WASHINGTON, Ia. — It’s 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. Street lights poke through dense fog coating the streets here to illuminate the town’s old high school, which now serves as Washington Middle School.
Faint squeaks emanate from the gymnasium, where the eighth-grade boys’ basketball team practices — where Trashaun Willis thrives in his element.
At 6-foot-3, Willis easily snares an offensive rebound for a putback layup during a scrimmage. He flashes eagle-eye vision with a shot fake and an incisive pass to a cutting teammate in the paint. He sets devastating screens under the basket.
It’s no surprise Willis, a star athlete at Washington, leads the team in scoring and rebounding. He runs hurdles in track. He competes in the high jump. He plays football, too, scoring 22 touchdowns as the starting quarterback this year.
Willis does all this without a left arm.
One of the fibrous, string-like bands in his mother’s amniotic fluid wrapped around Willis’ left arm in the womb, stunting growth from just above the elbow.
Despite what should be a huge setback, Willis prospers with 75 percent of mankind’s most essential athletic tools.
“I’m used to getting looked at as like an underdog,” he said. “So it just makes me perform harder and do better and try to do better than everyone else.”
Willis gained online fame last Thursday when a video of him dunking against Fort Madison surfaced on Twitter. MaxPreps retweeted the video. The Des Moines Register wrote about him.
Then he dunked again Saturday. Soon, Deadspin and ESPN’s Chris Hassel were gaga for the 14-year-old.
“I just had so much excitement going through me,” Willis’ teammate, Zac Stout, said of the dunk against Fort Madison. “I swear I was going to have like a heart attack or something.”
“It was a lot more (attention) than I expected,” Willis added. “I started getting (online messages) from all sorts of people.”
It’s easy to understand why. Just watching the video — a towering, one-armed kid dribbling behind his back in transition and gliding coast to coast for a right-handed slam — is awe-inspiring. It makes you rewind over and over.
Did I just see that?
Mark Berhow, Willis’ coach at Washington, is used to that kind of reaction.
“He’s been on the tournament team for a while now, so I think enough coaches have seen him and expect that,” Berhow said. “But there are also a lot of the spectators that maybe haven’t seen him, and you can tell when he walks in, they’re kind of looking and do a double-take a little bit. And then they see his shot and it’s a pretty consistent reaction of surprise. Like, ‘Wow, he’s a good shooter.'”
Willis has played sports his whole life with his stepdad, Korrey Williams, and his older brother, Jaivonn, a junior and Washington’s leading receiver this year. Williams never let Jaivonn go easy on Willis while competing against each other growing up.
“Eventually, Trashaun started getting used to (meeting that competition given his physical situation) and taking it on as a challenge,” Williams said, “and it made him a better person and a better player.
“And Trashaun would go out there with us and that’s really what gave him the drive that he has, and his want to get better. Just me not letting his bigger brother let up on him — even in football, even in basketball. His brother enjoyed trying to get the advantage on him, and I just would never have his brother let up. I would sometimes pull his brother to the side and say, ‘J, don’t be so rough,’ but he didn’t listen to me. He kept going at him. And it made Trashaun who he is today.”
Williams and Willis’ mother, Jennifer, waited until fourth grade to let Willis play organized sports. They wanted to give him more time training with his unrelenting big brother before testing the waters with one arm.
He immediately found success in flag football. He started as an offensive lineman/tight end combo, but the former role quickly dwindled as coaches realized Willis made fantastic one-handed catches look normal.
And to him, they were.
Willis began organized basketball in sixth grade, less than two years ago. In addition to his raw athleticism, Willis has developed beautiful form on his jump shot. It’s easier to align your elbow with the basket when you’ve lived your whole life with just the one.
“The way he passes, he can shoot from the outside — it’s a complete package, and that’s exciting for him and Washington basketball.”
Willis wants to play football, basketball and track and field next year at Washington. Berhow said he’s got a shot to make varsity in basketball as a freshman. Extreme success with one arm isn’t unprecedented. Zach Hodskins, who was born without the lower half of his left arm, walked on at Florida in 2014 after starring at Georgia powerhouse Milton High.
For now, we’ll just keep our eye out for more dunks.
“When I got up to dunk, (I’m thinking) ‘Just please don’t miss it, please don’t miss it,'” Willis chuckled. “That’s the only thing I don’t want to happen — miss a wide-open dunk. That’d be kind of embarrassing.”