Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Michael Lizarraga: Divison I's Only Deaf Basketball Player

Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile might remember that over the past couple years I have become a basketball fan. My in-laws have been Phoenix Suns fans for a long time, but I only recently began to watch the games regularly and take the time to understand the rules and get to "know" the players.

I've written before about some of the inherent difficulties in watching sports when you can't hear, especially on television. Not only are the announcers pretty much unintelligible, but I often don't hear the whistle that ends play - or confuse the sound of players' sneakers on the court with whistles.

So naturally I wondered, how would a deaf player handle playing with a hearing team? With referees that use a sound to communicate a foul? Not only that, but if a player couldn't tell where the referee was by locating the sound of the whistle, they wouldn't be able to see the referee's hand signal indicating why they stopped play. As I watched games, I could tally up any number of difficulties a deaf person might face on the court.

From Wikimedia Commons
 But of course... just because it's difficult doesn't mean it can't be done. Deaf people, as well as people who face all kinds of adversity, have proven that over and over again.

That's why I was excited today to read about Michael Lizarraga (here's his profile) in this article. Michael and his sister were born deaf to hearing parents. Michael grew up in northern California, and he wanted to play Division I basketball. He is now a forward with California State-Northridge, and the only deaf player. (Note: I'm using the article's capitalization.)

According to his coach, Michael's deafness gives him an advantage on the court: excitable fans for the other team can't rattle him. "The fans were right on top of him and they are yelling and pointing and he's just smiling and shooting ... [a]nd the rest of our players are laughing at it because they know these guys are just wasting their energy trying to rattle Mike."

There's an interpreter nearby when the coach talks to the team (though not for all road games, according to the article), the other players are learning Sign, and the coach usually notifies the officials before the game so that they'll know why Michael doesn't always stop play when the whistle blows.

One downside, though, is not always being able to communicate with fans: "I have faced some challenges being deaf because I cannot talk and sometimes fans will come up to me to say something and I have to gesture to them that I can't hear. It's frustrating because I want to know what they say and when an interpreter is not available, I am unable to understand them."

I'm happy I saw the article and learned about Michael Lizarraga. Here's a New York Times article about him that ran back in December.

His quote in that article is apt: "I would say my favorite quote is, 'Don't tell me I can't because I will.'"

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