The bio on Zach Hodskins reads like this: Walk-on who enrolled at University of Florida for the Summer B term of 2014; Has a great 3-point stroke; Able to create looks off the dribble, particularly in the open floor. It’s a basic scouting report for a 6-foot-4, 203-pound walk-on guard in college basketball. Hodskins, however, rarely receives a basic response when he sets foot on the hardwood. Hodskins was born without the lower part of his left arm, yet his basketball skills carried him through high school as a smooth shooter on powerhouse Milton High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, and now to the University of Florida where he was invited as a walk-on with the basketball team.
The freshman made his college hoops debut on November 14 when the Gators hosted William & Mary in Gainesville. With Florida comfortably ahead late in the game, head coach Billy Donovan called Hodskins’s number to check in. When the public address announcer bellowed, “No. 24, Zach Hodskins!” into the microphone, the stale crowd that was watching a blowout erupted in cheers, whistles, claps and a standing ovation. Hodskins is used to getting high praise even before he’s taken a shot. His fans cheer for him. Opposing fans applaud his efforts. Sometimes even opponents on the court show appreciation or even give him a little extra space to dribble since he is, after all, playing basketball with just one hand.
It always gives Hodskins a sneaky smile because those people don’t know what’s coming next. “That’s been the story of my life,” Hodskins said. “People see me at first at the point where I’m called in the starting lineup or walking onto the floor and they don’t know me. Halfway through the game, they realize this isn’t some sob story. This kid’s actually really good and can play with the best of them.”
Hodskins’s basketball coach at Milton High School, Matt Kramer, believed Hodskins could play from the first time he saw the kid stroke a long-range jumper. Kramer took over the Milton team during the summer leading into Hodskins’s senior year of high school. Hodskins wasn’t worried about impressing another coach or masking his disability. He knew once Kramer saw him shoot, there would be nothing to discuss.
“If Zach couldn’t play, he wouldn’t play for me,” Kramer said. “But honest to God, when I took the job and was told about him and knew I already had several college prospects, I wondered how this kid was going to get out there and play with these kids. I’m telling you, you know it immediately when you see it. He is just like everybody else.”
Hodskins has spent a lifetime trying to prove that he’s not on basketball teams just out of pity or obligation. He’s also tried to shed a label that has followed him his entire career. Google “Zach Hodskins” and nearly each of the entries identifies him as “One-handed Zach Hodskins.”
“I’m not going to say I need to prove people wrong because I don’t feel like I have to prove anything,” Hodskins said. “I’ve worked so hard in my life that I’ve gotten to the point now where people, hopefully, view me as a basketball player instead of the kid who plays with one hand.”
Developing His Touch
Hodskins started playing basketball as a young kid growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, a basketball hotbed in the heart of the country. He loved the Kentucky Wildcats and also appreciated the Indiana Hoosiers, both college basketball programs with rich histories of success on the hardwood.
Hodskins worked on his game with his father, and both realized his strength may not be driving the basketball because he could only use his right hand. So, they spent hours each evening working on his jumper from long range. The family moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, then Brentwood, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, before settling in a suburb just outside of Atlanta. Hodskins played baseball, soccer, and even learned to ride the waves on a surfboard. But basketball was his love, and he worked with his dad to perfect his game.
“We focused on my shot form and getting stronger at that,” Hodskins said. “By my sophomore year of high school, I was shooting from beyond NBA 3-point range with ease.”
Hodskins worked with his coaches along the way to develop his shot, and he worked with his dad at night. Shot after shot, he continued to strengthen his abilities until long-range shooting made Hodskins a commodity on the court in high school.
“Any time a kid is capable of shooting the ball from 24 or 25 feet, he’s going to hurt you,” Kramer said. “It makes it tough for the opposing defense to lock in and give help to other places on the floor. It’s a real luxury to have a guy like that.”
Hodskins let his shots fly his senior season for Milton. He averaged 11.8 points per game and shot 29 percent from 3-point range. Hodskins found his stroke during an eight-game stretch late in the season, dropping in nearly 23 points each time his team took the floor.
One of his fondest memories was as a junior when his shot got hot against rival Roswell and he made 8-of-10 3-pointers, feeding off the crowd and adding to the excitement in the packed gymnasium. The defense left him open at first, but that quickly changed once he began draining shots. “If an opponent doesn’t know who I am or hasn’t seen me play before, they’ll play off of me and give me shots at the start,” Hodskins said. “After a few plays, I’ll knock down shots and they start guarding me like any player.”
Work That Pays Off
Hodskins has always been willing to put in the extra time to develop his game, starting when he was putting up shots with his father every evening.
In high school, he woke up at 6:30 and got to school by 7, when he’d shoot in the gym for more than an hour until school began at 8:30. After school dismissed at 3:30, he either had basketball practice with the team or conditioning drills until 6:30. Then he went with teammates to a local gym and shot for three more hours until 9:30. He’d finish his homework, hit the bed, and do it all again the next day.
Hodskins biggest concern as he progressed through high school was dribbling to his left side. He said opponents liked to force him to the left to exploit what they perceive as a weakness.
“But as I’ve come up, I’ve always worked with coaches on moves to go left because we knew it would be coming,” Hodskins said. “I have all these counter moves to step back or step in front of them. I can usually do better when people force me left than when I go right. I’ve worked on it so much that it’s now to my advantage when they do force me left.”
It’s just another example of how Hodskins has worked hard to make sure he’s prepared to reach his dream. “People would ask why I work myself that hard, but I’m not,” Hodskins said. “It’s something I really love to do. It’s fun for me.”
Just before his senior year of high school, a highlight video of Hodskins went viral on the Internet. It showed him draining 3-pointers from all over the court. It showed him driving the lane to the basket. It showed him getting a defensive stop, then forcing a turnover. News media picked up on the story, and suddenly life became even busier for Hodskins.
His father, Bob, told GatorZone.com that the family received interview requests from media from across the United States, England, and India.
“Honestly, I was doing like three interviews a day,” Hodskins said. “People wanted to call me every day. It was wild.”
Media flocked to Alpharetta to see Hodskins practice and play. And so did college coaches. Milton already had a star-studded basketball team with a starting lineup full of NCAA Division-I prospects. Coaches came from across the country to try and lure Milton’s players to their programs. Former Milton player Mo Lewis wound up at the Naval Academy Preparatory School and plans to play for Navy next season. His younger brother, Chris Lewis, is a senior at Milton and has committed to Harvard. Shawn O’Connell is now a freshman at Georgia Southern. Coaches also came to see Hodskins, who came off the bench his senior season.
“Obviously the attention that Zach got brought people into our gym that otherwise might not have been there,” Kramer said. “So some of the other kids benefitted from that because nobody might have known who they were. People would walk into the open gym to watch and be like, ‘Wait a second. Who’s that kid?’”
The Next Level
The summer before his high school senior season, Hodskins played on his AAU basketball team that drew quite a bit of attention from college coaches. One of them was Florida’s coach Donovan.
Donovan has never had trouble filling his roster at Florida. During his 19 years as coach of the Gators, he took Florida to the Final Four on four occasions and won the 2006 and 2007 national championships. His teams have won the Southeastern Conference six times and the SEC tournament four times. Donovan, quite simply, has established Florida as a national power.
Donovan’s walk-ons know they have a role to fill. They likely won’t see a lot of playing time and won’t score a lot of points. His most successful walk-on is current senior Jacob Kurtz who has scored 56 career points, according to GatorZone.com.
Hodskins had other opportunities to play at good programs and perhaps be a leader on the floor and continue to help teams with his sweet shot. But when Donovan extended an offer for Hodskins to become a non-scholarship walk-on at Florida, he accepted because he wanted to be part of one of the most successful college basketball programs in the country.
“One day they saw me playing at an AAU tournament. That’s how it always works,” Hodskins said. “That’s what every kid hopes for, that one day you get seen by the college coach. It happened to me and it happened to be Florida. They fell in love with my game and contacted me. It was finally a dream-come-true because I had worked so hard for that moment. I was so happy to finally get an opportunity.”
In college at Florida, it’s more of the same. Hodskins juggles daily practices with the Gators, workout sessions, attending classes, and checking in at study hall. And then there are the games.
Back in that first game of the season, when Hodskins checked in he inbounded the basketball, then ran to the corner to set up for his high-powered 3-point shot. A few plays later, the basketball swung over to Hodskins. His defender was playing far away and took a step closer. Hodskins faked a 3, then drove the lane and put up a running layup. It missed.
Still, the crowds have roared each time Hodskins has touched the ball this season.
“I get that people are interested and attracted to the story because of his limitations, and I get that he’s an inspiration to a lot of people, but I don’t want that for him here,” Florida coach Donovan told GatorZone.com earlier this season. “I want him to feel like another player in our program—and I think he wants that, too. He’s not looking to be someone who is the face of overcoming obstacles. He’s a young kid who wants to be a normal kid and doesn’t want anyone to take it easy on him.” Perhaps that desire is what led Hodskins to accept a walk-on invitation from Donovan and the Gators. He feeds off of monumental challenges.
“The thing that’s made Zach great is that he’s played his entire life with that chip on his shoulder and had to overcome something that’s so visible to everybody,” Kramer said. “I’ve coached kids who are too small to play at the next level and overcome that. I’ve coached kids who are too slow to play at the next level and they’ve found ways to overcome that. There are a lot of things that could be termed ‘disabilities’ in the game of basketball because you have to be so versatile of an athlete with so many different skills to be good at it. Zach just has another obstacle to overcome. All of those things can be overcome by working hard on your individual skills. Zach, like those other kids, has done just that.”
Kramer continued: “The best complement that I can give Zach is that he’s just like everybody else. I think that’s what he’s strived for, to shed that disability and say, ‘Look at me, I can do this just like everybody else.’ And he’s done that.”
by Josh Pate
Zach Hodskins, GatorZone.com gatorzone.com/basketball/men/bios.php?year=2014&player_id=59
To Dream the Possible Dream:Walk-on Zach Hodskins Sees No Barriers gatorzone.com/story.php?id=28406