Heartbreak to hope, Canaan perseveres
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The loss was his fault.
Eight months after Murray State fell to Butler in the second round of the NCAA tournament, that's the way Isaiah Canaan sees it.
With the Racers trailing by a bucket, the ball found its way into his hands in the final seconds before Butler star Gordon Hayward deflected away his attempted pass. During the mad scramble for the ball between the two, the buzzer sounded. The Bulldogs went on to the Sweet 16 and so much more.
"Just seeing them celebrating, I was just broken," Canaan recalled this past weekend at the 76 Classic. "I didn't take it too well. I knew it was my fault we lost.
"I watched that game over and over and over. I can tell it to you front to backwards, backwards to front. That's how much it pushed me to want to get better so that if I get in that moment again, I'll know what to do with it, and we'll come out with the victory."
This season, Murray State is counting on the reigning Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the year -- a 6-foot point guard named Canaan -- to help it get back to the NCAA tournament for a shot at mimicking Butler's run to college basketball's promised land.
Canaan is starting for the first time in his career after averaging 10.4 points per game and impressing coach Billy Kennedy as a freshman who rarely got rattled no matter how big the stage, how pressure-packed the situation.
Five years ago, Canaan and his nerves were put to the ultimate test. While he was holed up inside a church with his grandmother, Hurricane Katrina tore through Biloxi, Miss. Floodwaters slowly climbed the stairs and crept up to their ankles on the second floor.
First Missionary Baptist Church stood only a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico and swayed as Canaan peered out the window only to see water covering the other rooftops. He feared the worst and figured he'd ultimately have to swim. Upon learning his grandmother couldn't swim, he cried.
"It'll be OK," Bettye Ramsey said, comforting her grandson. "Let God do his work."
Hours later, as he and eight others were piled into the attic, the waters receded.
The decision to seek refuge inside their church likely saved them from a storm surge that left at least 170 people dead and missing in south Mississippi. The house that Canaan and his grandmother shared suffered severe damage due to floodwaters that reached as high as 6½ feet. Their possessions inside could not be salvaged, and Canaan was left with a week's worth of clothing, shoes and his prized PlayStation.
"I saw my life flash right there," Canaan said. "I was living or I wasn't. I've seen the worst it could get, and now I'm trying to see how good it can get."
For the next few weeks, Canaan lived in the church where he grew up singing in the choir, attending Ramsey's Sunday school classes and dominating middle school games inside the gym. That was where Biloxi High coach Seber Windham first saw Canaan play.
"Little bitty fella," said Windham, a fellow member of the church. "It took one quarter, and I knew. He was 4-foot-something and would drain 3s all day long."
Canaan spent about two months living with his mother near Atlanta but eventually decided to move into his grandmother's FEMA trailer and help her rebuild while beginning his freshman year at Biloxi High.
Basketball was his release, but there were haunting reminders of the reality that his hometown was in ruins. The school transformed into a makeshift shelter during Katrina, and at some point, the team's uniforms even went missing after a locker-room break-in.
A Mr. Basketball finalist, Canaan left Biloxi High with a state championship and a scholarship to Murray State.
"He gutted it out," Windham said. "So many young men had to make different sacrifices after the storm. Things like helping out a lot more around the house. He had to help so much about his grandma. His dad was trying to go to work. He didn't have that opportunity to hang out with his friends. He really had to do things for his family. That had a positive influence at his life."
Kennedy, a Metairie, La., native with connections in the Gulf Coast, noticed Canaan as a high school junior and persuaded him to come play in Murray, Ky., even though SEC schools were starting to show interest. Before the recruiting process, Canaan had never even heard of Murray State..
"He didn't know the difference between Murray State and Mississippi State," Kennedy said.
The decision has worked out wonderfully for Canaan. His first season saw him emerge as the team's best 3-point shooter and finish second on the team in scoring without making a start. He thrilled fans and YouTube viewers with a lucky half-court shot from one knee against Southeast Missouri State to help clinch the OVC regular-season title by mid-February and was later named MVP of the conference tournament.
It's a work in progress, but Kennedy is expanding Canaan's role this season by starting the sophomore alongside senior Isacc Miles to have two scoring point guards on the floor at the same time leading the Racers' balanced attack.
It's been an up-and-down start to the season, but expectations are high for Murray State after a school-record 31-win season. Canaan is motivated by the Butler loss and the thought of just how close the Racers were to becoming the mid-major team that made a deep NCAA tournament run.
"As far as they went, I was just saying, 'Wow, that could be us,'" Canaan said of the Bulldogs.
Canaan's long-range personal goal is a lofty one as well. Nicknamed Lil Sip -- a nod to his height and home state -- Canaan is especially motivated to carve out a pro career so that he can put funds back into rebuilding Biloxi.
For a model of resiliency, Canaan only needs to look to the grandmother who raised him. During the rebuilding process, what was left of her flood-damaged, hollowed-out house was completely destroyed by a fire.
"I don't tend to let things bother me," Ramsey said. "I look for solutions. That's what he's been taught."
Ask Ramsey what she hopes out of her grandson at Murray State, and there is no mention of NCAA tournament glory or the NBA. She merely wants him to always remember the Katrina experience as a reminder to stay grounded.
"That's my prayer for him," Ramsey said.
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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