ROXBURY, Mass. -- With three seconds to go in last Saturday's Division 2 North final at the Tsongas Center, and in need of a clean inbounds pass to hold on to their 56-54 lead over Boston City rival Brighton, the New Mission Titans gathered themselves in the timeout, and thought of nobody better to heave a Hail Mary to than Leroy Hamilton.
Head coach Cory McCarthy was hesitant at first, but in the end thought he would be the perfect guy for Charles Gunter to heave the long pass over the Bengals' defense, which stuck all five players in the backcourt for intense pressure.
Said senior guard Darius Davis, "I was actually the one that said do it, because Charlie's taking the ball out, and for two possessions in a row they didn't want the ball in my hands. So I just told Charles, if you can't get it to me to to shoot free throws, then just throw it long, get enough air under it and let Leroy catch it. And I've got faith that he's not going to drop the pass."
Sure enough, the 6-foot-3 junior came up with the ball, and the Titans avoided the upset bid to capture the North sectional title.
One glaring problem, though: common logic says that Hamilton shouldn't have even gotten a grip on the ball.
See, Hamilton, a 16-year-old junior starting forward on Mission's state finalist basketball squad, was born with a deformity on his left hand that has left him with just two fingers his whole life, with a pinky and a thumb twice as thick as a normal thumb.
Hamilton is a quiet kid in the hallways at this Roxbury-based high school. So subtle does he make it that from a distance, it's tough to tell. And tucked away amidst all the hype surrounding the Titans' Northeast-10 ready backcourt of seniors Samir McDaniels, Kachi Nzerem and Davis, Hamilton slides by even more anonymously. Yet he is no less crucial to the team's success, as they prepare for Northbridge today at 4 p.m. at Worcester's DCU Center, for the Division 2 state championship.
"It's sort of like natural selection, he's adapted," says head coach Cory McCarthy, who is also the school's Dean of Students. "Natural selection says what, we don't need our pinkies? Seriously though, I don't even think half the school knows. Because he's just so high-functioning."
To the outsider, daily routines might seem like a chore to Hamilton, but it's something he's grown numb to -- "Just gotta work with it," he shrugs to each question about his daily functioning.
"Some people look at it as a handicap, but I don't really look at it that way," he said. "It's like, I do everything that everybody else does. It's just the same. I feel like everybody's different, but we're all the same at the same time, you know?"
Only, it shouldn't. Human nature says Hamilton shouldn't be one of the Titans' leading scorers (11 points) and rebounders (six) right now, let alone starting every game. He shouldn't be the one cleaning up the glass on the weakside post, or stepping back for 15-foot perimeter shots with that light backspin and perfect 60-degree arc. He shouldn't be the one dropping 13 points -- all of them in crucial moments -- over Hopkinton at the TD Garden on a Tuesday night in a playoff game.
Yet there he is, dunking on breakaways. There he is, taking senior center Charles Gunter hard into the post in practice, dizzying him with spin moves and drop steps, dropping a floater with his left -- yes, that's right, finishing with his left.
"It's a quick pivot, he goes either left or right, with or without his disability," Gunter said. "You never know what his next move is. He'll go left with his left, real quick dribble, pull up or spin."
Said McCarthy, "You never know how he gets it off. His body has caught up to whatever disability he has."
If anything, though, perhaps the left hand actually works to his advantage. Too much grip out of one's guide hand, as many a player will tell you, can sporadically alter the shot. So with such limited use of the hand, forcing it into a guide role, it gives Hamilton just the right amount of soft touch to keep the shot straight and slick.
All of it has the Titans playing inspired, in a program that is never short on inspiration.
"Leroy is very down to Earth, very respectful, always trying to do hard and go hard," Gunter said. "He's always looking to better himself as a person and player, just a cool dude to be around, very high spirited very playful, never really down at all. When we need help with something, he acts so he'll get better at it, especially with plays and stuff. He just doesn't let his disability make him any less a hard worker than he is."
McCarthy admits that should he ever decide to leave Mission, Hamilton -- who he's already penciled in as a co-captain next season -- "is the reason I'd come back."
"Always, definitely," he said when asked about Hamilton's impact on him personally. "I feel like he is the single most coachable kid I've ever had, maybe because I don't take him for granted. I feel like there's a lot worse people in the world that would deserve that. If he could function like everyone else, he'd be amazing. It's a huge credit to his work ethic, he works so hard. We would have to tell him to go home, he's still here.
"If he could live in a gym, he'd live in a gym, and I'd be right there with him. Great kid, he'll come to games and whatever I tell him to do he listens."
And with that, the conversation drifts back to his playing ability. Practice has ended 20 minutes ago on this late Friday afternoon at the Reggie Lewis Center, and McCarthy watches from the bleachers as Hamilton stays on the court knocking down shots with Jeremiah Burke High's ubertalented female point guard, Mississippi State commit Khadijah Ellison, who stands casually rebounding.
Hamilton has just nailed his fifth straight shot from the same spot 12 feet out along the left baseline, with that same parabolic arc and slow rotation.
"I think it's because of that balance, it gives him just the right amount of touch," McCarthy said. "I feel like more than anyone else, every time he shoots the ball, it's going in. It's crazy."
He then points to the court.
"I mean, look at him, he's on fire right now!" he exclaims. "He doesn't miss."