A personal essay from Lance Allred, the first legally deaf player in NBA history.
As a basketball player who valued education, I was often the butt of jokes in the locker room. Not that I minded; a college education gave my father the enlightenment to lead our family out of polygamy when I was 12 years old. Because of this, education has always been an important part of our lives. Both of my parents became school teachers and my older siblings received academic scholarships, with me being the lone jock in the family. Yet the pride of education would extend to me as well, the youngest, because the last thing I ever wanted to be was a clichéd athlete who didn’t care about school.
Born with 75 percent hearing loss in a polygamist commune in rural Montana, I don’t know if many people had great expectations of me; maybe more limitations than anything else.
Being the only deaf kid within 60 miles, there were no resources to learn sign language, so I was thrown into the fire and enrolled in speech therapy at the age of 20 months after being fitted with hearing aids. Mind you, this was the 1980s, and we didn’t have digital technology – only analog. I sounded like a deaf kid, and bullies constantly reminded me of this.
It also was impressed upon me, as a 5-year-old by my Sunday school teacher, that God had made me deaf as a form of punishment. Supposedly, I had been unfaithful in the pre-existence in the great holy war between God and Lucifer.
Not only was I different, but I was also a sinner and I had to earn God’s love. And subsequently, in my mind, love from everyone else.
When I was 12 my father discovered several of our religious leaders had been sexually abusing their kids for years and our family went into hiding as we fled the religious sect. At the same time my body was rapidly growing, and all sorts of changes were happening around me. All of my best friends had been my cousins; now they were gone.
My family landed on its feet in downtown Salt Lake City, where I had no friends. But it was a clean start. I was no longer a polygamist kid. I was now just this gangly Neanderthal who grew from 5-foot-10 to 6-4 in my eighth-grade year. One day while walking down the hallway of this new school, the basketball coach saw me and told me to come try out.
“Sure,” I thought. “I don’t have to communicate with anyone or worry about people making fun of the way I talk. All I have to do is put a ball in a hoop. It will be a good way to make friends.”
Or so I believed.
I wasn’t very good. I had never played organized basketball before. All I had was height. Height and a lot of heart. Most of the heart came from that chip on my shoulder, which still had me believing I had to earn God’s love. In the quiet confines of my mind, I believed I had to get to the NBA and then finally God would be proud of me. I was playing for my eternal soul.
Even then, with my size, the limitations continued to pile on: I was never going to be good enough, athletic enough, or I was too deaf.
People have been putting limitations on me all my life, and I guess I just never listened. I couldn’t hear them anyway. I had to blaze my own trail, and I was going to do it. I had to. There was no other choice. I told myself that when I became the first deaf player in the NBA, God would finally love me and I would be on a platform to help, inspire and speak for others with disabilities and setbacks.
Flash-forward to 2008. I am 27 years old after a rocky college career and a shady season in Europe with little pay. After playing in the NBA Development League, I did, in fact, become the first legally deaf player in the NBA after being called up by the Cleveland Cavaliers to be a teammate of LeBron James.
I thought I had finally arrived, that I had achieved the platform to help so many other kids. But then one game I was standing on the court at Quicken Loans Arena, shooting a free throw, and I remember this thought came into my head as I was loading up my shot with 16,000 people watching me. It was a quiet thought. So quiet, in fact, that it was louder in my head than the entire arena of cheering fans:
“Is this it? Is this the best that it gets?
“Why don’t I feel any different? Why don’t I feel that God loves me?”
I was so rattled that I unintentionally banked in my very first free throw in the NBA. Hey, a point is a point, and I was in the record books, but still I was rattled.
I made one field goal in the NBA, another shot off the glass. That time it was intentional, but it was all I would get. That summer I was quietly phased out of the Cavaliers’ organization. It was 2008 and the economy collapsed because of the real-estate bubble. That season many NBA teams, in an effort to save money, kept their 14th and 15th roster spots empty.
The economy hit most of us and I was no exception.
It wasn’t the loss of the contract I had with Cleveland or the fleeting fame that hurt. It was the fact that I no longer – or never really– had the platform to help others.
I had failed, or so I told myself. I believed that my time in Cleveland had been my one shot, and I had gotten so close. I got in the door, but then was asked to leave.
What followed was severe depression.
In order to survive, I had to shift. I went away for seven years on a little walkabout around the world, playing basketball on every continent except Antarctica.
I went away.
And I have come back.
I was a basketball player once. But I am more than that now. I was always more than that.
Basketball would not be my biggest stage. It was only an experience I needed, carving this skeleton key that is my life, which now opens any door for me to share my story.
And this next door that I am opening will change the face of education as we know it. This is a bigger stage than I ever imagined, far bigger than any NBA court. I am now able to empower children from every walk of life by giving them a level playing field to acquire education and solving the greatest issue facing our disenfranchised youth: access.
Recently, Sugata Mitra, an economist and education scientist in India, made a plea during a TED Talk, asking for a school in the cloud for all the children in India. More than two million viewers have watched this talk.
Mr. Mitra, I am answering your call, for you and every academic institution in the world.
Enter the Manestream Education Initiative: a full end-to-end, online school experience for any child, anywhere in the world. Our Manestream Mobile Desktop Kit – which is a fully supported online computer on your laptop, phone or tablet – is an easy-to-use platform that gets your company out of the I.T. hassle at a fraction of the cost. Of even further value: For every three Manestream Mobile Desktop Kits sold, we provide one to a child in need to open up a world of accessible, easy-to-use education.
Knowledge is the great equalizer, and we are attempting to blow open the talent pool to develop children who would otherwise never be found.
For so many years, I thought basketball was my identity and believed that was where my self-worth resided. But through my journey around the world, I learned I am so much more than that.
As I said before, my life story is a hardened skeleton key, which not only opens doors for me, but now opens any door for any child who wants to walk through as well.
Lance Allred is the president of Manestream, best-selling author of Longshot and Basketball Gods, and keynote motivational speaker with the American Program Bureau. Learn more about his company at www.manestream.com.
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