Zach Hodskins is a great basketball player; also, he has one hand
Florida coach Billy Donovan has offered Lexington native Zach Hodskins a guaranteed walk-on spot on the Gators because the high school senior at Milton is that special. On and off the court.
This is how one published scouting report on Zach Hodskins begins: "Talented player. Beautiful rotation on shot."
"Left arm cut off at the elbow."
Proof that high school senior Zach Hodskins of Milton, Ga., isn't a curiosity but a bona fide basketball player? That's your proof. For one thing, he's good enough to merit a scouting report from the Phenom Prep Report. For another, not until the third sentence does the report mention that he's missing a hand.
"That's what I've always asked for," said Hodskins, who was born without the lower half of his left arm. "I love when people say things like 'he's a ballplayer' first. Before 'he's an inspiration' or 'overcoming the odds.'"
Forget for a moment that he is an inspiration. Forget that he has overcome the odds. Watch that highlight video, this one right here, where 6-foot-4 Zach Hodskins launches 3-pointers with a follow-through straight out of a basketball textbook. Watch him carve up a defense with the dribble. Watch him whip no-look passes through traffic to teammates under the basket. Watch him do all that, understand that he averaged 11 ppg as a junior for a Georgia powerhouse, and then listen to this quote from his Milton High coach last year, Van Keys:
"Zach does things with one hand that a lot of ballplayers can't do with two," Keys said. "It's as simple as that."
It is, except for that other stuff. About the inspiration. And overcoming the odds.
• • •
You can learn a lot about a guy by reading his Twitter feed. Egomaniacs tell us what they had for lunch. Mean people tweet mean stuff. Illogical people tweet illogically.
Zach Hodskins tweets encouragement to strangers.
Hodskins' Twitter feed was a place I wanted to find Thursday when the news broke that University of Florida coach Billy Donovan had offered him a spot on the team next season as a walk-on. Does Hodskins have a Twitter feed? Yes he does, and he calls it "Z_B0." Did Hodskins confirm that offer from Florida on Twitter? Yes he did. But to get to that confirmation you have to scroll past a few conversations Hodskins was having. Like this one:
From @jakereilly2: Hey man just read about you! I'm only 3 feet 9 but tried out and made a D3 college team.
From @Z_B0: Great to hear man. Keep grinding.
From @jakereilly2: I will thanks! It's tough going against guys 3 feet taller but you inspire me!
From @Z_B0: You inspire me man, hopefully we will meet one day soon.
He's 17 years old. I read those tweets and start to think: Maybe basketball isn't the most special thing about Zach Hodskins.
• • •
It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but Zach Hodskins still occasionally goes into a gym where people have no idea how good he is. A pickup game will be announced. Sides will be picked. Hodskins will be picked last.
And he's thrilled.
"I love that," he said. "It doesn't bother me to go into a gym and they won't pick me up. I want to go into a new gym, with people who don't know me, and show them how hard I've worked."
Get that? The guy with one hand doesn't want anything given to him -- nothing more than a chance. Give him one chance on the basketball court, and he won't need another. Not after all the work he has put in since he was younger and playing basketball all day and coming home with blood dripping from his fingers because of the constant dribbling and shooting. Zach came home on those days and his mom or dad bandaged his fingers and he would go back to the gym for more.
Zach played other sports as a kid in Nashville. He played baseball -- first base and pitcher -- and made some All-Star teams. He won an age-group decathlon when he was in the sixth grade. He played soccer. He surfed. But something about basketball, the speed of the game and the physicality of it, spoke to him. Eventually Zach was scoring 30 points in middle-school games and ...
... not being picked for age-group AAU teams.
You know how it is. The hand. AAU basketball is no joke. Those teams travel. They spend money. It's competitive. And Zach, well, he doesn't have a hand.
"A couple coaches wouldn't take him," said Zach's father, Bob. "I did worry. I knew Zach wasn't gonna quit. Nobody was going to deter him. He knew where he stood, but it was finding the right people."
Then Bob Hodskins asked me a favor, the kind of thing that lets you know a sweet kid like Zach doesn't just happen. He learned from his parents. The favor Bob asked me was to give a brief shout-out to the five men who believed in Zach as a kid when those first few AAU coaches wouldn't. These men were AAU coaches and private instructors, guys who took an interest in Zach Hodskins not because of what he was missing, but because of what he had.
"They've never been mentioned," Bob Hodskins said. "But these are five men that Zach's mother and I could never repay. It's not like these guys did it for the money. They just did it for the love of the game, and the love of Zach."
So from the Hodskins family, thank you to Terrance Van Lier. And Marcus Gibbs. Mario Moore. Spencer Richardson. And Myles Thrash.
"They worked with him and put him in against older kids and they instilled that confidence in Zach: You are a shooter, and you are a player, and you can do it," Bob Hodskins said. "We can never say thank you enough."
• • •
Zach Hodskins does what the other kids do. When Milton coach Van Keys sent players through dribbling drills last season -- down the court with the left hand, back with the right -- Hodskins used his right hand down and back. When the team is in the weight room, Zach's lifting with them. They're on the bench? He grabs a dumbbell, lies down and does one-arm presses.
A one-armed pushup is difficult, but doable. A one-armed pull-up? That takes a special kind of strength. I asked Zach if he had that strength.
I asked him how many he could do.
"I don't know."
Could you do 10?
"Ten? Sure," he said. And then he giggled. As if I can't do 10 pull-ups ...
Watch that video. You'll see what the counselors at the Tubby Smith basketball camp at Kentucky saw years ago, when Zach was named MVP of the week. I asked Zach if he thought that award was given to him because, um ...
"It wasn't a pity thing," he said. "It wasn't, 'This kid is out here trying hard.' It was a true MVP. I scored the most points, you know?"
He doesn't want to brag. He only says stuff like that when I push him, like when I ask skeptically about the pull-ups or the camp MVP award. And he doesn't want to get into the conversation they're having on message boards at Kentucky right now, where Big Blue Nation is afraid this hometown kid -- Zach was a toddler in Lexington, where his father still owns properties that he rents to Kentucky students -- will take his amazing story to another SEC school. To Florida.
I asked Zach about that. If he would like to play at Rupp. Hey, it's not like he signed with Florida. The Gators offered him a spot on the team. That's as far as it goes. So I asked Zach if he's hoping Kentucky makes a similar offer.
"I'm from Kentucky," he said. "I respect their fans and I know how crazy they are about UK and stuff. But I really do love my offer right now at Florida."
That'll work itself out. For now Hodskins has a senior season to play at Milton. He has pickup games to play in the local gym. He has little kids to meet, the ones who stop what they're doing at the rec center and sit near the court to watch the guy with one hand. That has happened to Zach for years, and it used to embarrass him when the little kids would cheer every time he scored. Now he embraces it, and when the game ends he walks over to the kids and talks to them. He'll take them aside and play a little basketball with them. He'll help with their shooting form. He'll answer their questions about living with one hand. He'll show them how he ties his shoes.
Zach Hodskins is 17 years old.
He was born with something a lot of us weren't.
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