Aiming high

Basketball coach, player headed for Deaf World Games

Coaching a deaf basketball team is different from coaching a hearing team, says Debbie Ayres, who has coached college and high school teams for almost 30 years.

"They can feel the wooden floor vibrate," she explained. "If you watched me coach you might think I'm mad. I stomp in my high heels to get their attention."

Whereas other coaches might holler to remind players of what they should be doing, Ayres needs to wave her arms -- big. Only when the ball is dead and the players line up for a free throw, can she "sign" them.

"Their vision is probably more acute because they can see peripherally and they can focus better without distraction by noise," she said. "Other than that, they are just like any other basketball players."

Ayres, a Pleasanton resident, is taking the USA Under-21 Women's Deaf Basketball Team to the 2010 Deaf World Basketball Championships in Lublin, Poland, later this month. She is the women's basketball coach at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, and one of her key players, Pleasanton resident Alexandria Brinkley, 17, is also on her USA team.

Alexandria said she comes from a family of baseball players but she's always enjoyed basketball more. She started attending California School for the Deaf as a kindergartner and always played pickup games with both boys and girls. Finally in the fifth grade she was old enough to join a team.

She is interested in drama, too, she said, but her school's drama club conflicts with basketball practice. So her adopted mom in Pleasanton suggested she try out for "Treasure Island," which was put on in April by Pleasanton Civic Arts with SF Shakespeare Festival.

"They changed the script and made the character deaf -- Mrs. Hawkins," said Ayres. "She did sign language, and they learned a little."

Alexandria also looked into youth basketball in Pleasanton, she said, but it was geared at less experienced players.

She has traveled to Spain and said she found that people there use more gesturing in their sign language.

"Now going to Poland may be easier because I have been to Spain," she said, with Ayres interpreting.

Alexandria knows some of the other team members from having played against them. Four are from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which educates the deaf and the hard of hearing.

The USA Deaf Basketball team will not be able to practice together until the girls arrive in Poland.

"Each player was responsible for raising $2,500 each for hotel and food," said Ayres, adding that they would have had to earn more to get together to practice.

"We'll get there a few days early," she said, "and play twice a day for three days."

Ayres is excited to have Alexandria, who will be a junior, on the USA team.

"Most of the girls are older, like entering college or in college, so I thought this would be to our advantage to have her play with better talent," said Ayres.

"On a team like this, my role will be to dribble and pass," said Alexandria.

She plays point guard at California School for the Deaf. Alexandria led her 2008-09 school team to the Division VI North Coast Section championship game and to this year's second round of NCS playoffs. She was also named to the Clerc Classic All Tournament Team in Texas and the Western States Basketball Championships All Tournament Team in Arizona.

Ayres said she first heard about California School for the Deaf when is had to leave its beautiful spot on the UC Campus.

"It was originally in San Francisco in 1860, then moved to Berkeley. Then in 1980, when I was coming out of college about to do my student teaching, it was on television -- it was on television that it was being forced to move to Fremont," she recalled.

After graduation from Chico State, Ayres began teaching physical education at a high school in Vallejo, as well as coaching basketball.

"We experienced success in varsity and junior varsity for three years," she said. "Varsity won league championships and Northern California state tournaments."

She decided to try coaching at the college level and spent a year at Iowa State University, then moved on to be the graduate assistant at University of Tennessee for Pat Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history.

"I did not play basketball in high school and wanted to learn from the best," explained Ayres.

After earning her master's degree in sports administration, she became head coach at Solano Junior College, then Cal State Fullerton for five years.

But she always remembered the California School for the Deaf.

"In the back of my mind I wanted to work there someday and coach a deaf team," she said. "After five years at Fullerton I thought that is what I would like to do."

She finally wrote a letter to the school expressing her interest. Director of Instruction Ron Stern, a basketball fan, noted that she'd worked for Pat Summitt.

"The girls entering their freshman year were very good, the middle school team was good. The boss Ron Stern, a deaf man himself, was tired of the deaf settling for mediocrity and accepting losing and that sports were just a social outlet," said Ayres. "He wanted to raise the bar and asked for me to come interview."

She only needed a California teacher's credential to begin work at California School for the Deal, although the school now requires teachers to be able to sign at a certain level.

"In the fall I started taking American Sign Language at Ohlone College but I actually dove into the job," Ayres said. "Needless to say I came home every day crying for the first two months. It was that challenging. It was difficult to be accepted by the deaf community because I didn't know their language."

Nonetheless the team was successful.

"We won the Western State Deaf Championships that year so they warmed up to the idea of having me there," she remembered. "By the time the freshman group became seniors they were the deaf national champions."

California School for the Deaf plays in the Bay Counties League East, which includes private schools in Oakland and others.

"My first year I got angry inside because other teams didn't respect us. They would laugh and be silly because they were going to beat us," Ayres recalled. "We kept practicing and going to camps in the summer and improved."

The high school team won the Western States Deaf Basketball Championship in 1998, 2001 and 2003 and captured the 2001 Deaf National Championship. Following the 2001 season, Ayres was named the National Coach of the Year.

In the summer of 2002, she coached the U.S. Deaf National Team to a gold medal at the World Games in Athens, Greece.

"We had a great team, the best chemistry I've ever had on a team," Ayres said. "Then we said we needed to develop younger talent so we started the under-21 World Championships."

She has equally high hopes for the Under-21 team as she heads off to Poland for fun, adventure, some great basketball and -- hopefully -- another gold medal.

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