Kerry teenager with one hand makes Ireland basketball squad
Jordan Lee has perfected his favourite shot by practising it thousands of times
The teardrop is his shot. He uses it when he takes the ball to the basket, where the taller boys wait to use their height and then leap to swat the ball away. Instead of taking a conventional lay-up off the glass, he releases a high, floating shot with an impossibly high arc that falls into the net.
It is one of the most precise shots in basketball and was Allen Iverson’s calling card. Jordan Lee has perfected it by practising it thousands of times here in the frigid glory of the basketball gym in St Brendan’s College in Killarney, Co Kerry.
The place is like a preserved shrine to everybody’s PE class memories: poor light, a scuffed wooden floor, constant echoes and that extraordinarily bleak, damp cold exclusive to Irish gymnasiums. Jordan Lee loves the place. They all do. It is their home. Although he is 14, he trains with the senior team as well. They give him no free passes.
“My cousin threw the ball straight in my face there the other day,” he says ruefully. “On purpose. I passed to him and then cut through for the return and he just smacked it off my face. You have to step up.”
Andrew Fitzgerald, his coach, has this particular memory of Jordan which always makes him laugh. Fitzgerald was playing a local league game with St Paul’s and Jordan was sitting at the official’s table. He was in charge of the arrow, pointing it to whichever team was to be given possession on alternate jump-balls.
“It was a tense game, really close . . . we were sweating buckets and there was a tussle for the ball and when the whistle went everyone looked at the table to see whose ball it was. And there was Jordan holding the prosthetic and using it as an arrow and grinning at us.”
Fitzgerald has watched this tough, sunny youngster grow up and, as his coach since first year in Brendan’s, has watched him work ferociously on his game. And he stood back and watched the unexpected rush of publicity which followed Jordan in the late autumn.
“You know, the big thing about Jordan is his personality . . . he has great energy and all the other kids love him. He is only 14 years old but he is such a help to the new kids in the school and is just so positive. I do hope that doesn’t get lost in all of this hullabaloo about his basketball.”
Fitzgerald is a big, rangy man with a shock of blond hair and the loose walk of someone who has spent his life shooting hoop. He was in Colm Cooper’s class in Brendan’s and likes Gaelic football but is one of those peculiar Kerrymen whose sporting passion lies elsewhere. He is a basketball addict, plain and simple, just like Jarlath Lee, Jordan’s father.
He gets frustrated sometimes when he brings youngsters through, finessing big ungainly athletes only for the football team to suddenly see their potential and snatch them. But he understands the allure and aspirations of playing football in Kerry.
Distant heroesZach Hodskins
But just to live on a basketball court with D-1 players, where the future NBA stars play, means that he is better at basketball than most people in the country. Jordan Lee has never met Hodskins and hasn’t even seen him playing a full game. “I’m always looking for Gators games on television but they are never on.”
Still, knowing he is out there is enough. For now.
If you go online, you will quickly find the trail of attention which followed Hodskins’s first appearance with the Gators. It had parallels with the sudden deluge of media interest which suddenly sprung up around Jordan. For Jordan and those close to him, it is a catch-22. They know that the interest is generated by his story; by the curiosity of a kid with one hand even trying to play basketball, let alone trying to excel at it.
Making it as part of the Irish under-15 development squad was a great, inspirational story. But deep down there is a worry that the real point will be missed. That, as Jarlath says, people will think that he is “great for what his ability is”. You can see it when you raise the issue with Fitzgerald, in the look of defiance and dismissal. They are all too polite to say it but it is like this: if you think that Jordan Lee made that squad because of his hand rather than his basketball, then f**k you.
“That’s . . . complete rubbish,” Fitzgerald says forcefully, bringing politeness to bear. “Look, he is there on merit, not on sympathy. That is the one thing that is getting lost and it really annoyed me at the time when all the stories came out. I felt: this can’t be about this guy because he doesn’t have a disability. I know he does – but he doesn’t. Just the way he lives: he is not limited in any way. He doesn’t perceive life in that way. And I know that he made that squad on merit.”
His parents didn’t know there was a problem with Jordan’s arm until they saw him in the delivery suite of the hospital. They were very young parents, wide-eyed and vaguely terrified and excited.
“We never knew. When Jordan came out of the womb, we were expecting the arm to appear and it just never happened,” says his father Jarlath Lee. “He has the imprints of fingers. There was a bit of anger and frustration and wondering why it wasn’t seen on scans.”
The official explanation was possible amniotic band syndrome, when the umbilical cord wraps around the limb and cuts off the blood supply, preventing full growth. They just got on with it and from the beginning almost subconsciously decided that it wasn’t going to hinder their boy’s quality of life.
“There might be the odd day when I asked: why poor little Jordan? But you have to accept that it was dealt to him and make the best of it and then you see the way he developed,” says Mary Buckley, Jordan’s mother.
They took him to the swimming pool at four weeks. He kicked football. He bounced a basketball. He played games. His parents learned a lot about human nature through him. “Kids were never the problem,” Jarlath smiles. “They take you as they find you. It is the adults: they stare, they murmur. I remember one game he played when he was about nine years old. He was wearing the prosthetic and he was scoring a lot. Some parent complained that he was wearing the prosthetic.”
Mary thinks he is blessed with the friends that he has, who are as merciless on him as they are with each other but will go for the throat of any outsider who says the wrong thing to Jordan. She repeatedly finds herself amazed by her son. Nothing fazes him: he behaved as if he was immune to the finger-pointing, quizzical looks and dumb remarks. She and Jarlath split up when Jordan was a very young boy, but remain on very good terms.
No free pass
“So how are you ever going to tell people that you were beaten by a one-armed man?” he asked. He was about seven years old. That indefatigable spirit never fails to catch Mary’s breath. He has never bitched, never complained about the unfairness of it or moaned about what he can’t do. And it wasn’t always easy. Jordan remembers one time out playing on the street. He must have been about nine. A few older boys came along and just started mocking him, making him feel small. He took it until his temper snapped.
“Then he was on the ground and I just started flaking him and kicking him and that was it. Haven’t heard from him since.”
He doesn’t say this boastfully, and quickly clarifies that it is not his normal form. The lads he meets on the basketball court are no angels, but he wants to stress how it will go if words are exchanged.
“If someone in basketball was saying something bad, I am not going to lash into him. I will tell the referee to watch out, that this fella is mouthing. But I am not going to tear into them,” he laughs.
He plays basketball in this gym from Monday to Thursday, sometimes twice a day. On Fridays he plays on an outdoor court near his house. There is usually a game on a Saturday.
On Sundays, he goes to the Killarney Sports and Leisure to practise along with Ewan Weldon, who also made the Irish squad, for extra coaching with Jarlath. He always has a ball in his hand.
Twice weekly he goes to the Physique Fitness Studio for strength and conditioning work. They gave Jordan annual membership and give him personal instruction. They make him concentrate on his left upper body. Because of his arm, he has to adapt and improvise in all areas of life, including basketball. His footwork is different to that of other players.
“You have to tilt your body away from the defender reaching in and you have to shield the ball to his right; his left foot will be in front when he catches it,” Jarlath says. “And he has different spin moves; he will spin the opposite way to the orthodox way. He is starting to use the left side to punch the ball back.”
Ewan says that his friend is the best shooter he has played with. They first met at St Paul’s when they were in national school.
“I treated him exactly as I would anyone else. If he was treated differently, he wouldn’t have come along as well. Nothing was held back. He’s just one of us. He is one of those people who just adapts. He can take any pass I throw at him. I aim for his head and he gets it. I think they doubt him when he comes on the court. They think he will only go right and will be easy to defend. That has been part of his game plan. Jordan likes to surprise people. His shot, from three-point range, is the best part of his game.”
Sense of doubt
Since he started playing games, he has had to deal with the sense of doubt emanating from opposition players. In the early days, he would hear the coach telling the other team to stand off him, to give him room. As if he couldn’t hear him. As if he had no ears. Some players felt slighted at first at being guarded by a kid with one hand. Until they got the ball stripped or got checked or were forced into travelling and turning it over. It became a pattern: curiosity, amusement, confusion, annoyance, respect.
“You can see the other kids asking what is going on here,” Fitzgerald says. “But as soon as the tip-off happens . . . Jordan is big and aggressive and all of that goes out the window. They are getting bumped around and scored on if they don’t respect this guy. They learn that soon enough.”
He will be in the Irish basketball squad for the next nine months at least. Then the numbers will be cut. When the squad was announced, Jordan was ecstatic. “Shocked. Just so happy. It felt amazing.”
Fitzgerald was delighted for him but knows how hard he has worked over the past two years. The only time Fitzgerald “gets cross” with Jordan is when he pushes himself too hard or when he sees him visibly furious with himself for making a mistake or for not making a shot he feels he should have made.
“He’s just so tough on himself. He can say a few words I wouldn’t like to repeat here. That’s when he finds himself doing a lot of jumping jacks on the side line.”
The younger kids admire him. At home, Mary sometimes sees his younger brother take his arm out of his long-sleeve T-shirt just so he can pretend to be Jordan.
Of course, the burst of recent celebrity hasn’t hurt. Jordan was in Galway at a tournament and he used to phone his mother each night to tell her how the day had gone.
He mentioned something about a video interview for Basketball Ireland. Shortly afterwards, Today FM phoned. “It just absolutely snowballed,” said Mary.
Jordan took it in his stride. The nerves did hit on the night he was in RTÉ for the Late Late Show. They have two green rooms there and he went in to the other one to get a drink and walked straight into Brian O’Driscoll. That was daunting. He still had the presence of mind to ask for a photograph.
When it came to his own few minutes with host Ryan Tubridy, he was fine. It has been a strange few months for his parents. They can still recall the projected anxieties, the stuff they worried about when he was a baby.
“The biggest fear I had . . . not so much the bullying side of things and there really hasn’t been much of that,” says Jarlath, “was females. Just worried about how he would be when it came to girlfriends and all that. But . . . he has had way too many, to be honest. Especially in the last few months. He can’t wait until the next school disco anyhow.”
Now the biggest problem Jordan has is one of the most simple: tying his shoelaces. It is hardly an issue. None of them are quite sure how much further Jordan can take his game but in a way, that is not the point. They know he won’t be quitting on it no matter what. If he is not in the class room, they will find him in the gym.
St Brendan’s is an illustrious old pile with a heavyweight list of graduates, from Páidí Ó Sé to Michael Fassbender to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. If there is a common quality to be found among the historic roll-call of graduates who excelled in their chosen walk, it is one that Jordan Lee possesses in abundance: fearlessness.
“That’s the thing about him,” says Fitzgerald. “I still get nervous before my games. Most people do. But when I think of Jordan: that guy is afraid of nothing.”