rolled.

It was just past 6:30 p.m. Hearing by phone about Shannon's collapse, former Glen Oaks coach Janice Charles crashed into another car while racing to the school. Upon receiving a second call, Charles started wailing in the middle of the street. Playoff games were under way around the state, and from parish to parish, from gym to gym, the news spread: Shannon Veal was dead. Across town at Capitol Pre-College and St. Michael the Archangel, down at Ellender Memorial High in Houma, unaware players sat in halftime meetings as coaches jabbered, bewildered by all the cellphones vibrating behind locker doors. Shannon's teammates were staggered, of course. But girls who had lost to her and been burned by her broke down too, and asked, Why?

"Everybody loved Shannon," says Capitol center Dominique Robinson. "She didn't get in arguments. She'd say 'Chill out' to her teammates and still come over and talk to us. She talked to anybody. That's who she was."

Shannon's devotion to basketball was total; it informed her diet, her study habits, her selflessness. She hugged her teachers every day. She admonished her dad for mentioning one of her awards to reporters because "that sounds like bragging." Charles recalls having been an "ugly" homophobe, warning Shannon to stay away from gay players. "But no matter what I said, she was still friends with girls like that," Charles says. "Shannon made me realize I had to let go of this ignorant, prejudiced view."

After Shannon scored 29 points to beat Iota High on Feb. 2, she was named MVP of the Hall of Fame Classic. No rival resented it. "I gave her mom a big hug," says St. Michael center Carol Lee Constantin. "I was proud of Shannon because she worked so hard. She played from her heart."

That's the killer irony, of course. Shannon died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (SI, Dec. 10, 2007), an excessive thickening of the walls of the heart. About 18 months ago Shannon's doctor examined her, heard a heart murmur and had her undergo an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram—the tests most likely to flag HCM. Like the camcorder, this technology failed the Veals. "Nothing showed," Adrianne says.

Less than two hours after her fellow co-captain died, Tiara George called Boudreaux to say, "We're going to finish this year for Shannon." The next night the Panthers won the suspended game against Helen Cox 67--40; at the Glen Oaks gym afterward, a Cox player prayed, "Please help this team go all the way." The Panthers won again to earn a place in the semifinals, then went to the funeral. Shannon's parents expected 2,000 people. Some 7,500 showed up.

By the time Glen Oaks got to Hammond, La., last Thursday for the Top 28 Tournament, the players believed they would take the title. They gathered in a parking lot beforehand and giggled and practiced wild handshakes, teenage girls carousing in the fading light. Even Lauren Veal, Shannon's little sister, was back in uniform, cleared by heart tests two days before.

St. Michael overwhelmed Glen Oaks early, winning 61--47. It was, in a sense, the ultimate tribute to Shannon: Her team couldn't compete without her. All week Boudreaux had insisted that she was watching, and near the end he pleaded silently for proof, a spark, a miracle: Damn, Shannon. Give me something. Please. But she was gone.

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After Shannon's collapse, teammates were staggered, of course. But girls who had lost to her and been burned by her broke down too, and asked, Why?