RIVERDALE, N.Y. -- After a recent workout, Manhattan College freshman Kevin Laue had a dot of discoloration on the bottom of his right middle finger and five calluses covered his coarsened palm. They were wounds of overuse; he had just dunked more than 40 times. "I better not wear this sucker out," the 6-foot-11 center said. "I only have one."
Laue was born without a left hand. He also came into the world silently, unable to cry because his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. Doctors surmised that he had been able to survive in the womb because his left arm had wedged between the cord and his throat. That stunted the development of the arm -- which is fully formed to the elbow -- but it kept him alive. "A hand or your life?" says Laue. "Easy trade."
The one-handed Laue found a way to draw attention as a post-graduate student at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy last winter, but he also proved he was no novelty act. Against Brewster Academy (Wolfeboro, N.H.) at the National Prep Showcase last November, Laue -- who pins passes with his left arm and right hand -- scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked five shots against a frontcourt that featured players who had committed to Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas. Later in the tournament, a coach told his players to foul Laue twice at the end of the second half. He converted four free throws to seal the win. The crowd rose in applause. "The only question was whether a [D-I] coach had the guts to pull the trigger," says Fork Union coach Fletcher Arritt.
Laue has made a habit of overcoming challenges. He was cut from a school basketball team in the seventh grade, but persevered later that year when he played for the Tri-Valley Outlawz -- an AAU team in neighboring Livermore, Calif. There, Laue met Patrick McKnight, a disciplinarian who had him perform pushups with his right hand spread from his nub on hardwood. Laue, who battled asthma, ran suicide drills until one summer day he forgot his inhaler. Only 10 players showed for the scrimmage and after a half hour he hyperventilated. When teammates found him, he was in the midst of an attack and was rushed to the nearby hospital.
At Amador Valley High, Laue refused to wear a prosthetic, proved he could hit open jumpers and developed into a ferocious shot blocker. He had three coaches in four seasons, grew like a weed and suffered through osgood-schlatter -- a disease common in teens going through growth spurts. "It looked like he had two knees," said his mother, Jodi.
He held no college offers, though, and was unsure of his standing. But in 2005, Franklin Martin, then a fortysomething filmmaker substituting as the coach of a friend's team, approached McKnight after a game and told him he wanted to work with Laue. "Kevin looked apologetic for being on the court," he said.
Martin had been an assistant coach at Fordham and Tennessee State and worked out NBA prospects for the draft to help support his independent film career. When he first contacted Jodi Laue, the daughter of two cops was skeptical of his motivations, but she researched his background and flew her son to Los Angeles for a workout. Laue went up against first-round pick Yi Jianlian and fared well. Five months in, Martin began rolling cameras on what has amounted to 150 hours of tape for a documentary.
More and more, Laue leaned on Martin. The former coach counseled him not to settle for San Francisco State. Instead, he could improve with a year at prep school. So Laue enrolled at Martin's alma mater, Fork Union, which has produced more than 150 Division I players. Administrators were uncertain how a kid with one arm would shine his shoes or fire a rifle, but opened its doors anyway. "I wasn't finished chasing my dream," he says.
Recruiters remained reluctant to offer a scholarship, but Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen was given a green light by his bosses last December. Brother Thomas Scanlan -- then the Manhattan president and now an emeritus on a year's sabbatical -- emailed an article on Laue from The New York Times to athletic director Bob Byrnes. "Would we be interested in recruiting him?" Scanlan asked.
"I thought one of the things we lacked was grit and determination," Byrnes said. "Kevin could inspire our players and students in general with his fight."
In April, guard Chris Smith informed Rohrssen he was transferring. Scanlan considered it "divine intervention." Laue, who had a 4.0 GPA and rose to flagbearer status at Fork Union, was available.
Jodi Laue had sent her son across the country before, but New York was different. The day after Manhattan offered, the FBI uncovered a terrorist plot to bomb a synagogue less than a mile from campus. Colgate, located in a remote section of upstate New York, seemed a safer bet but only offering a possible scholarship down the road.
Before visiting Colgate, the family celebrated graduation at a hotel outside Washington, D.C. Kevin Laue left the room with two Fed Ex envelopes and did not say which school he was committing to. When he returned, he said it was Manhattan.
During his official visit last May, Rohrssen took Laue on the subway to Ground Zero, where he told the 19-year-old, "What happened across the street was a tragedy. What happened to you is unfortunate. You'll be judged for what you do with this opportunity."
Laue's transition to campus has been seamless so far. He has a girlfriend, ingratiated himself well with his teammates and impressed coaches with tireless play. During one practice, he guarded a teammate on the perimeter, poked the ball away and chased after it down the court. He took four dribbles before being caught. He wasn't in position to dunk so he stopped by the right block, threw a behind-the-back pass to a trailer who converted a layup. "Dude," said an on-looking student. "That was a one-handed break."