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February 25, 2009

One-Handed Basketball Player, Defies The Odds

When an old friend called Fork Union Military Academy basketball coach Fletcher Arritt and asked him to take a look at a one-armed player he was bringing by for a tryout, the veteran coach was less than enthusiastic.

"I told the guy that I didn't want to get involved," Arritt remembered telling Frank Martin, who played on Arritt's postgraduate team in 1983. "I've got enough trouble dealing with kids that have two hands."

It didn't take long for Kevin Laue to change Arritt's mind. The 6-foot-10 center glided down the court, slapped his opposition's shots into the stands at empty Thompson gym, ripped rebounds off the backboard and drilled in nasty jump hooks.

The big Californian played so well that observers overlooked the fact that Laue's left arm stops about one inch below his elbow.

"A few guys came in after the workout and said, 'Coach, you need to take him, he's pretty good,'" the longtime Fork Union coach said.

Arritt, who has sent plenty of his players to major college teams and on to the NBA, has always had a nose for talent. The more he thought about the possibility, Arritt a man of strong faith believed Laue was sent to him for a reason.

"I thought to myself, 'What other place is going to give this guy a chance to play Division I basketball ... what better place than Fork Union?'" Arritt said. "I took him because I thought he could help us, not because I thought he was a charity case. He's a player."

Fast forward to Friday evening's FUMA victory over Princeton University's junior varsity squad, raising the Blue Devils' postgrad team's record to 18-10. Arritt has attributed much of this squad's success to Laue, the kid he originally wasn't interested in meeting.

Bringing Laue into the Fork Union family is one of the best things Arritt believes he's ever done.

"He's a monster in there," the coach said with a smile. "He's got a right hand that's as big as a catcher's mitt, he doesn't fumble the ball to any great degree, he alters shots, he's charismatic. He's a good student, a gentleman, and represents the Academy as much as anybody. He's been nothing but a blessing since he came walking in that door."

Standing just shy of seven feet and weighing in at around 230 pounds, Laue has put together a more than impressive extra season of basketball following a strong career at Amador Valley High in Pleasanton, Calif., a major suburb of the San Francisco Bay area. After suffering a broken leg in his last regular season game of his senior year at Amador, he wasn't satisfied with the list of schools seeking his basketball services and decided a year at prep school might help.

Enter Martin, who had coached Laue in AAU ball, and his obvious connections to Fork Union, where he played alongside former N.C. State standout Chris Washburn a quarter-century ago.

It didn't matter to Laue if he had to go clear across the country in order to extend his hoops dream. Laue had been overcoming obstacles all his life, so what did one more matter?

"Kevin was cut from his seventh grade team, but came back and made eighth grade. Then, later, a J.V. coach told him that he could never play varsity basketball unless he used a prosthetic arm," Laue's mother, Jodi, said. "He tried one but couldn't adjust to it and made it to the varsity anyway and was named captain. Every year he's been told, 'You can't play at this level.' Each time he's overcome it."

The youngster is hoping now that some college basketball coach will take a chance on him, just like Arritt.

Laue's life has been about overcoming obstacles since birth when his arm was wedged between the umbilical cord and his neck, preventing the circulation to his brain from being cut off. However, it also stopped the flow of blood to his arm.

Laue is able to laugh about it now, often telling classmates that a shark bit off his arm when he was surfing, and sometimes jokes about his complicated birth, "It was either my head or my arm. Good trade, huh?"

The fact he didn't have half his left arm never stopped him from excelling. He played soccer, football and baseball before moving to basketball when the growth spurts started.

"I grew five inches in one year ... and that was ridiculous," Laue said about his awkwardness.

He took up snowboarding, too, until his feet grew so large size 17 that he could not longer find equipment that fit.

Along the way, Jodi decided not to raise her son with any disadvantage. She refused to buy him Velcro shoes or slip-on pants. Laue learned how to tie his shoes just like the other kids his age.

"There were a lot of blessings and some heartaches that came along with all of that," said Jodi, who along with Kevin's stepfather, Jim Jarnagin, never missed a game until the move across the country.

One of the toughest was that seventh grade year when he was cut from the team.

"That's a delicate age for any kid, getting a pimple, wearing the right brand of shoes, were just challenges in themselves," she said. "Having a seventh grader who was 6-foot-8, trying to fit in and having bright red hair on top of it all, wasn't easy. But his personality and heart made up for it."

He was a solid high school player and has continued to play some strong basketball at Fork Union where he traded in his floppy red hair for a military cut.

"He has one arm. So what?" said former Amador Valley coach Rob Collins. "He's an amazing dude. Some guys with two arms can't do what he does."

Arritt has discovered that as well. Against prep powerhouse Brewster Academy power forward Thomas Robinson who has committed to defending NCAA champion Kansas Laue more than held his own.

"They were supposed to be ranked No. 1 in the nation's prep schools, but we beat them by 20," Laue said of the upset over Brewster. "The guy I played against was signing autographs before the game, so I figured he must be a big-time player."

Laue held Robinson to four points, while Laue scored 11.

"I got a lot of handshakes after the game, but I didn't get too many letters," Laue said. "That doesn't make too much sense to me."

The youngster is clearly frustrated that he outplays two-armed opponents, yet college coaches treat him like a leper.

"I played the same against Hargrave, against UNC Charlotte, other schools and the same thing," he said. "I can be as good or better than the next guy, but coaches are safer with the next guy."

Arritt said he understands each side of the scenario. Coaches from around the country call his office looking for a skilled big man. He tells them about Laue. They check his grades (3.67 GPA in high school and straight A's at FUMA), some come see him play and watch him drop in 20 points while splitting half the game with another player at the center position.

"Doesn't matter," Laue says, the dejection surfacing to his young face. "I'm in the dark as to where I'm going to be next year."

Arritt firmly believes that Laue can play low to mid-major Division I basketball, and he's not alone. National recruiting analyst Dave Telep said there's no question Laue would be a D-I prospect if he had two hands.

"It's going to take a Division I team with some courage to give him the chance to prove himself," Telep said. "But he's a legitimate talent."

Arritt has been working hard all season in trying to find a way to get his big center to the next level. He has an offer from Division III Hamilton College, but Laue's dreams are bigger.

"I think everybody is scared to death to recruit him," Arritt said. "I've had one call on him. He has played some phenomenal games. He's intimidating around the basket. In that game against Brewster and the Kansas kid, he had 11 points, five rebounds and five blocked shots in 25 minutes."

Laue doesn't keep track of his exact statistics as a Blue Devil, so when his coach entered the room and was asked what the numbers were, it went like this:

"Oh, put down 10 points, five rebounds," said Arritt, who is much more concerned about team play and winning than he is statistics, accurate or inaccurate.

"Then it's 10 and five," Laue smiled.

Hey, it's a military school.

So, what do college coaches say after they've watched the big redhead?

"They don't say anything," Arritt said. "I know it's sensitive, but they don't even say, 'Boy, he's a nice-looking kid. They just totally stay away from it."

After investigating through some friends in the business who have watched Laue play, Arritt's theory is that if a Division I coach takes him and he doesn't perform well, then that coach will be looked upon as incompetent by fans. With enormous pressure on coaches to succeed today, the veteran FUMA coach understands that's part of the game.

Several Division I coaches contacted confirmed Arritt's theory.

Arritt is using the same philosophy with the recruitment of Laue as he did when he asked out girls in high school.

"I always say, if you want to take a beautiful girl to the prom, you ask about 20 or 25," Arritt chuckles. "You only have to get one 'yes.'"

With Fork Union's season quickly winding down, Laue is hoping time is not running out on his dream.

He isn't giving up. It's not in his vocabulary.

"Some people see me as having a disability, but you get what you're dealt," Laue said. "I'm thankful to God that I have what I have. I've seen so many people worse off than me.

"I think I have it pretty well off," he continued. "I'm privileged to be born in this country and to have parents who love me. I'm definitely blessed. I wouldn't trade all of that for a left hand."

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