There’s the squeak of sneakers on a freshly polished court. The buzzer that screams as time expires. The soft swoosh of the net. The echo of a ball pounding against hard wood.
Matt Flores, a guard for the College of the Canyons men’s basketball team, hears none of it.
He never did, and never will. Flores was born deaf.
Despite his absence of hearing, the freshman has shown he can work just as hard as any hearing basketball player and has earned a place on COC’s roster because of his determination and skill.
The freshman was always active, competing in basketball and cross country throughout his life. When it came to choosing a sport for college, he chose the former, a sport he’d been playing since age 6.
“I had a routine with running, so I wanted more of a challenge,” said Flores. “I wanted to do a more aggressive sport in college.”
Flores is the same as any of his teammates. He tried out, practices and plays just like the rest. The only difference is that he has an interpreter with him so that he can understand what everyone around him is saying.
“It’s really tough, to be honest,” Flores said, through his interpreter, Danny Alrabbah. “I have to pay attention to everything that the coach is saying as well as the players and I have to really be aware of what’s going on, on and off the court. It’s very serious. And it’s challenging. You have to be aggressive and definitely be attentive to everything going on.”
Cougars coach Howard Fisher has worked with Flores and Alrabbah to work out a system of signs and gestures for different plays.
“I think every school utilizes some form of nonverbal communication,” said Fisher. “We’ve done it before in years prior to having a deaf competitor and this year is no different.”
Flores is confident in the team’s silent system.
“When I’m on the floor … I don’t lose control of what to do if I get scared, or if I don’t know the play,” he said. “I just follow the team and what they’re doing and I help out and I also communicate, too, within my own language and body language with gestures.”
There are also some clear advantages to Flores’ lack of hearing, including increased peripheral vision and a heightened awareness for nonverbal communication. He can quickly interpret directions from his coach and other players.
Although he’s found his place with the Cougars, he had trouble with teams in the past. He previously attended another Southern California community college and attempted to play there, but ultimately left the program after feeling unwelcome.
After leaving the school, the Los Angeles deaf community advised him to explore options at COC and gave him encouragement in his search for the next step.
“In all the 50 states, there are many deaf people all over, but LA has a really big Deaf community that signs American Sign Language,” he said. “There’s a saying, they say ‘deaf power.’ Like they’re proud to be deaf.”
The move to COC was tinged with fate. At basketball tryouts, Flores was greeted with a familiar face.
Jason Horosny, whom Flores had known through an adult league at the North Valley YMCA, was also trying out for the team.
“The first time playing with him, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Horosny of his first encounter with Flores. “I never saw a deaf person play basketball before, and I was really impressed. He was keeping up with the pace, he was knocking down shots. He’s a really good shooter and he’s really aggressive and active.”
Basketball won’t stop after COC, at least according to Flores’ agenda. His goal is to transfer to NCAA Division 3 Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Both Fisher and the team are doing their best to make sure he gets there. Flores is working on his speed and aggressiveness to makes sure it’s up to par with a four-year program’s.
“We push him every day, make sure he stays involved and knows exactly what’s going on because even though he’s going to go to a deaf school, he still has to be able to keep up with the pace,” Horosny.
Playing with the Cougars has helped Flores improve his game, but at the same time, he’s helped his teammates improve, too.
“It teaches us as a team to work harder and not to give in to pressure,” Horosny said. “We can work harder. If he’s doing it, coming out every single day and working as hard as we are, we can work just as hard. No excuses for anything. And I think it’s really helped us in practice.”
“(He’s) an inspiration to so many people and (he’s) helped me realize that there’s so much more to life. If (he) can push past things and follow (his) dreams, I definitely can.”