Stephen Ludwig struggles to walk across the street to his car most days, and it’s not because of the 9¼-inch lift attached to his left shoe.
He just keeps getting recognized — and stopped — by fans when he steps outside.
The 22-year-old Page High School graduate and UNC Chapel Hill senior has gained more than 1.2 million followers on TikTok in the past six months.
“They’ll be like, ‘No way! Is that really you?’ and I’m like, ‘How could you mistake me?’” Ludwig says with a chuckle.
He's hard to miss. Ludwig's shortened left leg and arm are products of a rare bone disorder called Maffucci syndrome, which he was born with.
Though he may stick out in a crowd and catch the eyes of passersby, to his friends and followers, he’s just Stevo, a fun-loving guy bursting with infectious attitude.
Stevo, @stevoluddy, posts videos on TikTok to spread positive vibes and tell his story. His posts have won hearts and inspired others with disabilities.
“It’s so cool to see when people with similar conditions reach out to me and tell me I’ve inspired them,” Ludwig says. “That’s really why I do it.”
Ludwig, who has aspired to inspire others with his medical journey since high school, plans to expand his motivational speaking after he graduates this semester.
But he says none of this ever would’ve happened if it weren’t for the man who inspired him – the man who gave him the mentality to keep pushing.
On the shoulders of his father, a 9-year-old Stevo bobbed up and down the hallway as the two made their way through the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, home of the 2007 NBA All-Star game.
Their walk to the locker room was just a sneak peek of what was to come. Every few feet seemed to create a memory that would last a lifetime.
They strolled past Yao Ming. His 7-foot-6 frame towered over the two of them combined.
They bumped into Dwyane Wade. “Stevo!” Wade called out from across the hall, remembering the kid who nearly beat him in a game of knockout at the Fan Fest the day before.
They waved at one of the league’s most dynamic duos: Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. Both reached up to give Stevo a high-five.
Each of these moments were special in their own way, but behind those locker room doors was what Stevo really came for – a chance to meet the man Stevo says saved his life. Kobe Bryant.
11% chance of survival
Ludwig’s life has been consumed by medical trauma. He was born with a syndrome that caused his bones to grow in abnormal patterns and develop excess cartilage growths. Only 150 cases of Maffucci, an extremely rare disorder, have been confirmed.
His abnormally-developed bones are much more prone to breaking. Ludwig’s suffered through more than 30 surgeries to repair broken bones from minor falls and bumps.
He's 5-foot-1, and his left leg is 9¼ inches shorter than his right. That’s only after years of bone-lengthening braces he calls “the worst pain in his life.”
The struggle of living with Maffuci alone would be more than most people could handle. But, Maffucci syndrome comes with one last cruel side effect: those affected by this disorder have a significantly increased chance of developing cancer.
Ludwig has fought off multiple cancers, but none more serious than the leukemia he battled just two-and-a-half years before his trip to the All-Star game – a trip he nearly never took.
He endured countless hours of pain and 11 rounds of chemotherapy, but nothing worked. He just kept getting sicker.
“I had two double-lumen IVs pumping directly into my heart,” Ludwig says. “I was on all sorts of steroids – throwing up blood. I was unconscious for days at a time.”
The diagnosis of leukemia came in the winter of 2004 or, as Ludwig calls it, “the year Kobe got robbed for MVP by Steve Nash.”
Ludwig credits Kobe Bryant and basketball with helping him fight through everything – even helping him survive.
“I don’t think I would be alive without basketball,” Ludwig says. “I definitely wouldn’t be who I am today.”
His dad, Mike Ludwig, hung up a Nerf hoop over the trash can at the end of his hospital bed. Whenever Stevo would blow his nose or cough up blood, he would crumple up the tissue and shoot it in the basket.
“It literally gave me physical strength, like building up my muscles,” Stevo says. “But it also gave me the mental strength to get through it all.”
But there came a point when basketball couldn’t save him anymore.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the doctors had told his parents he only had an 11% chance of survival.
Stevo would only live if doctors completed a successful bone marrow transplant.
Operations like this are extremely risky and have a high likelihood of sparking graft-versus-host disease (GVH), where white blood cells attack the foreign bone marrow. And the chance of finding a viable donor was slim to none.
But one hope remained.
After Stevo was born, the Ludwigs questioned whether or not they should have another child.
It was Stevo’s mother, Stephanie, who told Mike they should go for it – a decision more important than she imagined.
“Regardless of risk, I think it’s worth him having a brother,” she said.
And, boy, was it worth it.
Jacob, Stevo’s 4-year-old brother, had a 20% chance of matching the bone marrow Stevo needed to survive. When the test results came back positive, it was time to make way for a new hero.
When the brothers woke up the morning after their procedures, Jacob looked like the happy and healthy kid he was before, and, even more miraculously, so did Stevo.
“Before that day, I had an 11% chance of survival,” Stevo says. “But after the transplant, it was 100%. He saved my life.”
Beating all the odds stacked against him, Stevo started to recover. The date the boys woke up on that winter morning became a family holiday – a day the brothers still celebrate. Dec. 28 became Brother’s Day.
‘Basketball gave me meaning’
Mike could tell Stevo had a different kind of determination about him. The kind that helped him to recover even when things looked bleak.
“You put something in front of him, and he just figures out a way to get through it,” Mike says. “If he had to knock down a wall, he’d chip away at it until that wall came down. I’ve seen it time and time again. When you’re sick for that long, I think you have another gear set.”
Nothing about Stevo’s recovery proved easy. He clung to basketball and Kobe Bryant tighter than ever after he was released from the hospital. To him, basketball wasn’t just a game, and Kobe wasn’t just a player – they were his purpose.
“Coming out of leukemia, through the therapy and getting back to normal life, that was probably the hardest part,” he says. “I would watch clips of Kobe nonstop. I would go out to the driveway with a Kobe jersey on and try to imitate his moves. Basketball gave me meaning. It gave me something to look forward to.”
Shortly after the successful transplant, Stevo was given the opportunity for something new to look forward to. The Make-A-Wish Foundation asked him his greatest wish. He could’ve said anything, asked to meet anyone.
But Stevo knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted to go to the NBA All-Star game and meet his hero.
On the other side of those locker room doors, the man Stevo had idolized for most of his young life was lacing up for his tenth All-Star game appearance.
“Other than my dad, he was the guy that I wanted to be,” Stevo says. “Since I had to grow up so early, I had to do some soul searching when I was like 7. That’s a weird thing to do. I was so in the pits that I had to become something – I had to embody someone that wasn’t me to get through what I was going through.”
The someone Stevo embodied was Kobe Bryant.
Still on Mike’s shoulders, the two pushed through the double doors of the locker room, revealing the promised land Stevo had fantasized about for years. His father plopped him down on the floor, and off he went.
Stevo had become immunocompromised after the heavy toll chemotherapy took on his body. Only a few minutes into perusing the locker room, he was exhausted – fighting through a bug he’d caught on the flight over from Greensboro.
Just when he took a seat to rest, so began “the greatest moment” of his life.
He locked eyes with Kobe from across the room.
Kobe immediately walked toward the star-struck boy. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard extended his arm to shake Mike’s hand, then crouched down to greet Stevo. Just moments after meeting him, Kobe scooped Stevo up in his arms – the makings of a snapshot Stevo has framed and hanging on his wall to this day.
“You got a jumper?” Kobe asked.
“Yeah, of course,” Stevo replied.
Kobe set Stevo down and passed him a ball. Stevo showed off his release with a practice shot.
“Nah, you have to hold that follow through. You gotta see that ball go in!”
The two worked on Stevo’s shot. Kobe told him where to grip the ball and how to properly release it.
For Stevo, this was everything. Every move he ever made in basketball was meant to emulate Kobe, and now he was learning his tricks of the trade firsthand.
Next they worked on his handles. Kobe leaned down to Stevo and said, “Hey. You see Shaq over there? Go cross him up.”
The smaller than average 9-year-old approached the hulking mass that is Shaquille O’Neal, completely eclipsed by his shadow. With a quick crossover from Stevo, Shaq began his dramatic descent to the floor – falling the way only a 7-foot-1, 370-pound man could.
“After he hit the floor, I remember looking up and seeing Kobe and Vince Carter cracking up,” Stevo says. “At that moment I was like, ‘This is literally the peak of my life.’”
Kobe was everything that Stevo had hoped and then some. If it wasn’t already set in stone before they met, it certainly was after. Kobe was everything he strived to be – in basketball and in life.
“I didn’t even have to tell Kobe I was his biggest fan for him to be the nicest guy ever,” Stevo says. “He was talking to me like he knew me. I wasn’t just some Make-A-Wish kid.”
After Stevo had taken pictures with both teams, (seated in Bryant’s lap for the Western Conference photo, of course) Kobe offered him some parting advice:
“Play to your weaknesses only when your strengths fail you.”
‘I’m just Stevo’
Ludwig has never forgotten that advice. It’s a code he lives by.
Despite all of his physical shortcomings, he’s never let his condition get in the way of the thing he loves most – sports.
Ludwig is fiercely competitive. Whether it’s a game of ping pong or HORSE, he’ll do whatever it takes to win. That means working harder than everyone just to even the playing field.
“I’ve always had the mindset of ‘I’m just like everyone else. I’m just Stevo,’” he says. “And I was going to show them if they didn’t believe it.”
This is the swagger and confidence Kobe instilled in him. That killer instinct. The Mamba Mentality.
Jan 28. Ludwig sat speechless, refreshing his newsfeed every few seconds. It couldn’t be real, could it?
That afternoon, when news surfaced of Kobe’s death in the Calabasas helicopter crash, everything froze. The world lost an international icon. A legend in the world of basketball.
Ludwig felt like he’d lost a part of himself.
How could the one thing so constant, so steady throughout his whole life be gone?
When the news finally settled, Ludwig did what he’s always done in times of trouble and sadness. He put on his No. 8 Kobe jersey, the same jersey he wore on each of his countless trips to the hospital. He looked through all the pictures, all the autographs – anything that would connect him to the hero he’d never see again.
Looking at those pictures, he saw the joy Kobe brought him.
He saw all the lessons Kobe taught him, from holding his follow-through to adopting the Mamba Mentality.
He saw the glimmer in his own 9-year-old eyes as he looked up to his hero.
This sparked something inside Ludwig. He knew how much Kobe’s advice helped him get through his own hardships. How much could it help others?
Ludwig became dedicated to sharing his story.
He’d dabbled in motivational public speaking in the past, giving talks at Rotary clubs and church meetings, but he wanted to go bigger.
So Ludwig turned to social media, spreading his message and sharing the wisdom Kobe had gifted him.
Ludwig’s TikTok videos have reached the screens of millions. His videos, some explaining his condition and others showcasing his optimistic personality, share the same message his hero taught him: Keep pushing through, no matter the struggles you face.