Kevin Atlas stands center court in a high school gym, addressing a packed crowd of students and teachers. At 6-foot-11, with dark red hair and an easy speaking style peppered with "bros" and "dudes," Atlas commands attention as he urges the teens to make their school a supportive place. This is just one stop on his nationwide tour for Varsity Brands’s Believe in You campaign.
The fact that the former Amador Valley High School athlete turned motivational speaker is missing his left hand is yet another way he engages his young listeners.
Atlas, 29, talks humorously about his struggles at school and home. He tells his audience that a shark bit off his hand before revealing the truth: He was born with an abbreviated limb after his umbilical cord cut off its circulation. "You can hear a pin drop in the room when I tell the shark story," Atlas tells Diablo.
Raised in Pleasanton by divorced parents, Atlas—previously known as Kevin Laue—lost his father to cancer when he was 10 years old. He discovered basketball in seventh grade but was cut from the school team. Undeterred, he joined Patrick McKnight’s Tri-Valley Outlawz club in Livermore.
Says Atlas, "Coach McKnight transformed my way of thinking beyond basketball, giving me a way to accept and appreciate my arm."
He ended up playing on the varsity team for Amador Valley High, and his abilities sparked interest from college scouts, national media outlets including Sports Illustrated, and even President George W. Bush.
"I got a call from the White House my senior year," Atlas recalls. "They set it up so I could meet President Bush when he got off Air Force One at SFO. Then I rushed back to a game, landed on my leg wrong, and broke it. It was devastating, because all of the college looks I was getting dissolved as I recovered."
The teen also drew the notice of filmmaker Franklin Martin, who followed Atlas’s journey from high school to Manhattan College in New York, where he became the first one-handed player to earn a NCAA Division 1 basketball scholarship. The resulting documentary, Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story, was first released in 2012, and a Hollywood film adaptation of his story is under development. Atlas will soon add to his media portfolio with a motivational book, Get in the Game, which lands in stores on February 25.
Despite all of his successes—including traveling the world, speaking at the United Nations, and meeting sports heroes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and one-handed Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott—Atlas counts his work with Varsity Brands as his biggest achievement.
"High school has become a very difficult place for American youth. There’s gun violence, depression, rising suicide rates. These kids are suffering more than they ever have, and no one is really doing anything about it," he says. "We’re trying to cure [the problem] by injecting school spirit—creating positive vibes through kindness, appreciation, and acceptance. By doing that, we are saving lives."