April 04, 1988 12:00 PM

Bill Demby’s dream of playing pro basketball came to an abrupt end on a road outside Quang Tri on March 26, 1971, when a Vietcong rocket blew up the truck he was driving. The 20-year-old Army private from Price, Md., never saw it coming. “It was like a quarter hit the side of my door—there was a ‘ping’ sound,” he recalls. “All I remember is smoke filling the truck, and I saw my left leg on the floor.” Demby was helicoptered to the 95th Evacuation Hospital. There, minutes later, his left leg already severed below the knee, doctors amputated his right leg after seeing that his foot had been so badly crushed as to make the leg useless.

Eighteen years later Bill Demby, wearing artificial legs attached just above his knees, has become one of the best-known basketball players in the U.S. He is the star of a striking Du Pont TV commercial that shows him holding his own in a rough-and-tumble game with nonhandicapped players on a New York City court. The ad uses no trickery. Demby’s skills have made him an inspiration to the members of the U.S. Amputee Athletic Association. In addition to standard basketball, he plays on a wheelchair team near Washington, D.C., teaches skiing to the disabled and holds national amputee records in the shotput, javelin and discus. “The last time I competed I was only about an inch off the disabled world record [10.2 meters] in the shot,” he says proudly. Demby’s determination is ferocious, yet his success is also traceable to a device called the Seattle Foot. The $350 prosthesis, a product of Model + Instrument Development Corporation, is made of a polyurethane foam covering a spring, or keel, which helps amputees move with greater ease and mobility.

Demby, one of the original testers of the Foot in 1984, was chosen for the ad while playing basketball in a tournament in Tennessee last summer. “I played one-on-one with the director, and when he asked me to jump I could only get about four inches off the ground,” Demby says. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. The way I’ll have the angle of the camera, you’ll be jumping 10 feet.’ I said if they were going to do it that way, I didn’t want to be part of it. Sure, I had these ideas about making some money, but I wanted to be sure disabled people were put in a good light.” The ad agency agreed there would be no camera funny business.

Demby grew up poor on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “I was a country boy,” he says. “At 5, I was picking corn in the fields to raise money to buy my clothes.” A basketball fanatic in high school, he hoped to play pro ball, but when a guidance counselor told him he wasn’t college material academically, he took a job making batteries at Sears and in 1970 was drafted.

In the helicopter on the way to the hospital, Demby remembers wondering “how my family would react, whether they would accept me. I knew I wasn’t going to change inside, but society judges you physically. If my family held up, so would I. And they did.” Back home, he spent a year at the Walter Reed Army hospital, and when he left, began drinking heavily. He hit bottom when he passed out on his mother’s sofa one night. “When I woke up, I found my mother and sister clutching each other and crying,” he says. “They told me I had said I was going to kill somebody. That’s when I decided to turn things around.”

Sports became Demby’s rehab. He had learned to ski while at Walter Reed, and in 1974 he took up wheelchair basketball. Four years ago he went to a VA hospital for another pair of legs and agreed to try out the new Seattle Foot. “The keel helps you build up energy in the foot, so you have some spring,” says Demby, who took to the product immediately. There are now 20,000 such devices, which are suitable for most amputees, in use.

As good an athlete as he is now, Demby remembers when he was better. “You know what you used to do—the moves, the positioning of the body—but getting two artificial legs to move is frustrating,” he says. “I give a head fake and the guy goes for it, and all I can do is move like a turtle.” Those frustrations are soothed by his family: his wife of 11 years, Toni, a VA program analyst, and his special pride, 8-year-old Krishawn. They live quietly in a small house in Hyattsville, Md., where Toni and Krishawn know that Demby still needs time to sort out his life and his feelings. “I go to the bedroom and close the door,” he admits, smiling at the memory. “If my daughter tries to disturb me, I tell her, ‘Nope, out!’ and she tells Mommy, ‘Oh, Daddy’s in one of his moods again.’ Everyone understands when Billy wants to be alone.”