An artificial leg doesn’t keep Booker off the basketball court

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Jovan Booker hasn't allowed an artificial right leg to prevent him from becoming a varsity basketball player for Mattituck.

Nobody would really have reason to suspect that Jovan Booker plays basketball with an artificial leg. But, incredible as it sounds, that is what Booker has done all of his life, the past two seasons as a member of the Mattituck High School team.

Coach Paul Ellwood thinks it’s an amazing story, and Booker’s teammates must undoubtedly think the same thing. As for Booker, though, he views what he has done in basketball as no big deal.

“I’m just another player,” the 5-foot-11 reserve senior guard said during an interview before Tuesday night’s practice at Cutchogue East Elementary School. “I’m just part of the team.”

A rather remarkable part, one might add.

When Booker was three months old, it was discovered that he had a birth defect: He was missing a tibia in his right leg. Seven months later, the leg was amputated, and Booker has had a prosthesis ever since.

If the artificial leg has slowed him down, it certainly hasn’t stopped Booker from playing basketball or striving to improve. He played Catholic Youth Organization basketball as a youngster. He played for his junior high school team. Then, as a ninth grader, he reached a critical point in his basketball career when he was the last player cut from the junior varsity team. At the same time, he was offered the position of team manager, which he accepted. He worked out with the team that season, improved his game, and made the team the following year.

“It was a turning point for me,” Booker said. “I had to realize that obviously the effort I was giving wasn’t enough, so I had to keep competing, to keep motivating myself to get better.”

“I try not to be a quitter,” he added. “If I commit to something, I want to finish it.”

Now Booker is about to close out his high school career as a Suffolk County champion, and perhaps more. Had he quit basketball when he was a freshman, he would have missed out on being a part of the Tuckers’ first county champion team since 2004. He would have missed the opportunity to join his teammates in the Southeast Region Class B semifinal/Long Island final tonight against the Malverne Mules at SUNY/Old Westbury.

Ellwood has known Booker since he was a fourth grader. “He was one of the best athletes in the school when he was younger,” the coach said. “As he’s grown up, it’s been hard for him to keep up with the speed of the game, but he knows he can shoot the ball well. He passes the ball well. He understands the game.”

Booker is also known as a good practice player with a keen shooting eye. “He can sit out there all day and make jump shots,” said Ellwood.

Not only did Booker earn a place on the varsity team the past two years, but Ellwood rates him among the top 10 players in the school. That is impressive to anyone not named Jovan Booker. As Ellwood sees it, Booker wants to be among the top five players in the school, meaning that he wants more playing time.

“Last year he was frustrated because he wasn’t getting enough playing time,” Ellwood said. “He felt he was good enough to be on the floor, and that’s just the way that he thinks, and that’s why he’s so successful because he’s driven to be the best basketball player, not to just be the best basketball player with an artificial leg.”

Booker conceded, “I do push myself.”

Ellwood said he is most impressed that he has never heard Booker complain or use his disability as an excuse.

“It just makes me know that I shouldn’t be complaining about anything,” said senior guard Mike Mangiamele, who has known Booker since they were in kindergarten. “He’s got it the worst, and nobody even sees it. He’s just so positive about everything.”

Ellwood said he is caught off-guard sometimes when someone brings up Booker’s artificial leg because he forgets about it. The coach said neither he nor the rest of the Tuckers make a big deal out of it.

“I always told him, once you begin playing, you’re not going to be treated like you have a handicap, and he never wanted to,” Ellwood said. “We’ve never really discussed it or treated it that way. I think that’s the way he likes it.”

Booker has another life as a member of Amp1, a stand-up amputee basketball team that plays games throughout the country. Amp1 will make an appearance at Mattituck High School on March 25.

Last month Booker and Amp1 played during halftime of an NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center in Dallas. “That was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” he said. “It tops the charts. It was great. To step foot on an NBA court is just amazing in itself.”

Amazing. The same word others might use to describe his basketball career.

Does Booker view his artificial leg as a disability?

“It’s there, but it doesn’t affect my everyday life,” he said. “I live like a normal person would. It is what it is.”

In the meantime, Booker was looking forward to at least one more high school game in what has been a magical season for the Tuckers.

“It’s astounding,” he said. “The words just can’t explain it. We’re trying to win a Long Island championship. I’m not going to jinx it or say anything else.”

[email protected]