Laue’s drive can’t be denied
Nearly every day, Kevin Laue receives a letter from a stranger.
Italy, California, Texas, France. Last week he even heard from the father of a newborn from New York City, whose child has only one hand.
It’s the same condition suffered by Laue.
“He and his wife had their kid three weeks ago,” Laue said. “He said this was the first time since his baby was born that he’s been happy, because he heard my story and realizes his kid could do anything.”
“It’s almost overwhelming,” he said, “to have this kind of effect on so many people.”
Although he’s yet to play a game, Laue recently became one of the most inspirational stories in college basketball when he signed a national letter of intent with Manhattan College.
Laue has dealt with the condition since birth, when his left arm was wedged between the umbilical cord and his head. While the situation kept the circulation to Laue’s brain from being cut off, it also stopped the blood flow in his arm, which stunted its growth.
Laue, now 6-foot-11, refuses to let his disability affect him – especially when it comes to basketball.
Just ask touted Kansas signee Thomas Robinson, whose prep school team lost to Laue’s squad last season.
“He’s big and he’s strong and he plays with heart,” Robinson said. “He had a great game against us. To me he’s legit – even with one hand.”
On offense, Laue – who is missing most of his left forearm – keeps the ball away from defenders by waving it over his head like a water polo player. He scores most of his points on hook shots and put-backs.
When the 232-pound Laue is on defense, he checks the man he’s guarding by sticking his left arm into the player’s back.
“It only takes one hand to block a shot, and he’s as good at it as anyone,” said Fletcher Arritt, who coached Laue at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. “The kid is a monster. If he had two hands he’d be at Kentucky or North Carolina right now, and we wouldn’t even be talking.”
Instead Laue is headed to Manhattan, where he’s simply thankful to be getting a chance.
In some ways, the events that led to Kevin Laue receiving a Division-I scholarship offer began 16 years ago, on a baseball field.
Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen still remembers watching the television in his living room that day as New York Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. Abbott only has one hand.
“It was one of the most inspiring things I’d ever witnessed,” Rohrssen said. “I just remember thinking, ‘I’m one of the thousands of people who just witnessed this no-hitter because someone took a chance on Jim Abbott. Who was the person that believed in him? Who was the person that gave him his chance?’ ”
– Fletcher Arritt, who coached Laue at Fork Union Military Academy
Years later, Rohrssen said he thought of Abbott when he heard about Laue.
“It just made sense to me to try to be that person for [Laue],” Rohrssen said. “This opportunity is going to help more people than Kevin. He’s going to be a source of motivation and inspiration for thousands of others. Not just people with disabilities, but everyone.”
There was a time when it seemed as if Laue wouldn’t have to wait so long before catching his big break.
After deciding in middle school that earning a Division-I basketball scholarship would be his No. 1 goal, Laue began doing everything he could to enhance his chances of achieving his dream.
Shooting and ball-handling drills when no one else was around, weightlifting sessions and conditioning exercises … Laue dedicated his life to improving his game. Heck, as an eighth-grader, Laue was on five different teams.
“In the back of their minds, everyone knows what it takes to get what they want,” Laue said. “The question is whether they’re willing to actually do those things and put in the time. Because of the extra obstacle I was facing with my [arm], I just had to work harder than most people.”
Things were looking good for Laue entering his senior season at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif. A handful of colleges were showing interest, and then-President George Bush had asked to meet Laue after reading about the player in Sports Illustrated.
Unfortunately, just when everything appeared to be going his way, things took a turn for the worse for Laue.
Hours after shaking the President’s hand on the runway of the San Francisco airport, Laue broke his leg during a game and missed the remainder of the season. Recruiters stopped calling. His chances of playing college basketball appeared all but finished.
“That’s what everyone thought,” said Frank Martin, Laue’s AAU coach. “But Kevin wouldn’t let [his dream] die.”
Along with coaching Laue in the offseason, Martin was an independent filmmaker who had been shooting a documentary on Laue. Impressed with how dedicated and serious Laue was about playing at the next level, Martin made a cross-country call to Arritt, whom he had played for at Fork Union in the early 1980s alongside former first-round draft pick Chris Washburn.
“Coach,” Martin told Arritt, “I’m going to bring a player out there to meet you, but I’m letting you know now that he only has one hand.”
“One hand?” Arritt responded. “I’ve got enough problems with the players here that have two hands!”
All joking aside, once Arritt saw Laue, he knew he had something special.
“He had that big old catcher’s mitt of a hand,” Arritt said. “Seriously, when he held the ball, it looked like he was holding a grapefruit. His toes were about to come out of his size-17 shoes, and you could tell he played with a mean streak.
“Plus, the kid is nearly 6-11. They just don’t make many of them like that.”
With nowhere else to play, Laue enrolled at Fork Union to play for Arritt, who has sent more than 150 players to Division-I universities in his 39 years as a coach.
Fork Union is a strict military school that prohibits cell phones and requires its students to wake up at 5:30 a.m. each morning. While it’s not uncommon for college basketball prospects to spend a year at a prep or military school to improve their grades or enhance their game, Laue’s goals were different.
“Kevin went there just so he could be seen, so he could be recruited,” Rohrssen said. “If he wasn’t determined, he wouldn’t have put himself through that. He could’ve accepted playing a different level of basketball at a different college.
“But he put himself through an additional year of school – thousands of miles away from home, at his own expense – with the hope that it’d get him to Division I. Take all that into consideration and tell me that this kid doesn’t deserve a chance.”
With Laue helping to set the tone, Fork Union posted a 20-10 record in 2008-09 against some tough competition.
One night it was the JV squad at North Carolina, the next it was a physical test against West Point. Whether it was a practice or a game, Laue said he was on the court six days a week during his time at Fork Union.
The hard work paid off in victories against Robinson and No. 1-ranked Brewster Academy. Fork Union also defeated the country’s fifth-ranked team.
“I got 100 percent better,” said Laue, who averaged about 10 points and five rebounds. “I feel like I became a totally different player.”
– Kevin Laue
Still, as much as he was improving, Laue was seen as nothing more than a novelty by the Division-I coaches who came to recruit his teammates. Laue believes he knows the reason why he was ignored.
“Basketball is a business,” Laue said. “Even the ones who may have wanted to sign me … they were probably afraid they’d get fired if things didn’t work out.”
Even today, Arritt turns sour when he discusses the lack of attention Laue received from college recruiters.
“He had a great attitude,” Arritt said. “He came in and worked hard and he put up good numbers. But I can’t tell you the number of people who were frightened over the fact that he had one hand.
“He played some phenomenal games, yet no one ever knocked on the dressing room door and said, ‘I’d like to recruit that kid.’ No one even came close.”
The season ended in March, and Laue wasn’t sure what would come next. Arritt called Wofford head coach and Fork Union alum Mike Young about Laue, and Young told him he could get him into school and perhaps place Laue on scholarship the following year. Colgate made a similar offer.
Neither situation, though, seemed like as good of a fit as Manhattan College, where Brother Thomas Scanlon, the school’s president, had read a story about Laue in the New York Times. Scanlon showed the article to Rohrssen and asked if he planned to recruit Laue.
Turns out Rohrssen had already begun the process.
“Fletcher Arritt told me he’d take [Laue] and put him on any of the great teams he’s ever coached,” said Rohrssen, whose team went 16-14 last year. That says a lot.
“There are a lot of kids out there that coaches take chances on. Some have poor academic histories. Others are difficult to coach or have off-court problems. A lot of those kids take things for granted, whereas Kevin appears to be the type of person who will make the most of this opportunity.”
With only one other player taller than 6-11, Laue will be the second-biggest player in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference next season. Martin, the AAU coach, said Laue has “high-major talent” when it comes to shot-blocking and defense. That alone, he said, should earn him some playing time.
Martin is still trying to come up with a title for his documentary on Laue, which he hopes to show at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.
“This isn’t the story of some guy that went to a little high school, and a coach saw him and signed him because he thought it’d make for a good story,” Martin said. “He played at the highest level of basketball there is – and he beat those guys.
“Things like that sometimes get overlooked because of his disability, and that frustrates him. Kevin would rather be getting the MVP award than the sportsmanship award. He laughs whenever he gets the sportsmanship award. He calls it the ‘handicap award.’ He doesn’t want that award. He wants the ‘outstanding rebounder’ trophy.”
Laue said he plans to spend most of the summer catching up with friends and family in his native California before beginning his career in earnest when he enrolls at Manhattan in August.
“I’m not trying to be cocky, but Coach Rohrssen doesn’t have anything to worry about,” Laue said. “I’m going to go out there and put in the work during the preseason and give 100 percent all year.
“He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I want to repay the favor.”
In the meantime, Laue continues to respond to the nearly 100 emails he’s received on Facebook since his story became public. Sometimes he said he feels bad because it often takes him a week or two to get back with people, but he wants them to know that he reads each letter and is moved by every one.
“Some of them are so powerful,” Laue said. “I want to make sure I take my time and think things out before I write back, because they mean so much to me. One guy wrote the other day and said, ‘Remember, you’re not just out there playing for yourself, you’re playing for all of us, too.’ “
Laue stopped to collect his thoughts.
“You know,” he said, “I never asked to be put in this situation. But now that I have the opportunity to reach all these people … it’s just a blessing. It’s the main thing that fuels me.”