More than hoops camp

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Youths from the New Mexico School for the Deaf look to interpreter Julie Nagle for a translation from coaches at last week’s Skyhawk Boys Basketball Camp at Fort Lewis College. The students, from left, are Johnathan Ludwigs, 16, Jonathan Garcia, 16, and Deven Thompson, 14.

Deven Thompson halted his dribble and quickly pushed up a 15-foot shot over camp coach Matthias Weissl during a one-on-one drill.

As it nestled into the net, Weissl, a former Fort Lewis College player, didn’t say anything. Instead, he slapped hands with the youngster.

A bit later in a different part of Whalen Gym, FLC men’s basketball head coach Bob Hofman dropped a dollar bill on the court behind the 3-point line. Joseph Hicks stepped up to it and launched a 24-footer. The shot banked in, and Hicks reached down to claim the bill.

Hicks, too, got no words of praise from the coach. Just a smile of congratulations and a roll of the eyes. (Hofman had given away a lot of dollar bills playing “moneyball.”)

The Skyhawk Boys Basketball Individual Camp last week was full of sounds – coaches shouting, balls bouncing off the floor and clanging off rims, buzzers sounding, players yelling.

Thompson and Hicks heard none of it.

They were among eight youths at the annual camp who are legally deaf, and that presented big challenges and learning opportunities for everyone involved, especially the FLC camp coaches, who include current and former players and coaches.

“At first, they didn’t quite know how to handle things,” said Letty Perez, athletic coordinator at the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. “But they’re great. I said, ‘Treat them as equals. Don’t make any special modifications for them.’ They’re wonderful.”

The camp, which ran Monday through Thursday, was in its 15th year, the 11th under the directorship of Bob Pietrack, associate head coach at FLC.

Pietrack said he thought it would be a great opportunity not only for the hearing-impaired students but for other campers and the staff. One of the camp goals is to be a better teammate.

“I think it’s helped the camaraderie of the whole camp,” Pietrack said. “I think it’s brought us closer.”

For the boys’ camp, it’s a first. The New Mexico school brought its girls to the girls’ camp two years ago, and plans to come every couple years assuming it fits into the summer schedule.

The School for the Deaf, which first opened in 1885, has played basketball for close to a century, Perez said. They often play other schools for the deaf but also play “hearing” teams. Last year, the boys went to a camp hosted by the Arizona School for the Deaf in Tucson.

“I wanted them to be exposed to other hearing kids, so they get a little bit of both worlds,” Perez said Wednesday through one of three interpreters with the team. “Honestly, (the camps) are quite similar. The drills are similar.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t have issues and temper tantrums that the average teenager has. Five of the School for the Deaf kids are high-school aged, three are middle schoolers.

“I want our kids to see that they’re just the same as all the hearing kids. ... They behave the same. They think the same. They’re normal kids,” Perez said.

The camp, with 100-plus players from the Four Corners, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, rolled along pretty normally. Interpreters – employees of the School for the Deaf – accommodated the needs of the deaf youths, who were spread throughout the gym, as best they could.

At one point, everyone gathered for a dunk competition, in which Thompson and Hicks participated. It was all in fun, with a lot of cheering, particularly when the FLC players took their turns. Cheering wasn’t always clapping – the deaf also cheer by holding their arms up and twisting their hands.

Hicks, a varsity player last year, said he was enjoying the camp and having fun, although there’s a little less communication at this camp than a deaf players camp.

“We make new friends, too, and we can learn from them and learn from the experience,” he said.

Orlando Obeso was working hard in his black T-shirt and gym shorts. He looked as if he could be one of the coaches, but he was one of the interpreters. As coach Hofman explained a technique involved in boxing out for a rebound, Obeso kept pace. He not only signed Hofman’s words, but also demonstrated the technique: Keeping your fingers spread makes your arm stiffer and stronger.

There are difficulties coaching deaf kids during a game, said Perez, who is the girls’ team coach. (The boys’ coach was not able to attend the camp.)

“The problem is it’s hard to get their attention while they’re playing,” Perez said. “We have to wave our hands trying to get their attention. Hearing kids, they can hear the coach yelling to them: ‘Watch your back! Watch your back! ... Screen!’

“But they’ve gotta learn to predict, to know where coach is in case they need to look. So, they work it out,” she said.

Yes, there are difficulties to overcome, but deaf basketball players can set their sights high. In 2008, Lance Allred, who has 75-80 percent hearing loss, became the first legally deaf player in the NBA. He had a short stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

After a difficult season last year, the New Mexico School for the Deaf boys team has some work to do. Maybe a visit to the FLC camp will make a difference.

“I can see they have improved since they got here,” Perez said of her players. “The next two years, watch out.”

If there was a divide in the camp, it wasn’t obvious. Hearing-able and hearing-impaired players mingled so well that to an outsider, it was nearly impossible to tell who was who. For all the youths, it was an eye-opening experience, FLC coach Pietrack said.

“It was open arms on both ends,” Pietrack said. “It was an incredible experience having them.” John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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