Tomas Murray lost his right basketball shoe but hardly a step as he stopped to retrieve the shoe, slipped it back on and stole the ball from the player he was guarding.
Those rapid-fire movements during a game to assess talent at the Special Olympics World Games last Saturday would have evoked cheers at any basketball game. But in this instance, they elicited a roar, because Murray has only one leg and, without a prosthesis, runs up and down the court.
Not only that, but the 20-year-old Murray, who usually plays point guard, is one of the best players on the Panamanian team. In an assemblage of athletes who perform wondrous achievements in spite of varying levels of mental retardation and, in some cases, physical disabilities, Murray is perhaps the most remarkable.
"He's amazing, absolutely amazing," said Jim Reynolds, the boys varsity basketball coach at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven and the commissioner of the basketball competition. "He does things that a lot of two-legged players can't do."
In a sport where balance is important, a one-legged player would seem to be an an instant disadvantage. But the 5-foot-4, 180-pound Murray rarely loses his balance.
"It's hard to believe, but Tomas hardly ever falls down," said Troadio Fernandez, the director of the Panamanian delegation to the games. "He's a very good passer, sets good picks and screens and is the team's best three-point shooter."
Murray, a fiery and aggressive player, did fall down Wednesday, three times in all, once after shooting a three-pointer. But over all, he acquitted himself well as Panama was routed by a far superior Dominican Republic team, 85-52. Playing a little more than half of the 30-minute game, he made 1 of 5 shots, on a layup in the second half. Murray also dazzled the crowd with a behind-the-back pass. And unlike may of his teammates, he never turned the ball over as he quickly hopped about the court.
What makes Murray's dexterity and agility even more remarkable is that, off the court, he walks with crutches, because he does not have a prosthesis for his left leg.
Murray, who is from the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro near the Costa Rocan border, lost his left leg at the hip at the age of 7 when he was hit by a train. But his disability did not keep him from developing into an all-around athlete, who plays baseball, volleyball and American-style football, in addition to basketball in a regular league in Panama.
Why doesn't he use a prosthetic device, he was asked. "Because of economic conditions," he said through an interpreter, referring to his family's financial situation. "I had two _ one when I was small, and another from 13 to 16 _ which I outgrew."
Even when he used an artificial leg, though, Murray said he usually played without it. A third prosthesis is awaiting him when he returns home. "The club that sponsored my trip is giving me the leg, and I will wear it," said Murray, whose degree of mental retardation is slight and who hopes to study engineering at the university level in Panama. "But I won't use it to play basketball."