Basketball player missing forearm impressive on, off court

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 12:18 a.m.

MILTON, Ga. — Milton High School senior Zach Hodskins sized up the defender in front of him. Hodskins could sense that the overplay was coming. How many players before had tried to force him to his left, only to look foolish?

First came the jab step. Then a behind-the-back dribble with his right hand that created just enough space to launch a smooth, 20-footer toward the basket. After the shot ripped through the cord of the net, students stomped on the Milton High gym bleachers, chanting his nickname "Zee-Bo! Zee-Bo!"

Hodskins would score 33 points against Dunwoody that January night, making eight of his 11 3-point attempts, two 2-point field goals and five free throws. It was a terrific night by the standards of any high school basketball player. Yet for Hodskins, it was more remarkable, considering what he's overcome to get to this point.

Born without his left hand and forearm, Hodskins grew up with the word "can't" missing from his vocabulary. It's why next fall Hodskins plans to attend the University of Florida after being offered a preferred walk-on spot on the Gator basketball team.

Hodskins caught the eye last summer of Florida assistant basketball coach John Pelphrey at travel-league events, displaying the frenetic energy on defense, court vision and shot-making ability that made him a fit for UF's running, pressing style.

An offer to walk on came from UF's coaching staff, and Hodskins accepted in October, turning down full scholarship offers and more assured playing time from Division II schools. As a preferred walk-on, Hodskins is assured a spot on UF's team in 2014-15 as a freshman.

"I've always believed in setting the highest goal you possibly can," Hodskins said. "I never want to underestimate myself."

While the first thing noticeable about Hodskins on the court is his birth defect, the second is how hard he plays each possession on both ends of the floor. At 6-foot-4, Hodskins is an SEC-caliber athlete with a strong basketball IQ to match. He's smart enough and quick enough to get into passing lanes and create steals.

"He's one of our fiercest competitors," said first-year Milton High basketball coach Matt Kramer. "He's competitive almost to a fault. It gets to him sometimes. One of the things he's really learned to do well is channel his intensity into real positive energy on the court.

"Everyone saw the threes, but that kid is playing great defense, too," Kramer said. "He gets his hand on loose balls, he comes up with rebounds. And if you watch him run the floor, he's running the floor really, really hard, and that's what's getting him open."

How competitive is Hodskins? One of his best friends at Milton High, senior Case Roytek, is a 4.2-handicap golfer on the high school golf team.

"He says he can beat me in golf, which I've never seen him actually play golf, but he is convinced that he can," Roytek said. "Football. I've seen him catch the ball. My friend, who has a big arm, will throw it down the field, and he'll be the receiver and he'll have someone in the corner, and he'll catch it with one hand."

Said Hodskins: "It's the same thing with any kind of sport. Like video games or baseball, I play all that stuff, and nobody believes it until they see it. So I always tell Case, I'm going to beat him in golf and I'm going to prove him wrong. That's just what I kind of do with basketball. It's just the chip on my shoulder to want to prove people wrong and get out there and show them that I can do everything."

Overcoming obstacles

Bob and Stephanie Hodskins didn't know that Zach, the youngest of their three children, would be born with his left arm rounded at the elbow. Growing up, Zach's parents insisted that he would be raised like his two older sisters.

That meant using his own utensils at the dinner table. Stephanie Hodskins was concerned about how her son would tie his own sneakers, but in second grade, while watching someone with a similar birth defect, he learned to tie his sneakers with one hand.

"He found out very early there was nothing he couldn't do, and we let him do anything he wanted," Stephanie Hodskins said. "He figured it all out. It just all came natural to him. He just found a way."

Sports instantly became an outlet for Zach.

"He was just a born athlete," Bob Hodskins said. "Outside all day, playing anything he could. He'd surf, skimboard, baseball, anything. He played it all."

But when the Hodskins family moved from Hilton Head, S.C., to Nashville, Tenn., Zach gravitated toward basketball.

"He figured out he could play basketball year-round, and that was it — that was his first love," Bob Hodskins said. "He loved the energy and the competition. He just loved the game."

All those crossover moves and behind-the-back dribbles with his right hand? Bob Hodskins said Zach worked on those countless hours with the family backyard hoop, sometimes while playing against his older sisters.

His older sister Logan, a former high school basketball standout in Nashville who is now a sophomore at Samford University, said the one-on-one games could be either really fun or really competitive, depending on how the two were feeling that day.

When sister Lauren was a senior in high school, she managed to beat Zach in a 3-point shooting contest.

"Everyone else sees it from an objective point of view, saying 'Wow, this is amazing,'?" Lauren said. "But I've never really thought of him as being different. I've just seen him how he is ... he's amazing because he's my brother, and he works really hard."

Inspiration to others

Two years ago, Zach Hodskins' family moved from Nashville to Milton, Ga., to expose him to a higher level of competition in high school. Last summer, after Hodskins received the walk-on offer from UF, he became an Internet sensation.

His highlight video on YouTube, featuring long 3-pointers, behind-the-back dribbles and bullet passes to teammates, has generated more than 4 million clicks. Celebrities congratulated him on Twitter. Michael Jordan retweeted his highlight video. Beyonce did, too, calling Hodskins "an inspiration."

Interview requests poured in from CNN, "Good Morning America" and other national news outlets. Pretty heady stuff for a 17-year-old. (Hodskins turned 18 on Feb. 16, days before Milton was knocked out of the state high school playoffs.)

Early in his senior high school basketball season, Hodskins said he was crumbling under the weight of expectations, so he started turning down national interview requests and shut down his Twitter account.

"Social media is such a selfish thing, I think," Hodskins said. "It's a good thing, in good ways. But sometimes it can make you feel selfish. And I started to feel that with a lot of attention, and I just wanted to focus on being a good person and playing with my teammates and being a good player.

"So I deleted all that stuff and got my mind set on basketball knowing that fans will still be there and everything," Hodskins said. "I intend to turn it back on once I go to Florida, but right now, it's a good time to just kind of focus on basketball."

Hodskins has preferred to make his impact face to face. Following the Dunwoody game, a 7-year-old from nearby Duluth, Ga., Jossef Santibanez, came down to the court to meet Hodskins and get his autograph. Like Hodskins, Jossef was born with his left arm rounded at the elbow.

Close to 120,000 children in the United States are born with birth defects each year, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hodskins said his goal is to touch as many of those lives as possible. Over the past few months, he has spoken at dozens of elementary schools in the Atlanta area, in classes with students with birth defects.

"I love when they come and see me," Hodskins said. "It makes me feel so good just to know that kid is going to be better off because he saw me play basketball. I do anything I can to help them."

How much of an impact Hodskins will make at Florida remains to be seen. Under NCAA rules, Florida coaches can't talk about Hodskins until he's enrolled at UF. Hodskins said Pelphrey keeps in touch with him on a regular basis.

Earlier in January, when Hodskins made six 3-pointers against rival Wheeler, Florida assistant coach Rashon Burno paid Hodskins a visit.

Bob Hodskins said that when his son visited UF's campus last fall, Florida coach Billy Donovan made him feel like a five-star recruit. Donovan also made it clear that Hodskins wasn't being offered a spot on the team for publicity reasons. He was being offered the spot because Donovan believed Hodskins could contribute to UF's success.

"We know it takes a special coach to give Zach the chance he wanted," Bob Hodskins said. "A coach that's secure and a coach that's confident enough. You can see tonight, he can shoot, he can play at any level given the chance. It will take time, but I think Billy and John especially have enough confidence in him where he may help."

Off the court, close friend Roytek says Hodskins is a typical teen who likes to chase girls and hang out with friends. "One of the bros," Roytek said.

But while Hodskins insists he wants no special treatment from his friends, family or teammates, Roytek said classmates at Milton can't help but admire his accomplishments.

"He's definitely really an inspiring guy," Roytek said. "Everyone in America is really inspired by him. And I'm going to say that I am, too. He doesn't really have the opportunity that we all do — he's got one arm; he's probably like better than average with his one arm.

"He can do anything," Roytek continued. "It doesn't hold him back, and I tell him that. He'll get down on himself every now and then, but he is truly a great character all the way around."

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