Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Meet the deaf men’s basketball player in Division I, Michael Lizarraga

From The NY Times:

ANAHEIM, Calif. — During the California men’s basketball season opener last month against Cal State Northridge, the Straw Hat Band and the student cheering section tried to rattle Matadors forward Michael Lizarraga with chants of “tuna” every time he touched the ball.

Singling out a skilled opponent and trying to throw him off his game is a Cal tradition. It started decades ago with a successful attempt to rattle a U.C.L.A. player in a No. 42 jersey at the foul line by shouting, “Forty-twoooo!” Over the years it has been shortened to “Tuna!”

By razzing the 6-foot-7 Lizarraga, the students were setting only themselves up for embarrassment. As his teammates stifled smiles at the Haas Pavilion crowd’s wasted breath, Lizarraga, the only deaf men’s basketball player in Division I, produced a career-best 15 points.

For someone whose goal in life is to assimilate in the hearing world, being singled out for heckling on the basketball court represented the highest form of praise. In the eyes of the Cal fans, he was the Matadors’ No. 42 and not “the deaf player.”

Speaking through a sign language interpreter after a tournament game here in November, Lizarraga, 21, said: “For me, my biggest dream was always to play for a Division I team. There were people who said I would never be able to do it. That made me more determined.

“I would say my favorite quote is, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t because I will.’”

In town to watch the Matadors play in the 76 Classic were his parents, Tavo and Cari Lizarraga, who made the trip from their northern California home.

They had been married less than a year when they took Michael, then 17 months old, to be examined by doctors for chronic ear infections. A series of tests revealed that he was profoundly deaf, a diagnosis, Cari said, that stunned and numbed them. The couple’s younger child, Natalie, now 16, was also born deaf.

“There’s no deafness in our families,” she said. “It was something that was just so unknown to us.”

Lizarraga’s parents had bonded over music, especially pop and rock. One of the hardest realities to accept, Cari said, was that the children would never be touched by the melodies so central to their lives.

“You start thinking about all the things that you think that your child’s going to miss out on,” she said. “We turned that around real quickly.”

Lizarraga’s parents adopted the attitude that their children’s deafness would be an issue only if they made it one, which helps explain why the most vocal supporter of the Matadors during the tournament was the father of the player who cannot hear.

Tavo Lizarraga was in fast-break mode for the full 40 minutes, his running commentary peppered with exhortations for his son and the other Northridge players that prompted a few bemused stares from spectators in his section.

“That’s why I cheer,” he said. “Because if Michael was hearing, I’d be saying the same things.”

Lizarraga attended a mainstream elementary school with an Individualized Education Program, but for his middle school and high school years, he transferred to the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, a 90-minute commute each way from his family’s home in Dixon. His mother’s eyes welled with tears as she recalled the conversation that precipitated the switch.

“He came home from school crying one day,” Cari said, “and said he didn’t understand why he was different, why he couldn’t hear like everyone else.”

During his high school years, Lizarraga starred in football, baseball and basketball. His coaches and teachers encouraged him to pursue athletics and academics at Gallaudet in Washington, the nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Lizarraga had his sights set elsewhere. He chose Northridge, which houses the National Center on Deafness and has about 200 students who are deaf or hard of hearing among an enrollment of more than 35,000. He tried out for the team and earned a precious walk-on spot.

The Matadors’ coach, Bobby Braswell, is known for being as intense as his tirades are long. He has a stare that could bend steel, but in the course of making Lizarraga tougher, Braswell softened.

Because Lizarraga absorbs information with his eyes, not his ears, Braswell has had to become more demonstrative when teaching — showing and not just screaming. As a result of working with Lizarraga, Braswell said he is more attuned to all of his players’ nonverbal cues.

In the beginning, Braswell said, “because Mike didn’t get a lot of playing time, he couldn’t really work through his mistakes and kind of redeem himself.” He added, “He has such an intuitive feel for the game, he picks things up pretty fast.”

Lizarraga, who broke into the starting lineup as a junior and has started nine games this season, said he could not explain how he knows when an official has blown a whistle or a teammate is trying to get his attention, just that he does.

“Most of the time it’s just instinct,” he said.

In his pregame talk before the Matadors played DePaul here, Braswell challenged his players to follow the example of Lizarraga, who has not let obstacles turn into excuses for not succeeding. Northridge went out and handed the Blue Demons an 88-66 defeat, becoming the first team from the Big West to defeat a team from the Big East since 2005.

“Just imagine hanging out with these guys, going places, whether it’s to a restaurant, whatever it is, and you’re not really being able to hear what’s going on,” Braswell said. “To be in the locker room and sometimes there’s a sign language interpreter, sometimes there’s not, and you have to deal with all those things. Guys on the bus with headphones on listening to the music and you can’t do that. Because he’s always smiling, you wouldn’t even sense that he misses anything.”

Lizarraga, a recreation, tourism and management major, employs humor as a bridge to the speaking world. Using pantomime and his face, which is as malleable as putty, he does imitations that his teammate Lenny Daniel described as hilarious.

“Every time I’m with Mike I laugh,” Daniel said. “He has a good spirit. When he’s being a jokester, we feel like we don’t have to be so self-conscious that he’s deaf.”

Their laughter sometimes comes at the expense of an unwitting official, as happened at the Cal game when one approached Lizarraga to tell him something. When he failed to respond, the official moved closer and spoke louder until another Northridge player tapped him on the shoulder and, according to Daniel, said: “Dude, he can’t hear you. He’s deaf.”

Daniel, a senior forward, said: “When you’re around Mike, you realize you take a lot of stuff for granted. You can’t feel sorry for him because he doesn’t want you to.” He added, “I’ve never met a guy like Mike in my life.”

Kendra Blessing, a hearing student from Pennsylvania, went to Northridge to major in deaf studies because her dream is to be a sign language interpreter. She was introduced to Lizarraga last year at a bowling party and before long they were staying up all night — signing.

Last weekend, during a four-and-a-half-hour hike, they ended up under the iconic Hollywood sign where Lizarraga proposed. Blessing enthusiastically accepted. At that moment Lizarraga’s future felt boundless.

“The sun was setting,” Lizarraga wrote in an e-mail message, “and it was such a clear and beautiful day, you could see the entire city.”