IM this article to a friend!

December 30, 2003

FINDER: Silent hoop dreams

From: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, PA - Dec 30, 2003

Just because they nurture them in silence doesn't make the dreams of these teenagers any less real ... or grand

Tuesday, December 30, 2003
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They are basically the same age. They are basically the same height. They play on the same brand of basketball court.

Other than that, they are worlds apart.

There are teen idols ...

LeBron James is 19 today, months removed from high school, and already he's dazzling with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, selling Nike shoes and jerseys, smothering the television with commercials and his games.

Sebastian Telfair is 18, with months of high school yet to go, and already he's chatting over the cell phone with James and Tracy McGrady, hanging with Jay-Z in his native New York, appearing on television with his high school team, allowing ESPN The Magazine to chronicle his every move.

O.J. Mayo is 16, just starting his freshman season at his second high school and in his third state, and already he's ranked first in the basketball class of 2007, earning the distinction of being Kentucky's first all-stater as an eighth-grader, becoming anointed "The Next Big Thing" by Sports Illustrated.

And then there are teens.

Jhorden Cheadle is 14, a seventh-grader mostly sitting on the varsity bench at his school for a second consecutive season. WTAE-TV did a feature on "Baby Jhorden" last winter, but he is still a junior-varsity kid with man-sized hopes. "I want to play for Cleveland. With LeBron."

Zane Nochese is 15, a ninth-grader starting for his school, having likewise served a bench apprenticeship since sixth grade. "I'd like to play Division I. That's my goal. And to get paid." In the pros, he means.

Josh Sechman is 15, a ninth-grader transplanted from Palmyra, Pa., a 4 1/2-hour drive away. He calls McGrady his dream teammate. "NBA, that's my goal. Orlando Magic, Tracy McGrady. Lousy team, but he's good."

He calls him that through an interpreter, through sign language.

The teen idols are no better than the teens in any way except being blessed with extraordinary basketball ability. For that, Cheadle, Nochese and Sechman are no worse off than James, Telfair and Mayo. They are blessed yet in a different fashion, dreaming a hoops dream in silence, thumping a dribble they can feel more than hear, commuting to Edgewood class each weekday at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

An everyday game in their life seems so much more pure, so much fuller. Their gym is all bouncing ball, squeaking sneakers, an occasional hoot from a WPSD player or fan in the stands, a buzzer so loud the place vibrates. Cheerleaders dance to a pulsating bass drum. Coaches sign to players. Players sign to players. And the silence gets broken occasionally by the referee's whistle.

While James, Telfair and Mayo devote their lives to basketball, kids such as Cheadle, Nochese and Sechman immerse themselves in the quiet of this Edgewood campus. Shaler's Nochese and fellow guard Jimmy Macgill, a 10th-grader from Sewickley, have been coming to the school since before kindergarten. Andrea Aquilino, the ninth-grade star of WPSD's girls' basketball team, has been making the 80-mile round trip from Washington almost daily since she was 2.

They have other facets in their lives. The classroom regimen isn't easy, though Nochese stars there, too, with a grade point average above 3.5. "Academics is No. 1," boys' basketball coach Troy Verner said through an interpreter. "Always should be. And basketball is No. 2."

"I don't play every day," said Aquilino, who contributed to the varsity beginning in sixth grade. "But I play two or three days a week. I have other responsibilities, going out with my family and friends."

Summer camp is not ABCD or Nike. "No free shoes," Nochese signed, with a smile. Aquilino and Sechman attended what they call "hearing" camps, but sometimes miscommunications cause problems there with no interpreters available. Nochese, Macgill and Sechman went to the prestigious Gallaudet University basketball camp in Washington, D.C., where only 150 hearing-impaired players are accepted each summer. It is a recruiting tool, much like the summer basketball circuit. But careers here are primed for that one school -- Gallaudet, the only college regularly offering scholarships and opportunities to deaf athletes.

"I want to make Gallaudet's team," Aquilino said. "That's my goal."

The others, such as Cheadle, Nochese and Sechman, who is 6 feet 3 and growing, can cling to the NBA dream. It's a wonderful notion, silent stars in the sound-and-fury realm of professional basketball. It's a tantalizing aspiration that should never be erased from their hearts and minds. But the reality, as cold and hard as their gym floor, is that their best hope just might be to follow in Verner's footsteps.

Verner was the greatest basketball player WPSD produced, a star on its 1990 national deaf-school championship team. "He should have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated," dean Greg Bowers said. When the subject of James, Telfair and Mayo arises, Verner joked through Bowers: "I wish I could go back to 13 years old." Yet from his basketball career sprouted the noble, admirable accomplishment of returning to WPSD to teach and coach. It's the ultimate in giving back.

"We're young," Verner said of his team, with freshmen Nochese and Sechman, sophomore Macgill and seventh-grader Cheadle on the rise. "You know, this team has the potential to grow into a great team."

A team of teenagers who deserve far more attention than others get.

Copyright ©1997-2004 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.