Thursday afternoon, Tyner boys' basketball coach Gerald Harris paid Hixson guard William Nelson the ultimate compliment. When asked about him, Harris pulled the phone from his ear and asked, "Did the kid with one hand even play?"
He had not noticed that one of the Wildcats had no fingers on his left hand.
Nelson was born that way. Despite what some might consider limitations, he is an above-average shooter who has averaged six points, five rebounds and two steals in the Wildcats' three games.
They play at Chattanooga Christian tonight.
Having only a thumb on the left hand, there are certain things the 5-foot-10 Nelson can't do. There are no quick pull-up jumpers ranging to his left. At times, he has problems dribbling with that hand, especially when crossing over. Yet none of that stood out to the Tyner coach, whose team played Hixson on Tuesday.
"That kid is truly amazing," Harris said. "It's funny, because some kids that played with him in middle school told me that he plays so hard. You wouldn't even know that he's out there; you can push him to his left, but that's not a problem to him. He compensates for it."
Hixson coach Alex Disbrow has treated Nelson the same as he has any other team member, pushing him from day one of his freshman year.
"We set the tempo really early with William," Disbrow said. "When he first got to Hixson, his mom and dad came and talked to me, and I told them that I didn't care if he had three hands, one hand or no hands: If he can play ball, he can play ball. I think that set the tone early, because they were concerned I wouldn't give him a chance, but if he can play, he can play.
"I don't care how many hands he's got or doesn't have."
Nelson made the middle school team his sixth-grade year but was cut the following two seasons. He thought about quitting the sport then, but after some encouragement from his parents, he decided to try out again for the Hixson basketball team. Before tryouts, though, he was told by a current teammate that he wouldn't make the team because he couldn't make a left-handed pass.
That became a point of emphasis to him, and after his freshman season, he has worked and improved that aspect of his game.
"Really, I just took that to the head," Nelson said. "I know everybody is going to look at me a certain way. They'll think that because I have one hand, they're going to play harder on me than they do other people, but I just keep doing what I do best, and that's trying to get better and trying to win."
One of the Hixson coaches' initial concerns was Nelson's weight training. There was a question as to how he was going to get stronger, but he has answered that by doing whatever he can do while he's in the weight room with his teammates.
"I do a lot of pushups," Nelson said, "and not just the standard ones. I do military, diamond, prison pushups ... whatever I have to do."
He prides himself on defense. He often baits opposing ball-handlers, who underestimate his quick "hands," only to watch a tipped pass lead to a turnover.
In theory, none of that would matter. Nelson could just be looked at as a novelty -- a kid who enters the game in the final seconds of a blowout victory, maybe hits a shot and is swarmed off the court by the student section and teammates. But that's not Nelson. He's worked to get better and make himself an integral part of the Wildcats' rotation, and he has earned both the playing time he receives and the respect of teammates and coaches.
"I made sure he understood that the world doesn't care," Disbrow said. "While it's a great story and we're super proud of him, I made sure that in principle, Tyner doesn't care that he has one hand -- they're not going to take it easy on him. Life doesn't care.
"Is it awesome what he can do? Yes, but life doesn't care, so he had to learn to earn everything he gets with what life has given -- or not given -- him. He has learned that, and that's why he's having such a sophomore year."
Although the team has started 0-3, it hasn't curtailed Nelson's ultimate goal. There's one thing that drives him -- winning.
"I think we're OK now, but we will get better and can be a championship team," he said. "We have to stop making mistakes, but I'm all about winning and I want to do whatever Coach wants me to do to help us get a championship."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6311. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.