Friday, May 29, 2009

Jim Abbott continues to be a star in the eyes of disabled athletes

From The New York Times:

Amazing, Jim Abbott said, responding to the news of a prospective Division I basketball player who has only one hand. Simply amazing and, he added, a profound example of why the achievement ceiling for the disabled athlete tends to be higher than most people think, even for one standing 6 feet 10 inches.

Kevin Laue, the center from California who this week accepted a scholarship to play for Manhattan College next season, was inspired by tales of Abbott — a major league pitcher for 10 years who was born without a right hand. In turn, Abbott was intrigued several months ago when he first heard about Laue.

For years, Abbott said, he has been a magnet for such stories, countless letters and e-mail messages finding their way to him from those wanting to say thank you, you motivated me, here’s what I’ve done.

Why not? Abbott (pictured) pitched and played quarterback in high school, starred on the mound at the University of Michigan, won the gold-medal game for the United States in the 1988 Summer Olympics and threw a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993.

His ability to maneuver his glove from right forearm to left hand after unleashing a pitch and back again after fielding a ball and needing to make a quick throw was an act of human adaptation to behold, even as he made it look much too easy.

“But to think that this kid can go and play at such a high level in a sport that pretty much requires two hands to dribble, that’s really impressive,” Abbott said of Laue.

In a telephone interview, he added that he could relate to Laue’s degree of difficulty, to some extent. A pitcher and quarterback at Flint Central High School in Michigan, Abbott loved basketball, too, and didn’t let his disability keep him from walking into the gymnasium for ninth-grade tryouts in a city whose players bore no bodily resemblance to Michael Moore, its celebrated filmmaker.

“It’s a tough town,” Abbott said, “and we’ve had some unbelievable players come out of Flint.”

One of them, an Abbott classmate and friend at Flint Central and later at Michigan, was Glen Rice, who made a few jump shots in his time while winning the 1989 N.C.A.A. title with the Wolverines and another in the N.B.A. with the Lakers in 2000.
A long way from the midsize guard he might have been at a full-grown 6-foot-3, Abbott was cut from the freshman team. But he soon had his own athletic pedigree and became a regular in gym class when Rice and the chosen ones held court.

“I don’t want to overstate my abilities, but I played every day with Glen Rice in high school, and I honestly felt I could hold my own in that atmosphere,” Abbott said. “I understand the challenge. Definitely the biggest problem was when a player would force me away from my left hand, changing direction.

“I mean, how do I go right? I don’t know how someone makes up for that at a D-1 level. I’m looking forward to seeing Kevin Laue play. If he succeeds, he is going to make a lot of people with disabilities think, I can do that, too.”

Or maybe just do something, athletic or otherwise, that doesn’t seem feasible when disbelief reigns, self-imposed or assumed by others.

“I think the most important aspect is that there are visible positive role models for the disabled, so they are willing to challenge themselves,” said Doug Pringle, president of the Far West chapter of Disabled Sports USA.

The organization, with 90 chapters nationwide, creates programs not necessarily to develop Paralympics athletes but, as Pringle said, “to make the disabled believe we can do a hell of a lot more than you think we can.”

A Vietnam veteran, he returned from Southeast Asia in the late 1960s after having one leg amputated. “My self-image was shattered,” he said. “And back then, it was like, ‘Hey, man, you’re ruined.’ ”

Pringle became a three-time national champion slalom skier and an activist in the movement to create what evolved into the Paralympics.

“Learning to ski on one leg changed my life,” he said. “It made people look at me differently. I think that is the benefit when you’re talking about a kid good enough to play college basketball or a Jim Abbott — changing expectations.”

Pete Gray made a name for himself as a one-armed wartime major league outfielder, but Abbott was front and center in the television age. The Manhattan coach, Barry Rohrssen, thought of Abbott when Brother Thomas J. Scanlan, the college president, showed him an article about Laue, who was playing at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, and asked him to consider a recruiting pitch.

In turn, hearing about Laue’s scholarship made Abbott fondly recall “the people at Michigan who gave me the same chance.” Last month, he was back in Ann Arbor with his wife and two daughters to have his jersey, No. 31, retired.

The ceremony, he said, made him feel 7 feet tall.