Zach Hodskins glides down the basketball court, whips the ball behind his back, and leaps over helpless defenders to finish a layup. The play—part of a series of highlights from Hodskins’ career as a high school basketball star—has been viewed by nearly four million people on YouTube. (The video’s uploader deems Hodskins “the most amazing basketball player you'll ever see!”).
At 17, Hodskins is a local celebrity in the small town of Alpharetta, Georgia. A senior at Milton High School, he recently accepted an offer (“verbally committed”) from the University of Florida’s elite Division I basketball program. On Twitter, Hodskins posted a flurry of news stories marking the announcement, excitedly proclaiming, “It's great to be a Florida Gator!” and retweeting those who were “inspired” by his story.
Hodskins is, by all accounts, an extraordinary athlete. But the 6’4”, 200-pound shooting guard is particularly, yes, inspiring because he was born without the lower half of his left arm. USA Today called his athleticism “mind-boggling”; his high school coach declared his skill “remarkable”; Beyoncé dedicated a blog post to him.
Indeed, watching Hodskins cradle the ball with half an arm is something to behold. He dribbles effortlessly around his opponents, the ball floating from his right fingertips to the nub of his left arm, back to his right hand; at the three-point line, he sinks a shot with a smooth release.
Overcoming a seemingly insurmountable disability to play sports at a high level isn’t an unknown phenomenon. In the 1940s, while many American baseball players were fighting in the Second World War, a one-armed baseball phenom named Pete Gray signed a contract with the St. Louis Browns, playing 77 games in the Major Leagues. In 1989, the California Angels retained the services of pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand. Abbott’s career was more successful than Gray’s; he pitched at a professional level for over a decade, once throwing a no-hitter as a member of the New York Yankees.
Watching Hodskins cradle the ball with half an arm is something to behold.
Now, as it’s becoming more common for handicapped athletes to compete with non-handicapped athletes, Hodskins isn’t the only one setting a new precedent for the future of sports. In Dearborn, Michigan, high school junior Geno Policicchio has made headlines for playing football and basketball with one arm. “He can do everything everybody else can do,” Policicchio’s football coach told the Detroit News. In 2011, Washington State’s Josh Konkler, christened “the one-armed wonder” by teammates, helped lead his team to an 8-1 record. “Even [other] coaches will come up to me and say, ‘My gosh, it’s so good you let him play,’” Konkler’s coach told a local newspaper. “Let him? He beat out other kids.”
Like Policicchio and Konkler, Hodskins has never let his disability get in the way of his dream. “It was definitely a struggle when I was younger...But this really proves that with hard work and determination you can overcome any obstacle,” he told ESPN after committing to join the Gators as a preferred walk-on—a spot which, in basketball speak, guarantees that he’ll be on the team roster and will have a better chance of playing than other non-recruits at the University of Florida. Hodskins received scholarship offers from other schools, including the University of Kentucky (his native state), but getting off the bench there seemed less feasible. “At Florida, I’m going to have every opportunity to get on the floor and play,” he said.
Once he’s out on the court, Hodskins’ game is indistinguishable from his competitors. “When I play basketball, I feel like my hand is not missing any more,” Hodskins told Cleveland’s Plain Dealer last year. “It feels like a normal person, like playing basketball with two hands. It just feels natural.”