CBKB: Basketball player born without a left hand gets his chance
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK — Kevin Laue isn't supposed to be here, standing on the court practicing for his first season of Division I basketball.
Born without a left hand, the 6-foot-11 center from Pleasanton, Calif., is now a freshman at Manhattan College, having earned a scholarship to play for the Jaspers and a chance to live out the dream of anyone who has been told they couldn't play a sport they loved because of a physical defect.
When the Jaspers' season opens on Nov. 14, the question will not be whether Laue can dribble, pass, block, score or rebound, but whether his opponents will underestimate his skills.
"It's to my advantage," said Laue, explaining what it's like to come onto the floor during a game and face his two-handed opponents. "They think they're going to have an easy game and just whip on some one-handed kid. But I think I've surprised a couple people out there."
Gary Johnson, the NCAA's historian, said that in the 25 years he's worked for the governing body of college sports, he had not heard of another one-handed player in men's basketball, though no records are kept on such matters.
The 19-year-old Laue, whose name rhymes with "wow," almost didn't get the chance to prove his game.
After breaking his leg in his senior year of high school in northern California, and failing to get a Division I scholarship, he played a postgraduate season at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, hoping to impress recruiters and scouts. He did, but that didn't seem to be enough, Laue said.
"No matter how well you play, you aren't good enough because you have one hand," he said with some frustration.
Offers did come to him from a handful of Division I schools, including Colgate and Wofford, he said. They could only offer a walk-on the first season, and the possibility of a scholarship if he proved himself, he said.
Manhattan, a small Catholic liberal arts school on a hillside in the Bronx, was the only school that offered a scholarship if he came to play for the Jaspers. He arrived for summer school, taking courses in ethics and religion, and hitting the courts.
"Kevin's a good player," head coach Barry Rohrssen said.
He helped recruit Laue to Manhattan, a job made easier because the school's former president, Brother Thomas Scanlan, had read about Laue in a December 2008 New York Times article, and sent Rohrssen an e-mail asking the coach if the team would be interested in recruiting him.
It turned out that Rohrssen had already heard about Laue from a former coach who had played for the same military academy as the teen from the Bay Area. Rohrssen said he reached out to Fork Union's coach, Fletcher Arritt, who highly recommended Laue.
"Most coaches take chances on players. And they'll take chances on talented kids who they feel maybe can help them win. They have bad transcripts and academic backgrounds. They're poor teammates. They've had problems off the court," Rohrssen said.
Laue, meanwhile, had an excellent academic record and a reputation for being a hard worker, the coach said.
"He's done everything right," Rohrssen said. "Why doesn't he get a chance?"
Laue said it was in seventh grade that he first became interested in basketball when a friend suggested he try out for his school's team. He didn't make the cut, but that just made him want to play even more.
On the court, he said he uses his left arm basically as nature intended: as a counterpart to his right. But he said that the best way to understand how he does it is to watch him play.
On a recent Friday morning, Laue suited up for practice at Draddy Gymnasium, where the Jaspers play home games. The gangly redhead, in his green and white No. 44 tank top, stood inches above his teammates as they gathered around coach Rohrssen for a brief pep talk.
"Everything full speed, okay?" Rohrssen told them. "A lot of heart. A lot of effort. Let's get better today."
As they began their workout, Laue became just another player. When he passed a ball, he would use his left arm to stabilize it in his right. Catching, he would use his left arm to buttress the ball's landing as he gripped it in his right hand.
Blocking shots, his long right arm would help him to knock down a ball. When he took a shot, he used his left arm to balance the ball and propel it into the air.
Time after time he proved his game.
To Laue's mother, Jodi Jarnagan, the thought of her son spending college on the opposite coast of the country made her nervous, but she understood it was an opportunity that he could not pass up. Besides, it seemed to her that this was just another bit of luck in a string of them, handed to him since birth.
It was during delivery that she learned that he was missing his left hand. The doctor told her that her son's umbilical chord was wrapped around his neck twice, the left forearm pinned between the cord and his neck. The circulation had been cut off. But to Jarnagan, what mattered was whether he could breathe.
"I was praying, 'Please, God, don't let him be brain dead,'" she said.
Laue agrees that it was more fortuitous than tragic to lose his hand. He said that if his arm hadn't been between his neck and the umbilical cord, he might have been choked to death.
"If you look at it that way, it was definitely a good trade," he said with a grin.