IM this article to a friend!

February 26, 2003

Court doesn't require hearing

From: San Jose Mercury News, CA - 26 Feb 2003

By Mark Emmons
Mercury News

Susanna Frohman / Mercury News

Miguel Gilliard, 21, is a senior point guard on Menlo College's basketball team.

Miguel Gilliard learned early in life that it wouldn't be easy fitting in when you're deaf. But that's how he also discovered something else: sports.

``I thought that was the only way to gain respect,'' Gilliard said. ``That became my motivation -- to prove to people that I can do something just as well as normal people.''

Now a senior starting point guard for the Menlo College basketball team, Gilliard has proved he could be even better than that.

Watch Gilliard handle the ball and here's what you think: This guy is a nice small-college player. He's cat quick; a defensive stopper who also loves to push the ball up the court with a hip-hop, high-dribble ball-handling style that matches his baggy, way-below-the-knee shorts.

Now here is what you would never suspect: He can't hear a thing on the court. The crowd. The squeak of sneakers. The yelling of coaches. Nothing.

``He got a technical during a game in Oregon this season and I asked the ref, `What did he say -- because you know he is deaf,' '' Menlo Coach Keith Larsen said. ``The ref said, ``Yeah, right, that's enough out of you.' But then after the game he asked me: `He really can't hear?' ''

Trash talk: then, now

All Gilliard ever wanted was to be like everybody else. But it was never that simple. As a boy growing up in Salinas, he was different. And other kids never let him forget it.

Hey, Miguel, are you stupid?

How come you can't hear what I'm saying?

Some would get in his face when they mocked him, and the reason Gilliard remembers this vividly is because he needed to read their lips to help know what they said.

He still gets his share of trash talk from kids his age, but now they're opponents instead of classmates, and it's all about basketball.

``I can't understand much of what they're saying because I'm not looking at their lips,'' Gilliard said. ``Sometimes they'll still be running their mouths as I walk away. And I'll be thinking, `If they only knew.' ''

He speaks mechanically, but clearly, in a quiet tone of voice. Gilliard is described as an easy-going guy by his coaches and teammates, whose admiration for his attitude is outweighed only by their wonderment at how well he can play despite an impairment that ought to be a serious detriment.

``He just has this amazing sense of what's happening around him,'' said teammate Justin Trott. ``I can't really explain it. He knows when the whistle is blowing. He knows when the screens are coming. He just has great instincts.''

But that awareness didn't come naturally. Gilliard has worked hard to compensate for what he doesn't possess.

Growing up deaf

It wasn't until Miguel was about 2 1/2 that Norma and Art Gilliard realized something they initially thought odd actually was a sign of something seriously wrong: He wouldn't respond to sound.

Testing would confirm a diagnosis that Gilliard describes as ``severe to profound'' hearing loss. What that means is he can hear a lawn mower if it were started up right next to him -- but little else. By wearing a hearing aid on his right ear, he can hear some sound.

At age 3, he was sent to Toro School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Salinas. That's where he began to learn sign language and how to read lips. In the third grade, he transferred to a regular public school.

``My parents always told me that I was living in a world full of people who can hear, and that I needed to accept that,'' Gilliard said. ``I didn't want to be a deaf kid who only used sign language. That's why I liked public school because that's where I learned how to speak and deal with people.''

But that meant dealing with cruel taunts.

And that's how he gravitated toward sports with a determination that surprised even his parents. He started playing football, baseball and especially basketball because it was a sport he could practice alone.

``The more I played, I began to gain confidence in myself,'' Gilliard said.

He went from being picked on to being the first boy picked in recess games. Basketball also helped ease the transition when the family moved to Hollister when he was in sixth grade.

``Basketball has always been his outlet,'' Art Gilliard said. ``When we first moved, nobody would talk to him because of the hearing aid. So he'd go out to the basketball court and shoot by himself, and then kids would come play with him. That's how he started making friends.''

The court would become his home even though it's a place where he's completely deaf. He can't wear his hearing aid because it slips off when he sweats.

Even as he steadily improved, there would be challenges. One coach was reluctant to play him even though there were only six players on the team.

``A lot of people told me I couldn't do things, and if they didn't say it, I could tell by the way they tried to put me down,'' Gilliard said.

A standout at Hollister's San Benito High, Gilliard was a 1999 first-team All-Monterey Bay League selection.

Although Gilliard was never crazy about schoolwork, he knew he needed to maintain solid grades to get into college. But most schools weren't interested in Gilliard because of his physical impairment.

``It wasn't my hearing,'' Gilliard said. ``It was my height.''

That will happen when you're only 5 feet 7.

College calling

Only two schools actively recruited him. One was the two-year Gavilan College in Gilroy. The other was a school he had never heard of -- Menlo, a small college of 550 students located just up the road from Stanford.

When Larsen, a former Stanford assistant, came to Menlo six years ago, he brought with him Cardinal Coach Mike Montgomery's strategy of signaling in set plays from the bench with flip cards.

That happens to be a great way to communicate with a point guard who can't hear.

``Whatever plays the coaches want to run, they'll hold up a card and I'll just take a quick peek,'' Gilliard explained. ``Then I'll give a hand signal to my teammates so they know what play we're running.''

From there, his teammates help him compensate. If a screen is coming, they'll wave their arms like crossing guards to catch his eye. If the shot clock is winding down, they point to the ceiling. During timeouts and in the locker room, they make way for Gilliard so he can sit right in front of Larsen.

But the truth is he doesn't need much special assistance. Part of his uncanny sense of awareness can be attributed to the fact that he can ``hear'' vibrations from the referee's whistle and the buzzer.

By the end of his freshman year, he was starting full-time. Gilliard now ranks second in school history in assists and fourth in steals. He's averaging 9.5 points and 4.2 assists per game this season.

While Larsen said he believes his point guard is as talented as the walk-ons Larsen coached at Stanford, Gilliard clearly has fit in at Menlo. Now he's trying to help the Oaks (13-11 overall, 9-5 in the California Pacific Conference) to their third berth in four years at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division II national tournament. Menlo hopes to be one of two teams that qualify through their league tournament, which begins with a game today in San Rafael against Holy Names College (13-17, 12-3).

Gilliard is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in management information systems. He would like to play professionally somewhere, although it would be a long shot.

``I used to say, `He's pretty good for a deaf guy,' '' Art Gilliard said. ``Then I would say, `He's pretty good for a short, deaf guy.' I finally had to say, `He's just pretty good.' ''

The home crowd at a game earlier this month thought so when Gilliard pulled an ankle-breaking crossover dribble move that left a Simpson College opponent flailing helplessly at air.

Then came something else that Gilliard couldn't hear: The oohs and aahs of fans.

Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder. All Rights Reserved