POSTED: April 23rd 2014
InDepth

Lance Allred NBA star: Anyone hearing?

Lance Allred is the first legally deaf player in the NBA / Doha Stadium Plus
Lance Allred is the first legally deaf player in the NBA / Doha Stadium Plus

AJU GEORGE CHRIS / Doha Stadium Plus

The first thing one notices about American Lance Collin Allred is that he is a big player in the big world of basketball. Apart from his nearly seven-foot tall frame, what makes him stand apart from peers is the fact he is the first and, probably, only legally deaf player to have played in the NBA.

At the outset, Lance, who joined Al Rayyan as a guest player for the Cup competitions, may look intimidating. But take some time off to speak with him and the portrait of a sensitive, intelligent giant emerges.

He had a far from typical childhood. His grandfather was the founder of a fundamentalist religious sect. His parents, disenchanted with the teachings, broke away and took their five children with them.

Ostracised from the community, they began life anew. That tough period, along with his hearing impairment, speech and obsessive compulsive disorder problems, pushed Lance to an early-life crisis.

Aged 13, he found a way forward through playing basketball. Since then, he has competed on different continents, the NBA, and even wrote two books about his experiences. But if one expected a rags-to-riches story, an underdog triumphing against all odds, it never came.

Sitting back comfortably in a chair at a five star hotel in Doha, Lance, wearing a tiny, almost invisible hearing aid, told his story.

“Until I turned 13, I was more of a Nintendo videogames kind of kid. I never played ball. But now, it has been 20 years of basketball and a huge rollercoaster ride. The game prepared me for the life ahead. It taught me about myself, how to handle adversities and succeed,” said the 33-year-old, who has been plying his trade with Mexican club Fuerza Regia.

But success was not easy to come by. He had to fight hard to overcome prejudices about his hearing problems. Never one to be bitter, he recalled those tough days.

“I’ve lost many jobs over my ears. On several occasions, I was about to sign contracts, only to find out I was rejected because I’m deaf. Coaches form mental images without even meeting me once. If they see me, they would realise I’m an intelligent player after all.

“You don’t need to hear your team-mates to understand what they want. Body language is a good communicator. And so is lip reading. I’m good at both and that’s helped me immensely. I’m not bitter about lost chances. It only serves to make you angry and less productive,” he said.

One of man’s biggest strengths lies in his ability to find humour around him. And Lance is a master at it. He laughed delightfully as he recalled the naming of his seven-month-old son Simon.

“I’ve always loved writing. The character’s name in my first-ever story, as a young kid, was Simon. So I wanted to name my son the same. Imagine how funny it was when I later found out the name’s Hebrew meaning literally translated to ‘the hearing one,’” he said with a guffaw.

The cutting wit helped him look at life in a positive light and stopped him from falling into depression. He found strength in his disability.

“Playing with a hearing aid was challenging. Once, after getting hit on the ear, the aid shattered and I got a few stitches. So I abandoned it altogether, especially at arenas where the music often reached a crescendo. So I became more of a visual player. I learnt from memories, read body language well and deduced what the next moves would be.

“In a funny way, playing as a deaf proved beneficial. I was immune to distractions around me — the crowd, the junk they talk, rival players who try to get inside my head… It kept me focused. All I could hear was my own breathing and heartbeats. I immediately began to perform better,” he said.

Lance was also brutally honest about his life choices. And it was refreshing to hear a player talk about his failures just as he would about his successes.

“You would think as a former NBA player, I would’ve a lot of money. Truth is that I don’t. I played for many clubs that were honest, but had very little money. From 2009 to ’11, the world economy went bust. I made a bad investment in real estate and lost out.

“In fact, only the top five per cent of NBA players make hard cash. Others eternally continue through the revolving door. No one actually told me that when I started out. It’s crazy to think I’ve been more successful after I turned 30. The maturity levels and approach towards games change. You start to plan for every eventuality,” said the star player.

Having played with NBA side Cleveland Cavaliers for a few months in ’08, Lance was left disillusioned with a system that unnaturally hyped up players and was nothing short of a business.

“As with any dream job, once you reach there, you realise it’s not what you expected. You get to see how political the situation is. It’s all about who you know in the hierarchy. I regularly outdid some of my team-mates in training. But since I was an NBA Developmental League call-up guy, and there were others who earned upwards of $5m a year, owners didn’t want to see me play during prime time. And coaches were often helpless.

“The NBA is a huge political machine which creates unnatural buzz around players and shower them with glamour and glitz. They market players so hard and build teams around them… It’s all just publicity overkill. I’m grateful for the time I was there, but truth is I never got enough opportunity to prove myself.

“I almost wish I was called up to a weaker side as then I would get more chances to play, impress and move on to better contracts. As much as you want to give kids a chance to change their lives, this game is a huge business. You’ve to approach it as a business. But I should confess NBA helped add weight to my resume. It got me jobs every year since then,” he said.

Lance rued the number of challenges athletes with disabilities faced before making it big in the world of able-bodied competitors.

“In the West, there’re raging discussions going on about women’s and gay rights. But rights for athletes with disabilities rank pretty low in the index. In this day and age, no one would talk about us, about giving us a chance. They prefer to be silent about it and hope everyone will simply forget.

“How do you sue someone for not giving you a job for being deaf? You really can’t prove it. There’re a lot of prejudices that athletes with disabilities face. I would love to see a world with more patience for people with disabilities. But will it happen? Probably not in a very long time,” he said.

However, Lance was also happy to have changed the mentalities of some parents with deaf children.

“Seeing me in the NBA, deaf kids started taking a more active interest in sport. Even now, I get lots of e-mails and fan letters from parents who say they aren’t overly protective of their children anymore.

“Seattle Seahawks’ reserve full-back Derrick Coleman is also deaf. He’s the first such player in the NFL. Small stories like these, of deaf players making it big, are popping up here and there. It’ll give more confidence for others to tread the same path. I’m hopeful more deaf people are inspired by our stories,” he said.

For deaf athletes, a brave new world beckons. Is anyone hearing?

GLANCE AT…

LEBRON JAMES

We were team-mates at the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008. People just don’t realise how talented he’s. LeBron is a very intelligent player. Though slightly smaller than me, but a bit heavier, his level of athleticism is simply unbelievable. Sometimes, there come along freaks of nature who’re so ridiculously talented they can do anything they want.

When I had to guard him during practice, he would dunk on me and all I could say was ‘God bless you.’ He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. At the time, he was 24 and me, 27. The way he handled fame at such a young age was inspirational. Coming out of high school, with insane amounts of money and fame, he handled it very well. I’m not a Miami Heat fan, but I’m a LeBron James fan.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

I wrote two books, which were autobiographies. Harper-Collins published the first — Longshot: The Adventures of a Deaf Fundamentalist Mormon Kid and His Journey to the NBA. But I wasn’t happy with it. I gave them an 800-page manuscript and they chopped it down to 250 pages, changing a lot of things.

I wanted total control of my work. So I published myself my second book — Basketball Gods: The Transformation of the Enlightened Jock. It was well-received. I’ve always found writing a cathartic exercise. Some play videogames, some spend time on Facebook, I just read and write to pass time.

http://www.dohastadiumplusqatar.com/


Keywords · Doha · NBA · Lance Allred · basketball


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