By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SONOMA — Courtney Jackson thinks it was probably the fourth day of practice, during a routine drill, that he noticed something wasn’t quite right with the picture he was seeing. Could it be? No way.
That kid is missing a hand.
“I think I said it out loud,” recalled Jackson, the basketball coach at Archbishop Hanna High School. “And another kid standing next to me, who lived in his home with him here on campus, was like, ‘You didn’t know that?’ I had no idea. It was because of that, from that point, that I decided that there was never a need for me to treat him any different because of his hand.”
See more photos of Tovaraz in action here
Five years later, Jackson has never had reason to contradict that early impression. Tony Tovaraz has played for him every year since, from seventh grade through this, his senior season, a campaign that has Archbishop Hanna near the top of the Small School Bridge League and seemingly poised for a North Coast Section Division 6 playoff spot.
Tovaraz has been a big part of the Hawks’ success. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard does a little bit of everything. He’s third on the team in scoring (11.8 points per game), third in rebounding (4.4) and third in assists (2.7). He leads Hanna in steals at 2.4 per game, and usually is asked to guard the other team’s top scorer.
Yes, Tovaraz faces disadvantages on the court. He can dribble only a little with his left arm, which is full length but ends in a rounded nub. He can’t really execute a left-handed layup, so he tends to favor drives to his right. Sometimes he has trouble corralling a rebound or a low pass.
But that’s about it. In general, Tovaraz is a formidable high school basketball player. Many an opponent has discovered that the hard way, backing up to give him cushion when they notice his missing appendage, only to see him step back and drill a 3-pointer.
“People assume I can’t do a lot of stuff,” Tovaraz said. “I just like to prove them wrong. Just to show them, don’t assume something, because the outcome could be different.”
Tovaraz is a three-year team captain, and not necessarily for his basketball skills. This school is different from most, and not just because it has no female students. Hanna Boys Center is a residential campus for kids who have gotten into trouble at previous schools or otherwise had problems fitting in. Jackson looks for a certain kind of student when choosing his captains.
“We had other kids on the team that sophomore season who were much better talent-wise,” Jackson said. “But I wanted to send a message to those guys that that’s not what it’s all about. … You have to be a good, upstanding person in the classroom. You have to be a good, upstanding person in the community. I wanted to make sure that we had somebody out there in the forefront who was gonna put us out in the most positive light, and Tony is definitely a high-character guy who does that.”
Tovaraz, admittedly “horrible” as a freshman, has blossomed under Jackson. Always a leader by example, he has become more vocal this year, at the coach’s urging.
“He’s like my playing assistant coach,” said Jackson, who played at Sonoma State from 1994 to 1997. “On game day he’ll be in my office for a half hour, discussing the game for better or worse. I’ll tell him, ‘I can’t get so-and-so to run up and down the court.’ And then I’ll notice him on the court saying, ‘Come on, so-and-so, let’s go.’”
Tovaraz was born without a left hand — the result, it is believed, of his mother’s drug addiction. He was raised mostly by his grandmother. When she died, he moved in with his aunt, Terrie Roberts, and his two cousins in Petaluma.
Tovaraz said he never thought in terms of being incomplete until he got to fourth or fifth grade and the schoolyard banter got a little meaner. He became self-conscious, shying away from sports. Somewhere along the way, though, he stopped caring what other people thought and paid more attention to having a positive effect on others with disabilities.
He, too, was inspired. Tovaraz watched YouTube videos of people in similar situations, and found that many had achieved athletically. One featured a guy who was born with one hand and went on to play basketball at the D1 college level.
Like a lot of people born with physical shortcomings, Tovaraz has compensated in innovative ways. An avid weightlifter, he uses various forms of straps and supports to execute all sorts of lifts – bench press, curls, you name it. A Hanna administrator recently gave Tovaraz a hook apparatus that, attached to both wrists, allows him to do pull-ups.
Jackson emphasizes that Tovaraz’s pre-Hanna transgressions were relatively minor — talking back to teachers and so forth. His aunt simply felt the school could offer more structure. Unlike many Hanna students, Jackson said, Tovaraz accepted early that he would stay at the center until graduation.
Tovaraz, 18, has applied to numerous four-year universities, most of them small. He hopes to walk on to his college basketball team and, if that doesn’t work, play intramural or club ball. Eventually he would like to get into sports management or public relations. Tovaraz recently performed a job shadow with the Sacramento Kings.
First, he’s got a playoff run to think about. The Hawks beat Redwood Adventist Academy in Santa Rosa in the SSBL tournament on Monday, setting up a semifinal match against Rio Lindo Adventist on Tuesday. Hanna, at 16-8 overall, should be in line for an NCS berth.
If the Hawks make the section playoffs, Tovaraz will likely face a team or two that hasn’t seen him before. He’ll see those startled looks again. Jackson talks about the murmur that tends to ripple through the opposing stands when people figure out Hanna has a one-handed shooting guard.
Tovaraz is exceedingly patient when discussing the subject, but he admits it gets old.
“Sometimes, people are like, ‘Oh, how does it feel to have one hand?’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘How does it feel to have two hands?’”
Judging by Tovaraz and his basketball exploits, the two conditions aren’t a whole lot different.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.