Loud and Proud
USA Deaf Basketball’s fight for recognition.
by Dan Shapiro / @danshapiro413
In SLAM 152, Ray Glier told the story of the Mike Glenn’s Basketball Camp for the Hearing Impaired. Glenn, who played in the NBA for ten seasons (’77-87), has been running the weeklong camp in Atlanta for 30 years giving thousands of hearing-impaired kids the chance to compete on the court.
This story caught the attention of Joe Estep. Joe’s a 6-2 PF on the USA Deaf Basketball Team. In his initial email to us, Joe mentioned that he was “surprised” to see deaf basketball mentioned in the pages of SLAM. Surprised. That’s because Joe’s used to deaf athletes getting snubbed. Falling somewhere between our Olympic and Paralympic athletes, our nation’s deaf athletes more often than not go without proper recognition.
Just like Mike Glenn, who’s scrambling to put together the funds for his Atlanta camp each year. Our National Deaf basketball team, the one with USA on the front of their jerseys, is forced to individually raise the money to go play for our country in international competition.
Growing up in West Virgina, Joe’s been playing competitive ball since eighth grade and went on to star in high school. “Basketball influenced my decision to leave home and attend Gallaudet University [a university for the hearing impaired in Washington, DC], says Estep.” At school he competed as well as experienced the breadth a college education, “I’d never met another deaf person in my life. It opened up a whole new world to me and is where I met my wife, Jennifer.”
The ultimate achievement, of gaining a spot on the USA squad (after a failure to do so in ’09), filled Joe with a great sense of pride. But once on the squad, Joe was met with a remaining hurdle: come up with a few thousands dollars or remain at home. “I’d heard about the fundraising situation over the years, and knowing that we’re one of the only countries in the world to be in this position…it never sat right with me.”
It doesn’t sit right with Coach Keith Westhoelter either. Coach Westhoelter, who’s been involved with USA Deaf hoop as a player and coach for more than twenty years provided me a list of the other countries that don’t provide 100% government financial support: Ghana and Trinidad and Tobago.
That’s right. The USA’s has 275 million more people and a GDP 300 times the size of those others combined and we have our deaf basketball team, guys in school, guys with jobs and families who are fundraising to represent their country in international competition.
To make the team, players apply and then tryout in Las Vegas and Washington DC. Due to funding, the team’s time together is limited. But players on their own volition continue to train and play while staying in touch as much as possible. They compete in the Pan Am games, the Deaf Olympics and the World Championships. The results of the last two events spell out the situational pretty clearly: Gold in Taipei at the Deafolympics in ’09 and a withdrawal from the World Championships due to a lack of funding.
Shirley Platt, the commissioner of USA Deaf Basketball, now heads the more than 30-year struggle to get USCO (the United States Olympic Commission) to support deaf basketball. “We’ve asked for parity with funding that is provided for the Paralympic teams, which are funded by the USOC along with the Olympics…despite the fact that we’ve had the International Olympic Committees endorsement and recognition for years.”
When looking to members of Congress for action deaf basketball’s been met with a typically bureaucratic and silent response. While some congressmen and senators have pressed the USOC to change their stance, the USOC references the brief support they did give in the mid-1990s and consider that to have been enough
While Nike did provide the ’09 Deaflympic team with uniforms, any further pressure to USOC sponsors hasn’t helped much, says Platt. “They tell us that they already provide support for athletes with disabilities through the Paralymics.” Stuck somewhere in the middle, USA Deaf athletes continue to suffer. It’s as if both the USOC and sponsors deemed their mission fulfilled without including the hearing-impaired. A position, Platt points out, that completely at odds with the spirit of the Olympic movement.
The reality for deaf athletes is that they’re focusing on their fund-raising rather than training for international competition. Joe’s found support from his church in his hometown in West Virginia, but for many others, fundraising is a looming threat as the next competition comes closer.
With awareness from the basketball community Joe hopes to see some change. “Basketball is everything to me. Besides God and my family, it’s the most important thing in my life.” That’s passion for the game that gets lost in this lockout. A passion that needs our support for guys just like Joe.
For more information check out usadb.us.