BY MATT CAPUTO
Vijay Patel, a 5-foot-11 shooting guard from Montreal, has no left. That’s not to say he needs to improve handling the basketball with his left hand; more specifically, it is to say that he doesn’t have a left hand at all—or much of an arm for that matter. Though a tragic accident left Patel with the use of only his right arm, he hasn’t let that keep him from grabbing what he wants in life.
“I think the accident was a positive thing in some ways, because it made him the man he is today,” says Yasmin Heyat, his girlfriend of six years. “Maybe if he had two arms he wouldn’t work as hard as he does now. ”
Patel was born in Ontario in March of 1984 and later moved to Montreal, where his father owned a hotel. Naturally a good athlete, he excelled at field hockey at an early age and says he was recruited to play on the Canadian Junior National field hockey team. He says Canada’s national field hockey coaches were primed to turn him into one of the sport’s top players.
On August 16, 1996, at around 7 P.M., Patel was helping out around the laundry room of his father’s hotel when he spotted a malfunctioning machine. When the washer’s door opened, the cleaning and spinning process was supposed to stop automatically. However, the machine continued to work even as the door was opened. When he tried to show one of the staff members the problem, his left arm was accidentally pushed into the broken washing machine.
“I blacked out for a few minutes, and I realized it was very hot. I put my hand on my left side and all I felt was blood. I tried to get up and run out of the laundry room, but the door was locked,” says Patel. “I collapsed, went to the hospital and was in a coma for two months. When I came out, I realized I lost my arm and I was upset. Everything was so shocking to me.”
After his injury, Patel says he went through a period of years where he was depressed. He refused the prosthetic arm that they tried to give him at the hospital and found everyday life a struggle at times. The most mundane tasks, such as carrying schoolbooks or wearing a backpack, were suddenly very difficult. If that wasn’t enough, Patel was teased and picked on in school. Looking back on it, he says, he can’t believe how mean the other kids were to him. However, it wasn’t long before Patel realized he could work around his disability.
“I was very stubborn. I was in gym class one day, and I was sitting down, and the gym teacher asked me why I wasn’t playing. I told him I couldn’t play basketball [with one arm]. The teacher picked up a ball, shot it with one hand and swished it. He was like, ‘If I can do it, so can you.’ I decided to take up the sport. From then on, I knew I wanted to play basketball.”
Although he didn’t play basketball in his first year of high school, it helped him begin to feel more normal, he says. He transferred from Rosemount High School and began attending Westmount High, which had a better basketball rep, in 1999. He played there during the 1999–2000 season but transferred again to College Prep International to focus on getting his grades up. He worked on his studies and played on the Sun Youth Organization team in Montreal. By the time he was ready for college, Patel’s basketball skills had become his biggest social asset.
“I didn’t play the first year of high school, but by my sophomore year I made the team and started getting better,” says Patel. “Basketball made it all happen for me. Because of basketball, I started making friends, getting girlfriends, and I started getting respect. I know I look like I’m disabled, but I’m also talented, and it helped to make people look at me like a normal human being.”
After high school, Patel was set on continuing to play ball at a high level. Some Canadian colleges showed interest in bringing him in. Eventually he ended up at Dawson College in Montreal. He attended tryouts in the fall of 2002 and made it to the top 15/20 of about 150 players. Ultimately he was cut and served as the team manager during his freshman year.
In Quebec, the collegiate basketball system works quite differently from North American and most other places in Canada. Instead of one main varsity team, schools in Quebec have three teams on three levels: A, AA and AAA. After failing to make the AAA team as a freshman, Patel became a key contributor to Dawson’s AA team.
“He amazes me with the things that he is able to do with just that one hand,” says Denburk “Burky” Reid, who coached Patel at Dawson College and has played with the Montreal Royals in the ABA for three years. “Even with one hand, the defense has trouble taking the ball from him. Besides that, even though I had to treat Vijay like everyone else, if his teammates weren’t going hard in practice, I could always point to him as a source of inspiration.”
In his three seasons on the Dawson team, Patel’s unofficial averages were around 12 points per game, five assists and about four steals. The 2005–2006 season was Patel’s last year of college ball. During his senior year, he’d reached out to the Harlem Globetrotters about possibly joining their traveling trick team. However, an injury in his last college game halted his hoop dreams for nearly two years.
“I popped my collarbone, and that sent me into another kind of depression,” says Patel, who now works full time at his father’s Comfort Inn, the same hotel where he lost his arm some 12 years ago. “I ended up having a torn ACL, bicep tendonitis—I had a bunch of things that I had just been playing through. I went to a bunch of doctors who kept telling me I needed surgery. I didn’t want to risk getting a frozen shoulder, which meant I wouldn’t have been able to use my arm for one to three years. I went to see doctors in Montreal, Toronto and even the U.K. Eventually, I got a good response, but I still needed to lay off.”
In January of 2008, Patel returned to actively training for basketball again. A while before, a chance encounter with Boston Celtics Assistant Coach Kevin Eastman inspired him to get back to playing at a serious level. “He was amazed by my skills,” remembers Patel. “He took down my information and tried to contact the Globetrotters for me as a reference. I was freaking out; I had an NBA coach telling me that I had talent. That’s all I wanted to hear.”
On April 2, the Globetrotters were in Canada for a game in Ottawa, about three hours from Montreal. Patel had missed a previous Globetrotter tryout to visit a doctor in the U.K. when dealing with his right-arm injury. When the ’Trotters phoned this time and asked him to come to Ottawa on the spot, Patel made sure he didn’t miss the chance.
“I was speeding the whole time,” says Patel. “It was like an 18,000-seat arena. I was shooting around with the Globetrotters. I was hitting all my shots without even stretching. They gave me a jersey and let me play with the Generals. I hit a three and then an open lay-up before getting subbed out. It’s a set-up game, so they told me I couldn’t blow out the Globetrotters.”
Though Patel has not officially signed with the Globetrotters, he says he would love the opportunity. The AND1 streetball tour squad has shown some interest, as have some semi-professional clubs in Canada. Patel is sure he can play on the next level, and he’s not the only person who thinks so.
“He’s a very good defensive player himself, and he has the ability to knock down shots from, really, anywhere,” says Coach Reid. “I think he can play in a league like the ABA, where the tempo is pretty fast, since Vijay is used to that.”
While he doesn’t have a job playing pro ball yet, Patel says he’s staying positive and constantly trying to keep his game sharp. He knows he’s come a long way already.
“When I’m playin’, I don’t feel like anything is wrong; it’s just different. I don’t feel like I’m missing my arm at all, I feel like I was just born without it,” says Patel. “Basketball gave me a life, a friend, a dream, a reason to live and a purpose to move forward.”