Tucson High School’s David Vann overcame a serious hand injury and a challenging family environment to succeed. He will be inducted into the Tucson High School T-Club on Thursday.


When he was 16, David Vann accidentally pushed his hands through a glass door at Tucson High School. He saw his finger lying on the ground.

“I picked up my finger and ran to the nurse’s office,” he remembers. “When the nurse saw what happened, she fainted. I called 911 and waited for the ambulance.”

It was 1976 and David Vann was one of the leading high school basketball players in Arizona. The story gets worse: The severed finger was from Vann’s shooting hand. He couldn’t play for eight months.

If you are a student in Journalism 101, this is where you start the David Vann story. The missing finger. Basketball career in peril.

You save space later in the story for Vann’s unlikely journey: his mother, Barbara Tolefree, recently divorced, moved in 1971 from Kansas to Tucson with her seven children to get a new start. No money. No job.

“I grew up in a challenged environment,” says Vann. “No father. We were on welfare. My mom, bless her soul, was strong enough to keep us together. She got a job at the Head Start program. She is my hero.”

No matter what the journalism guide says, the real story about David Vann is that when he is inducted into the Tucson High School T-Club on Thursday, his basketball career will be secondary.

Every young man and young woman at Tucson High School should be told the Life Story of David Vann and how All Things Are Possible.

Vann is 53 now, the regional sales manager for Phillips 66, living in the San Francisco suburbs, in nearby Lafayette. He has been a criminologist for the county sheriff’s department and an associate at Gallo, the wine conglomerate. He has coached nationally prominent AAU basketball teams, and has been the head coach at Bentley High School, a small, private school in the Bay Area.

His wife, Olivia, who he met while they were students at St. Mary’s College, is a Teacher of the Year nominee in the Lafayette School District. His daughter, Emily, is a basketball player at San Jose State who carries a 4.0 GPA.

What finger?

Along the way, Vann scored 1,738 points at St. Mary’s from 1979-82, a four-year starter whose college debut was at Madison Square Garden. He scored 25 points against Iona College that night. It took 24 years until another St. Mary’s Gael scored more career points.

Vann was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, was in training camp with the New York Knicks and played for the old Reno franchise in the CBA. But that’s just basketball stuff.

He won’t tell old basketball stories at the T-Club banquet Thursday. He’ll tell life stories.

“My name will be on the plaque,” he says, “but the award should go to the teachers and coaches at Tucson High School who put me on the track to success. I’ve waited a long time to be able to go back to Tucson and tell everyone, ‘Thank you.’”

Vann was an eighth-grader with athleticism, size and a winning jumper when he met Jerry Curtis, who, over the next 30 years, would become one of the most valued coaches and teachers in THS history.

Vann thought he was hot stuff. Curtis invited him to play one-on-one. First man to 10 wins.

Curtis won 10-0.

“It seems like that game was yesterday,” Vann says now. “It made me realize how much I had to learn. Jerry took me under his wing. He was a young coach with a lot of energy. Even on days when I didn’t have basketball practice, Jerry would call and say, ‘Let’s practice.’ Sometimes we’d go to Dairy Queen after practice, but he always made sure I got home, even if it meant following me in his car at 10 mph.”

Tucson was at its basketball best in the ’70s. Rincon, Santa Rita, Pueblo, CDO, Flowing Wells, Sunnyside and Sahuaro all reached state championship games. Vann was one of the emerging stars of the decade, with Pueblo’s Fat Lever, CDO’s Brian Jung and Palo Verde’s Jeff Altman, among others.

Vann might’ve stayed home and played at Arizona, which offered him a scholarship, but he didn’t like what he saw inside the program. His intuition was accurate; the Wildcats program soon imploded.

“I like the UA and what it stands for, but it wasn’t right for me during that period,” says Vann. “St. Mary’s is a small, Christian Brothers school that I had never heard of it. But once I got there, once I saw the educational opportunities, I knew it was for me.”

It would be the second time Vann started over. From Kansas to Tucson. From Tucson to St. Mary’s. He was barely 18. Both were remarkably successful.

Delano Price, a former administrator at both Sahuaro and Sunnyside high schools, a shooting guard who had been a key part of Tucson High’s 1969 state championship team, first saw Vann playing pick-up basketball at Mansfield Junior High. It was a game at which 30 or 40 players gathered most days. It was the center of the basketball universe in Tucson. Age didn’t matter.

“I knew then that he was going to be special,” says Price, who was almost 10 years older than Vann.

Price wouldn’t just play basketball against Vann. He became a role model. “I admired the way he handled himself,” Vann remembers. “Delano did things the right way.”

Thirty years later, Price nominated Vann for induction into the T-Club, which, it turns out, is not as much about basketball as it is about the making of a man.

Sports columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.