Deaf player's teammates see inspiration

There is a distinctive sound when you walk into the "Matadome," the quirky nickname of the flat-roofed basketball gym nestled inside the kinesiology building at Cal State Northridge. There's the booming voice of head coach Bobby Braswell yelling at his team to set a pick correctly. The squeaking of sneakers rubbing against the hardwood floor as players run up and down the court. The echoed chants of fans and the blown whistles of referees in the mostly empty gym. And the sound of the ball pounding on the cracked court as cheerleaders shout from the baseline.

For Michael Lizarraga, the only deaf athlete competing in NCAA Division I men's basketball, these sounds have zero meaning.

He can't hear the fans cheering for him after a strong rebound and must look at an interpreter to understand that Braswell is imploring him to extend his arms when he's on defense. Yet when Lizarraga, is on the court his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame blends in seamlessly with the action.

"It just comes from instincts," Lizarraga said through his interpreter, Erin Matthews, a 28-year-old CSUN graduate. "I grew up playing basketball with hearing people and it's something natural that I do. I don't know how to explain it. I've always played basketball."

As Lizarraga, a junior forward, takes a seat on the bench, he signs with his teammate and best friend Willie Galick, a senior forward. When the two first met before a team barbeque three years ago, Galick didn't know sign language. In fact, he had never met a deaf person in his life. Gallick, 22, tried introducing himself to Lizarraga, 21, when he got in a teammate's car and Lizarraga just pointed to his ears, and Galick had to be told that Lizarraga was deaf.

"I was shocked," Galick said. "A deaf basketball player? I'd never heard of that. I'd seen a one-armed basketball player or a basketball player with a prosthetic leg, but I'd never seen a basketball player who couldn't hear. I thought this guy must be pretty special."

Galick got to know how special Lizarraga was over the next year as they bonded on and off the court. Lizarraga, who is from Northern California, and Galick, who is from British Columbia and transferred to CSUN from Pepperdine, were on the sidelines together most of their first season while Lizarraga learned the system as a freshman and Gallick sat out after his transfer. To pass the time, Galick would often ask Matthews how to sign random words and would then sign them to Lizarraga during practice to make him laugh.

"I would call him a dirty rat or a turnip; one of our favorites is 'butter duck,'" Galick said. "I don't know where that came from but I was like, 'What's "butter"? What's "duck"?' And then I'd put it together, and it makes us laugh every time. We became close that first year. He's like my little brother now."

What started out as a way to goof off on the sidelines while they couldn't play quickly turned into a second language for Galick, who even began dating a deaf girl he met through Lizarraga. Galick has become so good at sign language that he can fill in for Mathews, who is unable to attend as many games and practices as she has in the past because of budget cuts.

"When he was first learning, he would sign very sloppy or sign slow, but he picks it up faster and faster. He's been signing pretty well now," Lizarraga said. "It's been tough not always having an interpreter, but Willie is happy to interpret for me, too. Sometimes when she's not here I want to know what coach said, but he talks for a really long time, and I want to know everything he's saying, but I have to be patient and just get the summary version from Willie."

Galick is constantly reminded of all the sounds around him when he's walking around campus with Lizarraga and signing to him or pointing him toward someone trying to get his attention.

"You don't really notice it, and you don't realize what you have until you lose it," Gallick said. "It's like walking around the world with noise-canceling headphones on all the time. You don't hear your own footsteps; you don't hear your own breath; you don't hear people walking around you, cars, birds; you don't realize how many sounds are out there until it's taken from you."

It was actually the sight of headphones and the thought of music flowing through them that gave Galick his most heartbreaking moment with Lizarraga last year.

"We were sitting on the team bus and everyone has their headphones on before the game and they were getting focused and bobbing their heads to the music, and Mike just gets my attention and signs, 'I wish I could do that,'" Galick said. "I'm like, 'Wish you could do what?' And he's like, 'I wish I could listen to music,' and I just paused my music and stopped what I was doing. All I could say was, 'I wish you could, too.'"

Lizarraga, who has started eight games this season and is averaging 2.3 points and 2.2 rebounds, grew up in Woodland, a small suburb 15 miles northwest of Sacramento. Although he and his sister, Natalie Ann, 15, are both deaf, his parents, Cari and Tavo Lizarraga, can hear and speak. It was actually the sight of Lizarraga's father signing to Michael during an AAU tournament in Las Vegas that caught the eye of Braswell while he was scouting another player. Lizarraga, who played basketball, football and baseball at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, was encouraged to go to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing. Lizarraga, however, wanted to play Division I basketball.

"You have to give a lot of credit to Michael: He had a dream and a goal to play Division I basketball, and he's worked hard at it," Braswell said. "He is a pivotal part of what we do now. He's playing significant minutes. We depend on him, and he's one of our stronger guys. There's a great level of respect his teammates have for him as a basketball player, and they don't see him any other way."

CSUN was the only Division I school Lizarraga considered because of its nationally renowned program for deaf students. In fact, there are two other deaf athletes at CSUN in addition to Lizarraga (Ashley Griffith, who is on the women's track and field team, and Danielle Berman, who is on the women's water polo team). The large number of deaf students at CSUN has actually given Lizarraga his own cheering section at games, where they root for him in their own unique way.

"I remember the first time he played here at home, I looked across the stands and I saw a group of people shaking their hands up in the air," Braswell said. "There were about 20 people doing that, and it didn't dawn on me until one of my assistant coaches told me those were deaf students and that's how they clap. When Mike scored his first basket, to see them all doing that is a moment I'll always remember."

As practice wraps up before the Matadors' final home game, he tries to teach a couple of teammates some phrases in sign language. He then motions for his teammates to call him later. "Wait, text me, don't call me," he signs. "Text me." They all bust up laughing as they leave the gym.

"Mike is a very funny guy," Galick said. "He notices things no one else notices because he sees how people act and picks up on their facial expressions and body language. He mimics them sometimes, and he does the best impressions of people. The other day he was making fun of how someone we know talks on the phone and he puts the phone up to his ear and then puts it up to his face and switches hands, and everyone is laughing because we all know what he's talking about. Mike gets people out of going in their little bubble with their headphones because Mike can't go into his own little bubble. He can't shut things off because everything has always been shut off. He's always looking around and wants to get involved. He's always starting conversations even thought he can't talk."

Galick shakes his head and looks down at the ground when he's reminded that he and Lizarraga are playing their final games together. After this year Galick will graduate and move back to Canada, while Lizarraga will have to move on without his best friend and on-court interpreter.

"I try not thinking about it, but it's slowly creeping up on us," Galick said. "I'm sort of leaving him behind without anyone to take my place. It's a sad situation but something that had to happen eventually. I'm trying to get other teammates involved, but they're not picking it up as well as I'd like them to. Hopefully a couple guys will step up and learn a few new words every day."

Galick just wishes there were some way he could help Lizarraga hear the same way Lizarraga has helped him sign.

"I wish I could give him my ability to hear even just for one day so he could hear his mom's voice and his dad's voice," Gallick said. "Just to hear how much they care about him. I just wish he could hear and talk to his parents even for a day in a quiet setting where he could hear nature and all these subtle things we take for granted. I wish I could give that to him for everything he's given me."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.