How a 32-year-old basketball player plans to play professionally with one arm
An electric shock cost Robert Whitaker Jr. his left arm as a child, but he’s never lost his determination to play pro basketball
The foggy video begins with Robert Whitaker Jr., a svelte guard with a fade haircut save for the bushy mane atop his head, bringing the ball up the court with his right hand. His defender, who appears to be at least four inches shorter than Whitaker Jr.’s 6-foot-3-inch frame, gets into his defensive position, though it is clear from his stance that danger is imminent. The defender’s legs are barely shoulder-length apart and each foot is angled outward like a duck. He’s leaning forward rather putting the weight of his body on the balls of his feet.
Whitaker goes into kill mode. He stops cold at the 3-point, hits a hesitation move and goes directly to his right. The defender tries to jump the move but puts himself out of position. Whitaker sees this and fakes a spin move back to his left, which sends his opponent barreling into a screen set by a hulk of a man, freeing Whitaker Jr.
He doesn’t finish the play with a step-back jumper or body-contorting reverse layup, as to not ruin the play with his own missed shot. “Usually they say when you make the million-dollar move, if you try to score, it could mess up the whole move,” he said.
Instead, he passes the ball to a teammate, sending the ball, as he had during the entire sequence, plunging from his right arm.
It’s the only arm he has.
For the past three years, Whitaker, 32, has been hooping across the globe, working to become a professional basketball player, possibly the first to do it while missing an arm. A childhood accident led to his left arm being amputated, which should be a disadvantage in a sport known for court-stretching 3-pointers by Stephen Curry and tectonic-plate-shifting two-handed dunks by LeBron James.
Whitaker has played in gyms from his hometown of Jacksonville, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana; from Hualien, Taiwan to Guizhou, China – where he said organizers at sponsored tournaments didn’t want him to play. He scored more than 20 points in a pro-am tournament and averaged 18 in a pair of games against a Russian team. He’s traveled to four countries on two continents in search of professional glory at whatever cost. “Basketball has always been a big part of my life,” he said.
That won’t come in the form of a 19,000-seat NBA arena or even the Facebook Live streaming of a G League game. Instead, Whitaker has traveled to the bowels of these countries, attempting to latch on with a B-level squad that, at the most, pays $2,000 a month, if anything at all.
In March, he was invited for an official tryout with Pioneros de Los Mochis, a team in Mexico’s Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacifico (CIBACOPA) league, the country’s second-tier division. If everything went according to plan, Whitaker would attain his lifelong dream of playing professional basketball. If not, it would mean going back to square one.
“At times it gets hard to where you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this worth it?’ ” Whitaker said. “ ‘Is this something you really want to be doing?’ ”
Growing up in Jacksonville, a city of fewer than 15,000 people where everybody knows everybody, there were two options for children looking to get into sports: baseball and basketball.
Whitaker Jr. picked up both sports when he was barely 5 years old, but once he got into hoops, that’s all he wanted to do. His father, Robert Whitaker Sr., took him to the basketball courts at the local park. Whitaker Sr. played basketball in high school and was a member of his job’s citywide corporate league team. The elder Whitaker was a good shooter (he had a Polk High School moment over the phone, bragging about once hitting five 3-pointers in a game), but he’s most responsible for teaching his son how to dribble, preaching that Whitaker Jr. keep the ball on the tips of his fingers while handling it.
Whitaker Sr. also helped build his son’s confidence, drilling into his head to not let “nobody tell you what you can’t do.” “If you race him and beat him two times, you’re going to have to keep on running until he beat you.”
What helped Whitaker Jr. in basketball was that he was always energetic, whether on the court or off. Part of that could be chalked up to him being a child, but also because he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when he was young. He couldn’t sit still.
He quickly became one of the best players in the city, one of the first to be drafted in the city’s youth league every season. He envisioned himself following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan at North Carolina, eventually graduating to the NBA as an All-Star guard like his favorite player, Stephon Marbury. He even wanted the part down the middle of his head like the former Georgia Tech All-American. Some in town thought that Whitaker Jr., even as a youth, was bound for the NBA.
On a chilly afternoon in December 1996, 10-year-old Whitaker Jr. and his 8-year-old brother Joseph were climbing the large tree near their house in Jacksonville.
The brothers were always in that tree, constantly racing up to see who could go higher. They would normally scale just one or two limbs, but on this day they went a little higher. Whitaker Jr. was quicker, building a 6-foot lead on Joseph. He reached out with his left arm, expecting to grab another branch to further distance himself from his younger brother. But instead he grabbed an exposed power line that was running through the tree.
Joseph Whitaker, who had just jumped out of the tree, heard a loud “pop” and looked up and saw his brother with sparks and smoke coming from his body. An electric charge went through Whitaker Jr.’s left arm, skipped over his torso, and exited out both his right thigh and upper calf. Had the charge gone through his midsection, it would have hit vital organs, killing him instantly.
He was temporarily knocked unconscious, waking up to a severely burned arm. “When I came back to, I was still in the tree,” Whitaker Jr. said. “But I just remember it was a bunch of screaming and stuff going on.”
Lahoma Sanders, the boys’ mother, vividly remembers that day, that it was a Tuesday and that she had filled her car up at the gas station (“It was right after a payday.”). She was in the house, putting groceries away in the kitchen, when the lights flickered. This wasn’t out of the norm, as even a faint breeze outside could knock out the power in the house.
Her youngest child, LaTriece Whitaker, ran into the house screaming “R.L.” – Robert’s middle name is Lee – “got shocked.” Because the likelihood of a human being electrocuted is low – and because there was a “very little bad boy” in the neighborhood who owed a BB gun – Sanders thought her daughter said Whitaker Jr. had been “shot.” She quickly learned it was much worse.
Sanders screamed and ran out the house to attempt to climb the tree to retrieve her oldest son, who was visibly shaking. There was a ladder nearby but it was too heavy for her to pick up (Joseph Whitaker had tried to pick it up as well.). Had she actually gained the strength to move the ladder, she would have surely died; the ladder was made of metal.
Once a neighbor helped boost Sanders into the tree to help bring down a now-conscious Whitaker Jr., he immediately threw up. She noticed his hands, which were burned down to the fingertips, were in a fixed position, as if he had suffered a stroke. A flame then blew out of his knee, setting his leg on fire.
As the family waited for the first responders to arrive, Whitaker Jr. lay on the ground, the poison slowly creeping up his arm. His mother sat with him, the two of them crying their eyes out. Sanders turned her head so he wouldn’t see the tears streaming down her cheeks, the panic in her eyes. She wanted him to see her remaining strong and not know that she believed she was going to lose him right there on the ground.
The two-hour drive to the hospital was full of prayer. The lone civilian burn unit in the area, at Parkland Memorial Hospital, was more than 100 miles away in Dallas, and Whitaker Jr. had been taken by medical air transport. By the time Sanders arrived at the hospital, there was even worse news.
During the electric shock, Whitaker Jr.’s arm was burned up to his elbow. Eventually the poison kept advancing up the rest of his arm and doctors decided to remove it at the shoulder rather than just the forearm as they had originally planned. His entire left arm was gone.
He also suffered severe burns on his right leg, where the electricity had exited. The leg was completely burned from calf to thigh and he was at risk of losing it due to extensive nerve damage. His urine was the color of red wine.
The surgeons wanted to remove his leg as well. “And that’s when I really lost it,” Sanders said. “ ‘Y’all already took his arm,’ ” she told the doctors. “ ‘Nah, we’ll let God have the last say, so we’re not going to remove his leg.’ ” They eventually removed most of the damaged skin on Whitaker Jr.’s right leg and transplanted skin grafts from the left.
It’s easy to ask: Why would a mother let her young kids play in a tree?
For Sanders’ family, climbing in trees was as common as playing with a Super Soaker or playing hopscotch was for other kids.
“We’re country kids,” she said with a laugh. Growing up in nearby Cuney, Texas, climbing trees and running around the land, or “back pasture,” was like a rite of passage. You would always find Sanders up in a tree reading a book when she was younger, though she does concede that had she seen the power lines, her children would not have been anywhere near the tree.
They wouldn’t have another opportunity to, anyway; the power company, Cherokee County Electric Cooperative, which later settled out of court with the family for an undisclosed amount, cut the tree down by 5 the next morning.
Watching Whitaker Jr. play basketball is like viewing a magician’s trick. Something is happening, that you’re sure of, but your eyes can’t believe it. When he has the ball in his hand, his handles are as smooth as a swan, zipping the ball from left to right and front to back with ease. He attacks the rim, barreling toward the basket with no regard for his life or body. There’s nothing left to fear.
On the court he has a commanding presence, running the offense and instructing teammates during breaks in play. He can move off the ball, play on-ball defense and make passes that would populate social media on any given night.
“He knows the game. He’s a very smart player,” said Jon Solomon, Whitaker Jr.’s manager. “He just knows how to play.”
There are of course questions about his jumper. How can a person grip, balance and aim a basketball when two hands are necessary for each act?
Michael “Troy” Hamlett, a youth basketball coach in Jacksonville, was the only coach who wanted Whitaker Jr. on his recreational league team after the accident. He drafted the one-armed boy while he was still lying in a hospital bed.
When Whitaker Jr. returned to the court, Hamlett was tasked with reconstructing his shot. For a person with two hands, shooting a ball requires gripping the ball with the shooting hand, and balancing and aiming with the other. Hamlett taught Whitaker Jr. how to streamline the process.
He starts with ball underhand, widening his long fingers (Hamlett refers to them as “spider hands”) to palm the ball. He then turns it over, gets into his shooting form and launches the ball. All in the same motion. As quickly as possible. Hamlett stressed speed in order for Whitaker Jr. to get the ball out his hands before a defender has enough time to react.
“He does that hard dribble, stop, pop and shoot. Mmhm,” he said with a distinctive Texas accent. “I would tell him … ‘Dribble, dribble, dribble,’ and then I’d tell him ‘Stop,’ and he palms it and get his shot off real quickly.”
Relearning how to shoot a basketball, one of the core tenets of the sport, was one of the most difficult aspects of getting back in the game. When Whitaker Jr. first started playing again, after months in the hospital and two years off the court, he had to rebuild all the strength in his body, including in his legs. It took him a year before he could even jog.
Hamlett’s teaching took time. In the beginning, “a free throw would have been too deep for me,” Whitaker Jr. said. But once he got his shooting form and handles down, he was a sight to see.
“He still does things today with one arm that I can’t even do with two, that most people can’t do with two,” said Albert Mitchell, a friend of more than 20 years.
The two once played Knockout, a eliminator-style basketball game that pits teams against the other to see who can make the most shots first. Whitaker Jr., not to be confused with modest, told everyone on the court that he wouldn’t miss. He made every shot he took, practically beating four teams by himself.
“Lights-out shooter,” said another friend, Chris Cross.
In the early years after the accident, defenders would play off Whitaker Jr., at times blatantly leaving him wide open on possessions. A few broken ankles and 3s in the face would quickly change their level of effort. “I’d be done got my shot up a couple of times and now I’m warmed,” he said. “So by the time they do decide they want to go ahead and guard me, it’s too late now; I’m already going.”
He used to view this as an insult but now he uses it to his advantage. In one video of him playing, Whitaker Jr. catches an errant pass, backs his defender down, fakes left before quickly turning back to the baseline for an easy floater. It brings to mind the sequence that led to Michael Jordan dunking over Patrick Ewing during the 1991 NBA playoffs.
“By the time they realize I can really play, I might already have 15 points.”
Losing one’s arm would be a lot to bear for an adult, let alone a 10-year-old. Before the accident, Whitaker Jr. was a precocious child with dreams of playing in the NBA. After, it wasn’t assured that he’d even be able to walk again.
When he returned to school, he would joke around with classmates to take attention away from his arm, ribbing back and forth as a form of deflection. There was never harmful teasing; his friends even held a canned food drive for him once he was released from the hospital.
“It was probably all in my head, thinking maybe people might be thinking certain things,” he said “But my self-conscious, I just didn’t want [my arm] to be exposed or something like that.”
He would wear shirts under his jerseys while playing so as to not expose the surgical scars. The summer after the accident, he would only wear warmup pants and shirts despite the sweltering Texas summer heat. “That sleeve would just be flappin’ in the wind,” Sanders joked. “Sweating up a storm.” She warned him he’d have a heat stroke.
There was also the threat of depression. Black men and women have the highest prevalence of depression among all Americans, and that’s before taking into account those exposed to some form of trauma, where the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder is highest for blacks as well. Joseph Whitaker developed post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing his older brother be electrocuted and was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He can’t even light cigarettes without inducing the anxiety.
Whitaker Jr. doesn’t believe his mental health has been impacted by the accident. “I think I was more worried about my image than as far as the depression thing,” he said. “It was more of a coping thing.”
His support group is more skeptical.
“We all were kind of concerned because we thought that he handled it almost a little bit too well,” Sanders said.
Mitchell is reminded of a time when a mutual friend placed his hand near where Whitaker Jr.’s shoulder used to be. Whitaker Jr. immediately became confrontational, yelling at the other boy. He later confided to Mitchell that he was self-conscious about the missing arm. To that point, he hadn’t shown anyone the scar before. He then removed his shirt to show Mitchell.
Sanders would sometimes catch her son in a daze, staring off into nothingness. She’d press him, but he would just respond that he was OK.
She became most concerned when his behavior was impacted. Robert wouldn’t do his schoolwork and the constant joking with his classmates would distract his attention. She was at Jacksonville High School so much that the other kids thought she was a teacher. As the mother of a black son, she knew she had to stay on top of him “because I didn’t want him slipping through the cracks.”
At the beginning of his junior year at Jacksonville High (whose alumni include Josh and Luke McCown), Whitaker Jr. had the credits of a sophomore. He barely played on the school’s basketball team and almost didn’t graduate. He was sentenced to a year in prison for cocaine possession.
It took him a long time to accept this as his new reality. He had to remind himself that he was still a regular person. “Reality hit me quick; like, this is you,” he said. “It was so real that you had no choice but to accept it right there. It was that kind of reality.”
He’s strong, so he tries to play off the accident as much as he can, Joseph Whitaker said. “But it’s just something we’ve been dealing with for so long that it still affects him, it affects the whole family.” The families’ collective faith has pulled them through.
Whitaker Jr. had just learned Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me”) at Bible study before the accident, which Sanders believes is a sign from above. She believes of her three children, her oldest was chosen by God to walk through these trials and tribulations because he was the strongest.
“When he does get a little bit frustrated, I remind him of that: You can do all things, but you can only do it through Christ, that gives you the strength to do this,” she said.
Whitaker Jr.’s faith was tested, but he never wavered. He would ask “Why me?” considering his dreams of playing basketball one day. But “it wasn’t necessarily me questioning my faith, it was more of me questioning God, like, ‘Out of all people, why me?’ ”
After the accident, he played for a few more years in the youth league, but by the time he attended high school, due to grades and attendance, Whitaker Jr. played sparsely his freshman and senior years. After graduation in 2004, he spent the next 10 years bouncing around recreational tournaments in Texas and Louisiana and in lower-level professional leagues such as the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball League of America.
In 2014, he reached out to Solomon through Facebook after hearing about the latter’s nascent program of taking Division III-level players across the globe in an attempt to latch on with professional leagues. After a few stops in Asia, Whitaker Jr. landed in Los Nocis, Mexico.
On March 20, Whitaker Jr. reported for training camp with Pioneros de Los Mochis. While he was never promised playing time by head coach Gilbert Lopez, who was hired that same month, Whitaker Jr. was under the impression that he would receive a fair shot alongside the other four American players at the tryouts. (CIBACOPA rules allow only four Americans per team.)
In the team’s first preseason scrimmage, he played just over two minutes, scoring his lone points on a 3-pointer. After the game, Solomon says, Lopez promised Whitaker Jr. more minutes. But in Game 2, on April 2, he again played only two minutes.
After that second game, Whitaker Jr. and Solomon – who in a 2015 Grantland profile nearly came to blows with a German basketball coach – confronted Lopez. In video shot by Solomon, Whitaker Jr., in an oversized white T-shirt and visibly frustrated, tells Lopez, “I do everything you ask. I bust my a– for you.” Lopez, sitting across the room, responds, “So what?”
Solomon, trying to either ease or inflame the tension, tells Lopez that he’s not giving his client an opportunity. Lopez shoots back, “You don’t know what the f— you’re talking about” before lunging at Solomon, picking up a chair in the process. “You want to go a round with me?” he asks Solomon.
A week before, when Lopez sat down for an on-camera meeting, Solomon asked what it would take for Whitaker to make the roster.
“Probably have another arm,” Lopez deadpans. “That would help him a lot. If he had two arms that would help him a lot.”
In the final two scrimmages, after the meeting with Lopez, Whitaker Jr. appeared for less than 10 total minutes. The writing was on the wall.
A few days later, Pioneros de Los Mochis general manager Adolfo Sanchez told Whitaker Jr. that he’d be cut from the team. By April 10, he was on a plane back to Jacksonville. (Weeks later, Lopez was relieved of his duties; he tried to fight an opposing player.)
Whitaker Jr. doesn’t know how much longer he can do this. He has four kids and understands his AARP status as an athlete playing in his 30s. It stresses him that he can’t always be there to provide for his family. He doesn’t collect Social Security disability benefits nor is he currently employed. Cash money tournaments, with pots ranging from $1,500-$3,000, are how he supports his family.
“I’m getting to the age now where I’m trying to just make this happen to where I’m able to provide for them, get them some opportunities, open some doors for them,” he said.
If he eventually latches on elsewhere (Solomon is hoping to set up a tryout in Bolivia, El Salvador or Peru) or doesn’t, he’s content with the roads he’s traveled.
“At the end of the day, if it works out, it was all worth it,” he said.