In a recent interview with Todd Aker, a guard on the Lake Stevens junior varsity team, the sophomore answered most questions with no more than a word or two.
After all, Aker doesn’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about.
He leads the Vikings’ JV in scoring, steals and is the leading rebounder among guards on the team.
And he does it all without a left hand.
According to his parents, Tom and Pam Aker, Todd was born without his left hand and doctors said it wasn’t genetic, calling it a birth defect. From an early age, Todd hasn’t let his situation limit what he can do.
“I don’t think there are (any limitations),” Aker said. “I started playing basketball when I was really little just watching my brother and playing with him.”
Aker taught himself how to shoot, guiding the ball with his left arm and finishing the follow through with his right hand. He did dribbling drills just as other players his age did, using both hands.
Brayden Webb, a friend of Aker’s and a teammate on the JV, recalled playing against Aker when the two were in second grade.
“He was pretty good,” Webb said. “(Him and I) battled. He definitely had the talent right from the start.”
Aker’s dedication allowed his skills to develop. He was able to shoot, dribble with either hand, play defense and rebound — and do them all better than many of the other kids.
“I truly believe that Todd has never seen his left hand as a limitation or anything that would prevent him from being able to do or excel at this game that he has a passion for,” Lake Stevens assistant coach Dave Pickering said. “I don’t particularly believe that he’s ever truly tried to compensate for it.”
Aker has two older brothers who played basketball at Lake Stevens, Ryan, who graduated in 2001, and Zach, who graduated in 2007. With the example set before him, Aker fell in love with the game at an early age.
“Even when he was little he used to come to the games,” Tom Aker said. “He’d be on the court at halftime shooting around and dribbling all over the place.”
Aker’s parents said they raised Todd just as they did their other children and had only minimal concerns when he started playing basketball.
“I think maybe we might have been a little hesitant about him hurting (his arm) falling down or something like that,” Tom Aker said.
Todd broke his left arm once playing on a trampoline and had a rod inserted to keep it stable. He’s had no issues since.
For the most part, Aker hasn’t had to endure any ridicule from classmates, teammates or opponents. His parents said other players and parents have overheard comments from opponents before, though Todd has never complained of being mistreated.
Perhaps that’s because Todd is almost always one of the best players on the court.
“(Other teams) probably think of it as a disadvantage when he comes out starting the game, then he knocks down 3s because he’s definitely the best shooter on the team, and it kind of throws them off,” Webb said.
Aker has been known to play so well his hand goes unnoticed. His father recalled rec-league game in Lynnwood where Aker scored around 20 points in the first half. At halftime he walked by the scorer’s table where his father was keeping score along with another young man in the gym. When Todd acknowledged his father by saying “hi, dad,” the young man looked up and saw Todd’s arm and said, “oh my gosh, he doesn’t even have a hand,” Tom recalled.
“(Todd) played a whole half and he didn’t even realize he didn’t have a hand.”
Todd’s parents say he can do pretty much everything any kid his age can do — with one exception, tying his shoes.
But even that doesn’t bother Todd, who isn’t afraid to ask for a little help.
“He’s just like, ‘can you tie my shoes for me?’” Todd’s mom Pam said.
Aker may not be able to tie his shoes, but he can certainly hold his own on the basketball court. In a recent home loss to Kamiak, he scored nine points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished three assists and had two steals. His personal highlight of the game came in the first quarter when he caught a pass outside the 3-point line with the shot clock winding down. He turned and hoisted a fadeaway three that hit nothing but net as the shot clock expired.
“I see (no limitations),” Kamiak JV coach Brandon Corsi said. “Honestly, in our gameplan we treated him just like every other player on the court. He’s out there and he’s a threat just like anybody else.” You’ve got to know where he’s at on the court because he can let it loose and shoot it pretty well.”
For opposing coaches who haven’t seen Aker play before, underestimating him would be a mistake.
“They’ll learn right about the time that he blows by them and pulls up for a jumper and knocks it down,” Lake Stevens JV coach Wayne Knowles said. “They’ll respect him right away.”
The Vikings’ varsity head coach, Mark Hein, gets a front row seat to watch the up-and-coming players in the program sitting on the bench during JV games. Hein said he sees Aker like every other player in those games.
Practice is a little different.
“I don’t think ever during the flow of the game do I ever really think about it,” Hein said. “You get in the flow (of the game) and it’s not something you’re cognoscente of. But I have caught myself a couple times in practice wondering, ‘how did he catch that?’”
Aker wasn’t a starter when the season began, but has transitioned into the role. Every player on the team has to earn their spot and Aker has done that and more.
He’s become such a capable scorer Knowles has created a designed offensive set just for him, something no other player on the team has.
“He’s really a basketball player,” Knowles said. “I have athletes, but he’s really a basketball player. He’s an athlete too, but he knows the game.”
Early in the second quarter with Aker on the bench against Kamiak, the Knights’ press started to give the Vikings’ backcourt problem. Knowles called for Aker to re-enter the game and the Vikings quickly broke the press.
His teammates and coaches say his presence on the floor is calming.
“He throws good passes and we know we can trust him to make smart passes and plays. With him on the court, it kind of calms us down and helps us focus,” JV teammate Jacob Steffan said.
“When he’s playing like that, his teammates tend to play with more confidence,” Pickering added. “He has the ability, often times, to make the people around him better.”
If Aker continues to improve his skills, Hein and Pickering said he has the potential to be a contributing player to the varsity like his brothers before him.
“The kid has an opportunity and it’s up to him,” Pickering said. “If he relishes the game, if he will continue to work at, opportunity may knock.”
Aker has never hid behind not having a hand and he’s not about to start now. He’s just another player in the Lake Stevens program working to get better.
“I’ve known Todd for a couple of years now and I’ve never heard him say I can’t do this because of this,” Knowles said. “When he’s on the floor, I don’t even think about it. I don’t really consider it a limitation either. He’s just a basketball player to me and he’s just one of the normal guys.”
Everybody in the program seems to be comfortable that way.
“We don’t make any accommodations for him at all,” Hein said.
“And he doesn’t need them.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.