Deaf sisters succeed on court with unique communication system

Deaf sisters succeed on court with unique communication system

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Deaf sisters succeed on court with unique communication system

Sisters Valerie (15) and Mireya (3) Phlaum were both born deaf and are members of the Shadow Hills varsity girls' basketball team

Sisters Valerie (15) and Mireya (3) Phlaum were both born deaf and are members of the Shadow Hills varsity girls’ basketball team

Over the course of the past two decades, I’ve conducted, I don’t even know, maybe upwards of 10,000 interviews.

From convicted murderers, to Olympic athletes, to garmentless farmers, to golf luminaries, to internationally-renowned attorneys, a whole lotta folks have leant their voices to my recorder.

Now, I place my chat with sisters Mireya and Valerie Phlaum on the short list of interview settings, scenarios and subjects whom I’ll truly remember for a long, long time.

Born deaf, the Phlaum sisters are both reserves for the Shadow Hills (Indio, Calif.) girls’ basketball team.  Mireya, a senior backup point guard, and Valerie, a sophomore reserve forward, count as two of the 14 deaf student at their school, seven of whom, including the Phlaums and sophomore junior varsity forward Melanie Rodriguez, are involved in Knights’ sports.

Sitting along a conference room table in the Shadow Hills’ athletic offices, their ever-amiable translator Francine Aguilar to my left and the Phlaums to my right, a conversation begins, and my head is on a swivel.

Under head coach Thaddis Bosley, the Shadow Hills girls’ basketball program has enjoyed a continued ascendance of success. The Knights just captured the Desert Valley League title after an impressive 11-1 run through the league. It was the first DVL title for any team at Shadow Hills in their inaugural year in the league. Next up is a home playoff game on Thursday.

Achievement in basketball, of course, is contingent upon a necessary code of communication.  But rarely (if ever) will one encounter such communicative tenets in the unique form displayed by these Knights.

Deaf athletes aren’t a total rarity in sport, yet, as the food chain of competition grows stronger, it goes without saying that fewer and fewer hearing-impaired jocks are found at the varsity levels at schools not considered deaf-specific.  Across the pro ranks, a few names come to mind – longtime MLBer Curtis Pride, WNBA star Tamika Catchings and former Seattle Seahawk Derrick Coleman perhaps foremost among them – but, again, in a trade of attrition, competing without the aid of one’s main senses is not generally a recipe for success.

Not that such a barrier has provided pause for the Phlaum sisters, namely Mireya, who came to the game as a nascent in her freshman year.

“Which was pretty funny, because I knew nothing about basketball, and she knew nothing about basketball,” says Aguilar, who works as an Educational Sign Language Interpreter at Shadow Hills and is the girls’ interpreter for varsity basketball.

Shadow Hills guard Mireya Phlaum, who was born deaf, communicates with her teammates and coaches via hand signals.

Shadow Hills guard Mireya Phlaum, who was born deaf, communicates with her teammates and coaches via hand signals.

Of the elder Phlaum’s introduction to hoops, Bosley adds: “Honestly, in the beginning, I thought it was something she would try, and we probably wouldn’t see her the following year.”

But Mireya Phlaum is a particularly driven, mature and observant girl.  Prior to this season, her first three years of basketball – for both her, Aguilar and eventually Bosley – proved a process of communicative hurdles as she sought more floor time.

“I was frustrated in the beginning,” Mireya signs through Aguilar.  “Communication is better now, and my teammates help me and show me what to do.  If there was no communication then it’s frustrating, because then I just have to sit on the bench.”

For those not familiar with communicating with the deaf and not handy with sign language, an exchange of information is at the same time exciting, fascinating and confusing.  Case in point: Not wanting to appear rude during our conversation and hoping not to exude poor etiquette, I spent much of our chat trying not to look at Aguilar, but rather address the girls as they signed her way.

Head on a swivel.

“Last year, it was a frustration, with the girls coming to me with, ‘Will you just tell her this . . .,’ or constantly coming to Francine,” admits Bosley.

For games and play calls, the team tried a microphone system last season, with Bosley’s voice routed to Aguilar, who would then pass on signs.  The routine didn’t really work, nor did an ensuing attempt at producing small, then larger flash cards to communicate plays.

“It still wasn’t delivering the information fast enough,” Bosley says.

Sisters Mireya (goggles) and Valerie Phlaum, who were born deaf and are on the Shadow Hills girls' basketball team, look on as coach Thaddis Bosley gives instructions.

Sisters Mireya (goggles) and Valerie Phlaum, who were born deaf and are on the Shadow Hills girls’ basketball team, look on as coach Thaddis Bosley gives instructions.

This year, an alternate method is used.  During the team’s preseason, autumn study hall sessions, Bosley asked the Phlaums to create a one-handed sign system for plays (the free hand needed for ball handling), and the sisters, in short time, authored a series of signals for the entire Knights’ team.

“And now everybody uses that,” says Bosley.

Advancing through the DVL season with aplomb, the system has graduated to its advantages.

“One strength I can see – and the whole team can benefit, including the coach – is when making a play call, the gym is loud and coach is yelling,” Aguilar explains.  “And what happens to the hearing people?  They can’t hear.  But with sign (language), the coach uses a sign and the all the girls pass along the play.  So there’s just one girl that needs a hand signal from coach, and all the girls know the play.”

While younger sister Valerie owns an ideal basketball stature as a wiry 5-foot-10 forward, her personality is more that of a typical SoCal sophomore in high school: a little sarcastic, a little petulant and a little “whatever.”

Mireya has her head on a swivel.

“Communicating to Mireya is easier; communicating to Valerie is more fun,” smiles Bosley.  “Valerie can be quiet, but she actually is edgy and shows more of her personality.  Mireya is very mature.”

Borrowing a Bosley-ism, his team this year has “bought in.” Success for the Knights and thriving with two deaf players isn’t simply due to time – it’s an entire team culture of communication.

“Now, the girls come to Francine with, ‘How do I say this?’,” says Bosley. “The girls on the team made their own decisions to get involved, and to get to know them on their own, and that’s when we saw the break, that’s when it opened up.”

Adds Aguilar: “This year it started making sense,” she says.  “This year, it started clicking.”

In Mireya, Bosley sees the makings of a future floor leader.  And his impressions aren’t singular, as the senior has received recent recruiting interest to play for SouthWest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf (Big Spring, Texas), the nation’s only deaf community college.

“Mireya went out of her way to learn on her own, to survey.  She’d probably be a really good coach because she can automatically see sets and formations.  I guarantee you, not all of my hearing girls can do that,” the head coach says.  “And we have constant eye contact.  More than anybody else, she’s just constantly looking over at me.  She doesn’t want to miss a beat.  If she was ever in a situation where she was confused or didn’t know, that bothers her. She dreads that.  Her head is on a swivel more than anybody.”

For the sisters, playing sans a key sensory tool creates a precondition to advance alternate awarenesses.

“The necessity to go out and do more, do extra, pay extra attention,” Bosley explains.  “Mireya is very detail-oriented.  I think a coach’s number one frustration with a player is, ‘How did you not see that?’  But because of her inability to hear, it’s what she has to do to stay relevant.  And while Valerie is younger and still getting better with that, Mireya made a conscious decision to overcome her odds and do what she had to do to play.”

As for the sensation of performing at the varsity level without her hearing, Mireya knows her floor time isn’t a charitable effort.

“I have to watch and see everything,” she signs through Aguilar. “I have to feel and look around.  I have to watch everything around me to see what’s going on.”

Further describing the need to flex the other sensory muscles, all parties explain the sisters’ enhanced recognition of facial expressions and body language via both on-court friend and foe.

“It’s our vision, our sight,” adds Mireya though Aguilar.  “And the feelings on the floor, too; we can feel vibrations on the floor.  We can feel the dribbling, and then sometimes there’s a sound.  I can feel when the other team is next to me, and I have to kinda be touching them when we play man-to-man defense, to know where they’re going; if I’m not making any contact, they leave me and I don’t know where they’re at.”

Without one’s hearing, playing in enemy territory finds further advantage.

“We don’t hear all the loud noise, like when people are chanting and yelling stuff,” signs Valerie via Aguilar.  “It’s all blocked out; we’re deaf, we just make it in and no problem, we don’t hear anything.”

Our conversation concluded, my neck muscles aptly exercised and having learned the sign for “Awesome,” I follow Bosley and Aguilar to the Shadow Hills’ gym to watch a few minutes of practice and see the string of signs in action.

The practice, with its runs and sets and layup drills, proceeds like basically any other, save for the extra level of communication, which flows freely to the sisters between their passes and dribbles.

And as I readied to depart during a free throw drill, I looked up a final time, simply to offer a parting nod to the parties who have given me their afternoon.

And sure enough, standing on the side of the lane where she can see her coach, and see me, there is Mireya Phlaum, her eyes connected with mine, with a smile and a wave at the ready.

Head on a swivel.

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