Nigerian hoops team hears sounds of the game

Members of the Nigerian Special Olympics basketball team pose following their game at UCLA on Tuesday. They were fitted for hearing aids, and many heard their coach's voice for the first time. Alyssa Roenigk/ESPN

A turn of the head. It was the smallest of gestures, blink and he might have missed it, but contained within that tiny movement was the most incredible message.

"He heard me. I called his name and he heard me."

It's Tuesday afternoon on Court 4 at USC's Galen Center auditorium and Michael Ani, head coach of the Nigerian Special Olympics basketball team is seated in the bleachers awaiting his team's 12:30 p.m. start against Canada. Competition has not yet begun for his squad, but 24 hours ago, he says his team likely experienced their most exciting moment of the Games. It's all Ani and his fellow coaches can talk about and re-telling the story causes him to break out in a grin he thought he would reserve only for winning the gold medal game.

"It was an amazing experience," he says. "Actually, I'll show you."

Ani leans forward in his seat to better project his already powerfully deep voice to his players seated a few rows below. "Victor! Victor!"

From the bottom row, a 16-year-old boy in a teal No. 33 Nigeria jersey turns his head and raises his eyebrows. "Victor, come here," Ani says while simultaneously signing the words using American sign language. Victor Ifesinachi stands and begins stepping over his teammates to join his coach.

"Did you see?" Ani says. "He heard me."

Ani and his team arrived in Los Angeles last week prepared to contest for a gold medal in basketball. Above all, this is what brought them to the World Games, what they have been working hard toward, practicing as a team up to three times a week for more than two years. But when Ani and his fellow coaches departed with the team from Nigeria, they made an additional promise to the parents they left behind. Because of the incredible expense associated with traveling to the U.S., no parents of players on the basketball team traveled with their children to L.A.

"We told them, if we can get hearing aids for the players, we will try," says assistant coach Ruth Egbuna. "Even for one athlete, it would have been a success. But to get them for all, it's so exciting."

Of the 10 athletes on the Nigerian basketball team, eight have a hearing disability and several are profoundly deaf. Until turning on the hearing aids they were fitted with thanks to the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete Program, six of the athletes had never heard discernible, amplified sound.

"They couldn't believe they were hearing sounds," says Naomi Saliu-Lawal, CEO of the Nigerian Special Olympics, adding that witnessing one athlete in particular react to turning on her hearing aid was especially moving. "I spoke with Chidalu Onwunze's parents before the trip and they told me doctors told them Chidalu would never hear," she says of the 19-year-old center. "They tried all they could before age 5 and then doctors said nothing could be done. But when she turned on the hearing aid, she started smiling, laughing and signing, 'I hear sounds. I hear sounds.'"

It was the kind of scene that anchors Disney films. But while magical, the moment wasn't as earth shattering as it sounds. The art of hearing and making sense of what we hear is not as straightforward as simply flipping a switch. The use of a proper hearing aid is, however, a remarkable first step. Because of that fact, the process by which athletes are fitted for devices like hearing aids through the Special Olympics is quite extensive.

First, athletes participate in a series of health screenings, including hearing tests, and if a problem is detected, they continue through additional screenings to determine their hearing levels and whether they might benefit from the use of a hearing aid. "Then they are sent to us," says Dennis Van Vliet, senior director of professional relations with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which provides hearing aids and after care for Special Olympics athletes.

"We then test to determine what levels are comfortable for them and what might be uncomfortably loud," Van Vliet says. "We choose a hearing aid and test for balance between the ears. If they require two aids, we adjust both and look at the bandwidth of speech they can hear. We make sure to choose aids with a limit set so no sound becomes uncomfortable and then we fit them to their ears, teach them how to take care of the aids and explain how and when is best to wear them."

Before Tuesday's game, Ani and Egbuna advised their athletes to wear their new hearing aids for the first quarter and then, if the sounds in the arena became too overwhelming, they advised them to take them out.

"We didn't want them to become distracted," Egbuna says. "We didn't want anything taking away from playing the game." By halftime, about half of the athletes had removed their hearing aids and handed them to Egbuna to hold until after the game. "Tomorrow, they will try again," Egbuna says.

And once they are home in Nigeria, follow-up care will be vital.

"We expect the most important part of this process to be the after care," Van Vliet says. "Hearing amplified sound for the first time is a big adjustment. It's not like turning on a light in a dark room. Part of the counseling they go through is learning to make sense of the noise. Their aids must be constantly adjusted and maintained. We try to avoid fitting someone who doesn't have the possibility of after care."

Four years ago, Ifesinachi competed at the World Games in Greece, the only member of this year's squad with that distinction. During a Healthy Athlete screening, he received his first hearing aid, at the age of 12.

"During those Games, he heard some of his first sounds," Saliu-Lawal says. "And for the next six months, he continued to use the hearing aid."

But without access to follow-up care or the funds to purchase replacement batteries, he was unable to maintain its use. Monday, he heard coach Ani call his name for the first time in three years. Saliu-Lawal says her organization is working hard to ensure all eight athletes receive follow-up care once the return home from Los Angeles.

After the game, which Nigeria wins 32-21, Victor runs up to his coach and reaches for a high-five. In the final minute of the game, he scored on a layup and he says he heard the response from the crowd.

"He is so happy," Ani says. "He can't stop smiling, too."