Robert Whitaker Jr. has had dreams of playing professional basketball his whole life. Growing up in a small town in Texas, his life revolved around basketball. He was one of the best players from an early age. Coaches had high hopes for Whitaker Jr. It didn’t seem too farfetched that this little kid might someday end up playing professionally.
But when Whitaker turned 10, tragedy struck. He suffered a catastrophic accident that left him without his left arm. But 22 years later Whitaker is still playing the sport. His resilience in the face of injury is truly inspirational to any athlete who dreams of greatness.
How Did Whitaker Lose His Arm?
Like many young athletes, Whitaker was an active little boy. In his rural hometown, when he wasn’t on the basketball courts there was little else to do besides play outside. One day when he was 10 years old he was playing outside with his eight-year-old brother. The pair was climbing a tree, racing to the top. Whitaker reached out to take hold of a branch but instead grabbed onto a power line that was running through the branches of the tree.
An electrical current surged through Whitaker and he lost consciousness. A neighbor was able to help Whitaker’s mother climb up the tree and retrieve her son. They lay him on the ground, unsure if he would survive. It took two whole hours for paramedics to get him to the hospital. The doctors treated him for severe burns on his legs but it was his arm that was the real issue. They determined that they couldn’t avoid amputating Whitaker’s left arm.
At first they thought they would only have to take the forearm. But the shocks from the electrical wire had damaged the boy’s arm so much that it was necessary to amputate the entire limb. So at age 10, Whitaker came home from the hospital with only his right arm.
The burns on Whitaker’s legs were so extensive that doctors were unsure whether he would ever walk again. It took him a couple years of rehabilitation but not only was he walking but he was running. And by highschool he was playing basketball at school.
Whitaker’s journey was not without difficulty. After his accident he worried that other kids wouldn’t make fun of him or not accept him. But by and large he found that his community and his friend supported him. Life with one arm is not easy, and his dream of becoming a professional basketball player seemed all the more impossible. There were times when Whitaker’s mother remembers him staring off into the distance and barely saying a word when asked what was wrong.
High school proved to be a challenge. He didn’t get much playing time on the basketball team and he even spent time in jail for a drug charge. But the amazing thing was that he was able to play at all. How did he manage that with one arm?
Learning To Play With One Arm
A lot of things in basketball can be done with one arm: dribbling, passing, blocking a shot. But shooting a jump shot is not one of them. Any coach can tell you that the guide hand, the one positioned on the side of the ball, is very important. But Whitaker doesn’t have a guide hand, only a shooting hand.
The first problem comes at the beginning of the shot. Whitaker doesn’t have to hands to use to bring the ball up above his head. So he’s forced to palm the basketball in his right hand. Then he has grip it all the way up to shooting position and let off a shot with no steadying help from a left hand. It’s an impressive sight to see. But Whitaker has proved time and again that he’s a shooter.
Whitaker may be a long way from the NBA but he has achieved his dream of playing professionally. He’s now 32 years old and has been playing for over a decade. His dream has taken him all over the world. He’s played tournaments in Taiwan and China. He’s also spent time playing in low level leagues such as the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball League of America.
His most recent stint as a professional player was in Mexico. Unfortunately, he was undervalued by the coaching staff despite putting up good numbers in the few minutes he played. He was let go from the team after only a few games.
He now faces the challenge of supporting his four children on the measly earnings he gets from playing tournaments. It’s getting harder and harder to justify chasing his dream.
The Road Ahead For Whitaker
At age 32 Whitaker is getting up there in years for a basketball player. It seems like his dream of landing a full-time playing position are getting more unlikely. Perhaps the most encouraging thing for Whitaker and players like him is that basketball is growing in popularity the world over. The Chinese market is beginning to attract more American players and more countries in South America are starting and expanding basketball leagues.
It would be a shame if it’s too late fore Whitaker to make it. But the good news for young players out there is that in the coming years there may be more and more options to play professional basketball.