Speaking to Larry Atkerson, and hearing his story, it’s impossible not to be struck by how fortunate he is.
His biological parents have struggled with drug addiction most of their adult lives and his mother was incarcerated when she gave birth to Atkerson on Christmas Eve in 2001.
Suffice to say, the future did not look bright for the North High basketball star.
But after spending a few weeks in foster care as a newborn, his fortunes changed thanks to a pair of guardian angels — family members — Jack and Laurel Atkerson, who stepped in and essentially saved his life.
“We were asked by a relative if we could take him in for a while, and we agreed to do that because we knew we could pass the background check,” said Laurel, who was operating a home daycare at the time.
That temporary arrangement became permanent soon after, putting Larry’s rough start in the rearview mirror, when Laurel and Jack adopted him. They’ve been “Mom” and “Dad” ever since.
“I remember looking at him on the way home and I was just thinking this is such a beautiful baby,” said Laurel, who also takes care of Larry's 25-year-old brother, Scott, who has Down syndrome. “People would (love) to have a baby like this, and someone asked me to take him. It just amazed me. He was such a good baby. He was always just a good kid. He never really gave me any problems.”
Although he had his share of challenges after his rough start, most of Larry's problems were reserved for opposing coaches this past season as they attempted to install defenses to slow him down.
They didn’t have much luck.
The 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior dominated virtually everyone he matched up against, averaging 27.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 6.1 blocks and 3.8 assists a game in leading the Stars to their second straight Southeast Yosemite League title and a berth in the Central Section Division 3 quarterfinals. He was named the league's player of the year and honored as a first-team BVarsity All-Area performer.
“Larry is the best high school player I’ve ever coached," said A.J. Shearon, who coached several years at Liberty and was an assistant at Fresno Pacific before being hired as North’s head coach in 2018. “He’s an elite rim protector on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he shot over 35 percent from 3, he can finish around the rim with both hands, he can handle the ball efficiently for someone that is his size and he has great footwork."
Atkerson’s impressive season caught the interest of Shearon’s former employer, Fresno Pacific, and after overcoming a few academic hurdles, he hopes to play for the Sunbirds next season.
But that’s only part of the story.
A year to forget
Atkerson’s challenges went far beyond the classroom during a tumultuous junior year.
A few months before the 2018-19 season, he injured his right wrist playing in a 5-on-5 pickup game at North Meadows Park. He initially thought it was just a sprain and hoped it would feel better in a few days.
It didn’t. In fact, he would later find out the wrist was broken in a few places and would require an extensive surgery to repair it. But both his adoptive parents were dealing with health issues at the time. Laurel needed eye and back surgery and Jack was battling cancer and needed triple-bi-pass heart surgery.
“There was so much other stuff going on with my life that telling my parents about my wrist wasn’t a priority, so I just toughed it out,” Larry said. “I didn’t think telling them about my wrist would help things, it would just make everything a lot more chaotic.”
With that in mind, Larry decided to play his junior season with the injury and hope for the best, fighting through the pain while incorporating a new pregame ritual to prepare his injured limb each day.
“Before I played I had to kind of warm it up,” Larry said. “It doesn’t bend back, so I’d try bending it forward so I could flick my wrist. Before the game I would feel pain and after the game I would feel pain, but during the game I was just so locked in and trying to do my role. So my wrist wasn’t my top priority. I was still able to shoot, I just had to change my shot a little bit and use more arm. But I was still able to shoot.”
Following the season, Larry had a five-hour surgery and spent the next four months in a cast. That was followed by several weeks of physical therapy, all in preparation for his breakout senior season.
“Once we found it with the severity of the fracture, I can’t believe that he even played a whole year with this fracture that is one that would take an NBA player out for six months, and he’s playing a whole season with it,” Shearon said. “The whole thing was bad and unfortunately one of those things that we see in our community where the consistency of the household just isn’t there. And I think that was what was going on for him.”
Around the same time he had his surgery, things went from bad to worse when Jack's health took a turn for the worst and he died in May of last year.
Needless to say, Atkerson was a bit overwhelmed and something had to give. In his case, that something was his school work.
"He doesn’t talk about it a lot, but just knowing him during that time frame, he was trying to help grandma, trying to help his grandpa, trying to help his brother, and I think he just kind of folded up shop academically for a little bit," Sharon said. "He was like, ‘look, I can only do so much.’ His teachers did a really good job of trying to work with him and help him out, but it was just a tough time, so I’m happy for him that he was able to get through that and it looks like he’s on the right trajectory at this point, so that’s really good."
Despite the injury and plenty of other distractions, Atkerson helped make several key contributions to the Stars’ Southwest Yosemite League title and a run to the Central Section Division 3 semifinals that year. It was a far cry from the gangly, goggle-wearing player that first arrived on the North High campus just a few years earlier.
“When he came to North, nobody really knew him,” said former teammate Shannon Ferguson, who just finished his freshman year at Santa Rosa College. “But he was always humble and quiet and worked hard. And he just kept coming on, getting better and better. As seasons went on, people started to get to know him. Now he’s just Larry.
“It’s kind of funny, because he’s the same dude, he’s Larry. I mean people used to almost make fun of him because he wore goggles and stuff, but he never let it affect him. He’s just a hard worker. He’s almost working hard and trying to get better. He’s always playing basketball. He’s always at the park and always doing something to help his game.”
In addition to playing basketball at a high level, Atkerson has also excelled in a different platform — the Boys Scouts of America — where he received his Eagle Scout certificate and is waiting to do his court of honor once social distancing restrictions are loifted.“He’s a very well-rounded kid, given some circumstances where a lot of other people may not have gotten to that same place, and he did,” Shearon said. “He’s going to end up being a scholarship basketball player and an Eagle Scout despite the fact that he may not have had the most normal of upbringings or maybe the most desired of upbringings. It’s pretty amazing.”