Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story is a film by Franklin Martin, Produced by Dutchmen Films. Here, he tells the story behind the film, how he met Kevin Laue.
During the summer of 2006, I was deep into editing my first film, Walking On Dead Fish. We were working twelve-hour days, six days a week, when the owner of the editing facility and my executive producer, Stan Cassio, asked if I would coach his son's AAU team in a tournament that was coming up in Las Vegas. First off, let me say, I'm not a big Vegas guy, and I'm definitely not a big Vegas guy in the middle of 110-degree temperatures of mid-July. Secondly, I prefer to stay away from AAU Basketball as much as possible. Don't get me wrong, there are some great AAU coaches, but 90% of them are the reason I got out of college coaching in the first place, so there was no way I was accepting this offer. Unfortunately, Stan knew I'd been a NCAA Division One Coach and ran a NBA camp with Hall of Fame Center, Bill Walton. So, each day he'd ask again. And each day, I'd decline. Finally, two days before the tournament, still without a coach, my editor urged me to go. I think I was driving him crazy trying to figure out the second act and he needed some space, so the next thing you know, I'm in the mid-summer Vegas heat coaching a bunch of 17-year olds.
On the second day of the tournament we drew a team from Northern California, The Outlawz. For my money, it was the perfect name for an AAU team. As I waited for them to arrive, I knew they'd be late. I was anticipating a bunch of kids who wanted to be 'Outlaws'! Much to my chagrin, they strolled into the gym—early, not late. It was obvious that their coach, Patrick McKnight, had them totally in check. They were big and walked with a confident swagger. After watching them warm up, I realized we had our hands full. I also noticed something really odd about the predominately black team. One of the players was a pale, white, 6' 9", 190-pound, bushy redhead. He looked exactly like a young Bill Walton with braces. He didn't just look like Walton, he was athletic like Walton, too. He ran like a gazelle, jumped out of the gym, and had that, F***U demeanor.
When our eyes met he didn't crack a smile. He stared right through me like a prizefighter getting ready to defend his heavyweight crown. Maybe he didn't like me, or maybe he felt my stare and wanted a piece of me. I couldn't have blamed him, because with all of that beautiful athletic ability and grace, the thing I couldn't take my eyes off was his left arm—it wasn't there.
He knew I was staring. A stare of amazement. Twenty-five years of playing and coaching organized basketball on virtually every level, and I'd never seen anyone even try to play hoops with one arm. It defied logic. Of all the sports, basketball is far and away the most difficult to play with one arm. Okay, boxing might be a bitch, too, but this kid was really giving credence to the saying: "That guy can't go left." I realized he caught me staring, and he didn't like it. I also knew he was purposely staring back and making an unspoken challenge. With a glance, a look, he let me know he was ready to go. I liked it, and as I turned back to the bench, I figured: Okay, if the kid gets in the game we'll see how it goes, maybe he'll show me something if he got in. Then Coach McKnight eased up court and offered a handshake. He was big—like bouncer big—black, and had a shake stronger than Popeye. It was a classy move, one that quite frankly I should have initiated, especially having been a college coach, but he beat me to the punch. The game hadn't even started and I was already down 2-0. We chatted political coaching nonsense and then I mentioned how much I respected him for making room on his talented team for a one-armed, white kid. McKnight digested my statement, cocked his head and chuckled. Then he said, "Let him on my team? Alright. Alright. See you after the game." He then smiled the smile of guy who was holding a Full House and knew I was sitting on a pair.
The buzzer sounded as warm-ups ended, and my team huddled around me. I gave last-second instructions, and the starters went to half-court for the tip-off. I sat down and looked to mid-court to see that we had our match-ups. That's when I saw that face staring back at me one more time. This time he was at mid-circle waiting to jump center for the opening tip.
The big redhead cocked a grin, and I knew now why Coach McKnight had laughed at me earlier. The kid wasn't a "token" disabled charity case, he was a starter. I had egg on my face. My ignorance and prejudice hit me hard and I quickly feigned interest in a player on the bench.
But my penance for ignorance was just beginning. Within seconds he won the tap, blocked a shot, and scored on a quick jump hook. Realizing I'd made the hugest error a coach, or athlete, can ever make—underestimating an opponent—I called a quick time-out, grabbed my wet-board, and started diagramming ways to make up for my blunder. I was pissed at myself, so I shouted at my team and let them know what our game plan would be from that moment on. We'd exploit this kid's missing left arm. We'd take advantage of his weakness by double-teaming him in the post. We'd do so from the right and make him pass out of the double team with his weak—or in this case—missing left hand. It would be impossible. I knew that. It was a great plan. Okay, you could say it was a bit Machiavellian, but it was also a genius coaching move and I did not come to Vegas, in the middle of the summer, to lose. As an athlete, I was taught that you play to win and that was what I was preaching now as a coach: to play to win. My team would attack our opponents and their weakness.
Over the next two or three minutes, every time the big redhead touched the ball, I screamed out, "Double." And we did. I knew we'd get a steal and go the other way for easy lay-ups. I knew McKnight would be forced to take him out of the game. I wanted to throw a smile back at him and McKnight as he left the game. Of course once he did leave, we'd have to re-adjust, but it was obvious if we did nothing, he would kill us. So we double-teamed from every direction, at every opportunity, and somehow every time we did, he managed to extended his extraordinarily long right arm and flick perfect passes to cutting teammates for easy lay-ups. Each time he made a great pass for an assist, I thought it was luck, so I looked down to the other bench expecting their 5' 11", 350-pound coach to jump for joy, but he sat silently, stoically, like John Wooden. Inside, I'm sure he was laughing; I wasn't the first coach with this genius game plan, this was nothing new to him or the kid. I'd only met him ten minutes earlier, but I'd already fallen into his second trap. By the time I realized what was happening, the score was 16 to 8. A few plays later, Kevin scored over the double team with a soft 10-foot jumper and we were down 20-8.
Coach McKnight and I locked eyes—he knew he had me. I knew it, too, and broke a slight smile. But I wasn't giving up. I turned and called my second time-out less than eight minutes into the game. As the team huddled around me, I made the only adjustment left: We'd play the Outlaws and Kevin Laue, straight up man-to-man. If I told you it was a good game, I'd be lying. It was a GREAT game. Out of a time-out we scored three in a row to make it 20-15, stole the in-bounds pass and cut it to 20-17. I think that my kids felt sorry for my coaching deficiencies and wanted to help me out; whatever the reason, we made our run and were back in the game. From there, it never got to be more than a three-point spread between the teams.
At half-time, Kevin had 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Worse, I didn't know how to stop it, so I did what most coaches do in situations like that: I SCREAMED at my team! I urged them to force him LEFT. If we couldn't double-team him, I figured commonsense would prevail and our guys would just make him go left, but they didn't. Surely they would in the second half. Surely after I threatened to run them into the early morning hours if we lost to this kid and his team of Outlaws, we'd stop this kid. After my great speech and fine defensive points, we took the floor for the second half and did exactly what I asked. We forced Kevin to turn left. The first time we did, he shot an air ball and I looked down at Coach McKnight with a glance of victory—we had them, finally. He didn't respond. At that moment, I felt a bit silly, too, gloating over figuring out the only way to beat this kid. But that emotion didn't last long. On the next play, my point guard, Michael Cassio—the son of my executive producer—drove to the basket and finger-rolled high above the front rim. Michael is only 6' 0"; tall, so he lofted a high-arching finger-roll that seemed to hang forever. That is until an extremely long arm came from nowhere and swatted the shot back out to half-court.
The crowd OOHed and AHHed but before they could finish, Kevin outran everyone to grab his own blocked shot and dribbled down court for a thunderous dunk. The sparse crowd exploded. From that moment out, anyone who saw that game was treated to one of the best games of their lives. It see-sawed back and forth to the final buzzer. When it was over, Kevin Laue had 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 blocked shots, but we won. At least that's how I remember it. To this day, he says he had 30 points, 15 rebounds, 10 blocks, and they won. Somebody's lying, or has a bad memory. I can't say who you should believe, but I would never bet against Kevin Laue.
When the game ended, we shook hands. He tried to break my hand and almost did. His hand was incredibly strong for a 17-year old. It was also the size of a baseball glove. I then shook Coach McKnight's hand—his, too, though smaller, was extraordinarily strong. I asked if he would mind if I got in touch with Kevin. He said, "No." I did. And as they say in the movies: The rest is history.