The First Deaf NBA Player: Insights from Lance Allred

May 6, 2015

By Paul Corliss & Teresa Galvez

This is the first in a four-part series of 'Hearing Health Month' feature stories highlighting hearing health as it relates to former professional basketball players. Celebrated during the month of May, EarQ is the presenting partner for the NBRPA’s Hearing Health Month. For more information, please visit the EarQ website.

Growing up, what was the most difficult about having a profound hearing loss? How did you cope with it? I was born and raised in a rural community in Montana. There were no amenities to help me at all and there were no sign language facilities. For about a 100 mile radius around where I grew up, I was the only deaf kid.  I had to be thrown into the fire and had to learn how to adapt very quickly. That included relying on sight, reading body language, and attending speech therapy classes twice a week until I was 15 years old. Learning to speak properly was definitely a very big challenge. The community was so small that I really didn’t have anyone that I could confide in, and I basically just had to learn to adapt to my surroundings. There were no opportunities to learn at a sign language facility, and that was definitely a difficult part learning to just read lips in order to get the context of the conversation.

How did it affect you playing basketball at an early age? I didn’t start playing basketball until I was 14 because of the hearing and balance. I was a very clumsy kid and, to be honest, not athletic at all. My game growing up was Nintendo. In 8th grade, I grew from 5’10” to 6’4”. We had just moved from Montana to Salt Lake City, and as a way for me to make friends at school I started playing basketball. There were some challenges – I wasn’t coordinated and had to play without my hearing aids. If I had played with them in, it would have been so loud generally, including the echoes, and sweat would cause an issue as well.. I had to rely on being a very visual player, learning to read body position, and memorizing plays very quickly when they happen, especially on defense. I really had to adapt.  Basketball is a game of chess. Trying to see it visually is effective.

Did it affect your professional career at all? Absolutely. In a sad way, there were many opportunities. I had signed contracts, but once the coaches, especially in Europe, discovered “Oh wait he’s deaf, he’s hearing impaired,  I can’t have that because my offense is too important,” I had no chance. No offense is that complicated. The thing I say is, “I am deaf, but in the 4th quarter of a loud gym everyone is deaf.” Temporary deafness and terminally deafness is key because I’m used to having to rely on hand signals and everyone else becomes rattled. With the good coaches that I have had, any coach knows that no matter what offense you run, when you run good plays and execute, the defense has to give you something. The good coaches that I have had have no problem using hand signals. I don’t know why people got so wound up about signs and believing that playing with me would be difficult. The good coaches that I have had prove that it’s never been a problem; it was always a smooth process. They loved me because every good coach that I have had saw that because I was such a visual player and was quick to memorize plays, I pick up offenses very quickly.

Was there an athlete that inspired you to not give up on your dream? An athlete that inspired me, without sounding arrogant, was me because I said I was going to be the first deaf player in the NBA and I am the person that has the best shot to do it. I wanted to do it to set an example to people with disabilities. People have been putting limitations on me all of my life and I simply choose not to listen, because I cannot hear them anyway.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Orlando Magic : News Photo Did you use your circumstances as an advantage while playing? I always felt in the 4th quarter that I had an upper hand. Yes, I could feel the crowd going crazy, but I see a lot of other teammates get really wide-eyed when we were on the road. The home teams starts to make a run and we’re losing the lead, the crowd is going wild, and I can’t hear anything – it’s all good. I promised myself that if I was going to play basketball with my hearing disability. I was never going to hide behind it or say “I didn’t hear a play.”  I would never say, “Sorry, I didn’t hear the call.”  I would say, “Sorry it was my fault, I forgot it.” Most coaches would know that once I did that I was just not trying to hide behind anything. I was quickly taking accountability.

How did you and your teammates adapt to playing with each other? Not only am I hearing impaired, I am off-the-beat in terms of personality, so I have a lot of teammates over the years really adjusted to me. They had to learn to be much more clear with the communication, especially when you have guys in the South, or the neighborhoods of New York. Growing up in the Midwest in the Rocky Mountains, you pick up a dialect that’s a certain rhythm of English that I learned to read lips with. That includes picking up the vowel tones, but with the accents the vowel tones are different. I had a lot of teammates learn that they have to speak more clearly, but also pick up the generic Midwest accent that everyone understands. They all have done a good job of picking up the Midwestern dialect for me.

How difficult was it to take care of your health while playing? Did you have someone to aid you on the road? I feel much more secure with hearing aids that when I lose one, my anxiety spikes through the roof. This did NOT happen when I was on the court. I love it when I could step on the court because I know I could take me hearing aids out and I know the intricacies of the game. I am very familiar because I spent thousands of hours in that little 90 x 30 feet area. I know the rules, I know what to expect, I know what to control, and I know there is a lot of communication. In everyday life if I lose a hearing aid my anxiety does spike. In practice, when I would get them broken or injured or sweat got on them, I would get so frustrated. I would have to send them in overnight, and so all that stuff was very difficult because it peaks your anxiety and you feel so out of water. Meditation helps, but I found myself retreating significantly when that happened.  As soon as practice was over, I would go to my hotel room and put my headphones in and watch a movie just so I felt I could be listening to something, but I would never really go out and be social because it’s difficult. Again, I never picked up sign language, and there wasn’t anyone in my professional spheres that could speak sign language anyway. I became so reliant on a technological instrument such as a hearing aid. When you lose it, it’s very difficult.  Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day : News Photo How do you deal with your hearing loss now? As I have gotten older, I have gotten more confident. If I don’t hear the phone ring, if I miss a call, it’s not the end of the world. There is a lot less frustration and a lot more confidence. Now that I am 34, I definitely learned to have more perspective and you realize the things that are important, like what you can and cannot control. If I lose a hearing aid now I just say, “Okay it will be ready in two weeks.”  I give myself a break and chill out. Before, as a young kid and teenager, I felt as if I had to work that much harder to compensate for my hearing loss. Now, I don’t feel like I need to compete all the time and no one should. I just have patience and just relax; I have worked hard enough, I can just be comfortable in my own skin, and enjoy some quiet time. Being deaf forces you to be introspective and a lot of people don’t like that. A lot of people do not like being by themselves in a quiet room and forced to analyze and be insightful. My hearing impediment forces me to have quiet times, learn to sit with my own thoughts at night, and to be honest with myself.

What advice would you give someone with a physical impediment that is trying to play sports?  The only true limitations that exist are the ones you place on yourself. The ones that people put on us are just imaginary. It is whether we choose to listen to them or not. In my one life, this is the hand I was dealt, and there is no time to feel bad about myself. While I don’t have the hearing I want, my other senses are a little bit more developed. My sight is exceptional, as is  my ability to read body language and pick up on human emotion just by watching. In a way, it makes you more empathetic, and I think that’s a gift. It helps me have compassion and a better understanding of people.

Describe your career in one word/phrase. Why? The reason I was #41 in my college and professional career was because there was a Dave Matthews band song when I was a teenager called #41. It said, “I will go in this way, and I will find my own way out.”