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The Silence Court at Lakeland High School

December 1, 2015
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Demetric McNair doesn’t hear the squeak of basketball sneakers on the hardwood. He doesn’t notice the constant pounding of a basketball on that court. McNair has never heard the crowd roar after a big play.

And that’s all fine with him.

McNair was born deaf — just like his sister, mother and grandmother. But the Lakeland junior has never let it slow him down. In fact, the 18-year-old plays football and basketball for the Dreadnaughts.

Teammate Shawn Daniels also was born deaf, but with the help of cochlear implants and about 15 years of speech and hearing exercises, he can hear and speak.

Daniels thrived as a cross-country runner this season, and he too is beginning his first year on the varsity basketball team.

The boys may be different because they’re deaf, but as far as they care, they’re just Demetric and Shawn.

“It doesn’t feel weird at all. We’re all the same,” McNair said through an educational sign-language interpreter. “All the people, we wear the same uniform. The only difference is one can hear and one can’t. We’re all the same. I know the people are watching me and they know I can play, and I can see their excitement.”

“IT’S FAIR”

Daniels is tall and thin, about 6-foot-3 with short hair and his cochlear implants hooked behind each ear. McNair is a little shorter, dressed in green shorts and a winter jacket with a flat-brimmed hat after a recent basketball practice.

The first thing you notice is how they look like normal high school students, joking around and laughing.

That attitude may be the most endearing part about them. Daniels and McNair are deaf, but in their minds, they’re the same as any other student. Other people, they say, seem to look at it as a bigger deal than it is.

“It’s fair,” said Daniels, who doesn’t wear his implants during races or games. “People like to do things, so … we do things we want to do. We’re competitive, too. There’s nothing different here. It’s just the way it is.”

Although Daniels does have some hearing and the ability to speak, he’s fluent in American sign language and can read lips well. McNair doesn’t have implants, but he’s fluent in sign language and can read lips, too.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about two or three of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.

More than 90 percent of those kids are born to parents who can hear. McNair has grown up in a deaf household and lives with his grandparents, but Daniels fits in that 90 percent. His parents and two brothers can hear just fine.

So, rather than communicate with them through sign language, he grew up reading lips and learning to speak with the help of those cochlear implants — which he said he’s had since he was about 2 years old.

Joan M. Weaver works as an educational sign language interpreter with the Polk County School Board. Though she is based out of Auburndale, she has a history of working with the boys.

“I love them to death, they’re two of my favorites,” she said. “It’s totally awesome. I’m just glad I can be part of their life and to help out when they need the help. All I do is facilitate communication — they’re the ones with the skills. They do everything else.”

Weaver worked with Daniels throughout this past cross-country season. She said with a laugh that she was mistaken for his mother at one of the meets.

“I loved it,” she said. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

PEACEFUL ON THE COURT

Daniels said that, without sound, it’s peaceful on the court. There’s no chaos, no noise, no distractions — it’s just you and your teammates. But it doesn’t come without some struggle.

This isn’t the first time Lakeland basketball coach Deron Collins has coached a deaf player. Rocco Lauricella was the Dreadnaughts’ starting point guard in 2007-08 and thrived despite being deaf.

Collins isn’t fluent in sign language, so he relies on interpreters to communicate with Daniels and McNair. Communication can be a challenge, but the same can be said about the rest of the team.

“The communication with non-deaf kids is hard enough in basketball,” Collins said. “I’ve had most of these kids for four years, and I’m still trying to get some of them to talk on defense.”

Collins said set plays are difficult because that’s when things break down on the court and communication becomes vital. The in-game interpreter for the deaf players has varied. Weaver has helped this year and Dennis Fine has done it on and off since 2005.

“Sometimes it’s hard in basketball, but I just have to learn a lot and learn to deal with being deaf and playing basketball at the same time,” Daniels said. “I have to look at other people and look for the ball. At least I still have eyes, so I can read their lips.”

It’s a process, and Collins has asked if they wanted him to flash cards from the bench to communicate plays. They declined.

“The players know, they’re basketball savvy,” said Fine, who is also an educational sign language interpreter with the School Board. “They know that, if there’s a play that’s going to be called, I’m jumping up and down on the sideline getting their attention to tell them the play.”

For Collins, most of the time the deaf players are just like the rest of his team.

“They might miss a rotation, they might miss a spot where they’re supposed to be,” he said. “But it’s not because of lack of effort or knowing, it’s just simply because of communication, and that’s difficult.”

Both boys will admit, reluctantly, that being deaf creates some challenges in sports. McNair said it’s easier for him to play basketball than football. He has a lot more to do on the football field, whereas basketball is a little less chaotic and, sometimes, more structured.

“We watch a lot of the video of the other games,” McNair said. “I learn a lot. I learn how to play. I know what to do, I learn all the plays. People see me and I’m deaf. They can see that I can play, so, we’re just the same as everybody else and it’s just the same as being anybody else.”

But maybe the easiest part of the transition to the varsity team has been the fact that they are doing it together.

“The support from each other is good,” McNair said, Daniels laughing in the background. “We’re like brothers and we love each other.”

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