Brandon Watkins, who has two prosthetic legs and six fingers, practices with his teammates Feb. 11, 2005, in Madison, Wis. Watkins is one of 13 members on the men's basketball team at Madison Area Technical College. During the regular season, Watkins got into 13 of 20 games and made 5-of-9 field goals, including four 3-pointers. He grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists and grabbed two steals.
AP Photo/Andy Manis
MADISON, Wis. When Scot Vesterdahl, the basketball coach at Madison Area Technical College, opened the gym for tryouts he knew Brandon Watkins would have his work cut out for him.
Watkins was born with three fingers on each hand. Then Watkins took off his sweats, and Vesterdahl did a double take: Watkins was standing on prosthetic legs.
''When you look at him it's an inspiration to see a young person that's going through those kinds of challenges,'' Vesterdahl said. ''When you think about it, it's not about putting your shoes on for practice, it's about putting your legs on. And that in and of itself is fantastic.''
But did he have game? And could he actually play junior college basketball?
Vesterdahl would soon find out.
''Every time I'd seen him, he either had sweat pants or pants on, I had no idea. You could obviously see his hands and his fingers and the challenges he has there, but I had never seen the prosthetics until the first night of tryouts,'' Vesterdahl said.
Watkins was born with clubbed feet so disfigured doctors had to amputate them below the knees when he was 2. His prosthetics are decorated now with the landscapes of New York, Chicago and Seattle. But that wasn't what drew everybody's attention.
Watkins hustled up and down the floor. He stayed with his man on defense, he could jump, he could shoot. If he hadn't shed his sweat pants, nobody ever would have known he didn't have legs, Vesterdahl said.
That night, Vesterdahl and his assistants began to seriously consider Watkins for a roster spot, and by the second night of tryouts, they decided he would make the team.
''Does he deserve it? Yes, he does,'' Vesterdahl said. ''Just based on hustle, how he got along with his teammates, attitude on the floor, all those things. Besides, he has basketball ability.''
Co-captain Jacob Keller calls him a ''true inspiration.''
''He's always the first one to compliment us, he's always the first one off the bench when timeouts are called,'' he said. ''And when he gets in a game and makes a shot, it doesn't matter if it's an away crowd or a home crowd, they all stand up and cheer for him.''
The WolfPack reached the playoffs with a 22-5 record and Watkins got into half the games. Overall, the 6-foot-1 freshman forward made 5-of-9 shots, including four 3-pointers, in addition to five rebounds, four assists and two steals.
''At the end of a game, if he gets in, if he makes a basket, you would think we've won the NBA championship,'' Vesterdahl said.
It's been a big adjustment for Watkins, going from the kid who was always teased to big man on campus. Watkins first played hoops when he was 8 and watched friends and family play on a church playground in Chicago. He taught himself to shoot and dribble between his legs. And he watched all the basketball he could on TV.
''I copied what other people did and I got better and better,'' he said. ''Now, people tell me if I was normal, I'd probably be in the NBA or something like that.''
At 11, he moved to Milwaukee, where he played in middle school. He served as team manager for his first three years at Milwaukee Madison High School, then tried out his senior year. After playing just 30 seconds during the first month of the season, he quit the team to focus on Special Olympics. He never figured his basketball dream was done.
''Oh, no, to tell you the truth, I visualized all this was going to happen. I'm going to have a movie, too,'' said Watkins. ''That's going to happen. I know it is. I want Cuba Gooding Jr. to play me. He kind of looks like me and he did good in 'Radio,' so I think he could play me.''
Watkins refuses to let his teammates think of him as physically challenged.
''We're not going to get better if you take it easy on me,'' he said. ''You play your game, I'll play my game and we're going to see who comes out the best.''
Some opponents early in the season made the mistake of taking it easy on him.
''At first, they were like, 'Oh, he ain't got no game,' and I'd score and the crowd would go so crazy they'd be like, 'Oh, man, we can't let him score again. The crowd is going to be so hyped.'''
Now, he gets no free passes, no easy shots.
''Hey, I'm not a complainer,'' he said. ''The Lord has blessed me with so much.''
It's those around him who consider themselves fortunate.
''Watching how hard he works,'' said Keller, the co-captain, ''it just pushes us to work that much harder.''
And enjoy the journey that much more.
''I'm not sure that he hasn't taught me more about life than I've taught him about basketball,'' Vesterdahl said.
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