MINNEAPOLIS — During his rookie season in 2014-15, Zach LaVine was eating at a restaurant in Minneapolis one day when a boy came over to say hello. LaVine soon realized he was deaf, but that only made the interaction even stronger: the Timberwolves standout shooting guard, who signed an autograph for him, also greeted him using sign language. The young fan started to cry.
“It was a big thing to him,” LaVine told the NBPA this week after a practice.
That special moment, along with his background of American Sign Language (ASL) starting from high school, inspired LaVine to develop a relationship with Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minn., last September. The school provides a bilingual curriculum for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, grades pre-K-12, who learn and communicate using ASL and spoken English.
Now a year into his involvement, LaVine plans to continue to make the school the focus of his community outreach this season, as the only notable NBA player consistently working with the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
“When I started talking about giving back to the community, I wanted to think about doing something different,” LaVine said. “And I just felt like a lot of people don’t talk about that type of stuff—the deaf and hard-of-hearing. So I felt like I had a little bit of an in. I could communicate with them—not fluently, but still enough and have a status to them.”
Last fall, LaVine became the first athlete to work with Metro Deaf School since it opened in 1993, two years after Minnesota enacted the First Charter School Law in the U.S. Susan Lane-Outlaw, the school’s executive director, who has collaborated directly with LaVine, described why the 21-year-old is in a unique lane.
“I think a lot of the reasons for that is because others haven’t been involved with ASL,” she said. “Deafness itself is just a different language, it’s a different way of accessing knowledge from the world. But the deaf community doesn’t see themselves as disabled, and he really comes from that perspective as well, which helps.”
LaVine and his best friend, Perrion Callandret, who plays basketball at the University of Idaho, first enrolled in ASL as their foreign language elective when they were juniors in high school. They wanted to do something different than their buddies who were mostly taking French and Spanish, and they continued ASL during their senior year. In fact, LaVine and Callandret, who were teammates at Bothell High School in Washington, used their newly-acquired sign language on the court to communicate with each other and try to throw off the defense.
Taking the class, the main thing LaVine learned was how some sentences spelled out differently through sign language. The grammar is similar to grammatical differences found in English, French, Spanish, Hmong or Somali, according to Lane-Outlaw.
“The word structure is not the same,” he said. “Like, ‘I want to go here today’ is ‘Today I want to go here.’”
Since last September, LaVine has made four visits to Metro Deaf School, as well as organized outside activities. For his first appearance, he delivered breakfast to each classroom, which has between seven and nine students, to introduce himself, sign autographs and take pictures with them. Before he arrived, he made sure to cater the food to each of the 100 students based on their dietary needs and restrictions.
During his second time at the school, last November, he observed its after-school program and played basketball with the students, including one-on-one games. Then a month later, he hosted a holiday-themed party with board games, cookie decorating, and arts and crafts. Those moments of playing with the students stand out the most to Lane-Outlaw.
“He has that childlike aspect where he can have fun with them, and he really has a good range in that aspect,” she said. “He can work with some of our really little ones, and [use] sign [language] with them and play with them. And he can talk about his car and be cool with the high school kids. He’s a young guy, but he’s really enjoyed it, and I think that makes it all the difference. He’s certainly changed the dynamic here where everybody follows him and the Timberwolves players. They come in with stats and numbers.”
This past April, for his fourth visit, he debuted a new kitchen for the students, using prize money he received from winning the 2016 All-Star slam dunk contest.
“They can make their own food now, instead of having all their meals catered in,” LaVine said. “And I continue to work with them—give back clothes, binders, food drives, different things like that. So it’s a lot of stuff.”
LaVine would also like to raise money for more hearing aids and cochlear implants, and help the students adjust to wearing them. Through his time at the school, he’s found that to be the toughest transition for the students.
“The biggest thing is they’re trying to get their hearing aids and get used to them,” he said. “Some of them don’t like it. Some are born deaf, some of them lost their hearing over time, so they already have a sense of what it feels like to hear sound. They’re just like us; they’re just hearing-impaired. That’s the main thing, so it’s nothing you have to look down upon. They just have a different disability that we don’t have.”
Lane-Outlaw said because some students like to hear sounds and others don’t, the school offers ASL and spoken English.
“One of our missions and beliefs is we provide both languages, so they have options,” she said.
Lane-Outlaw also addressed why deaf students need more support academically.
“It has nothing to do with cognition; it has to do with them having access to information,” she said. “The biggest challenge is having an accessible learning environment. It’s even a learning curve for parents; many of them don’t know how to [use] sign [language].”
Last season, LaVine also invited the middle and high school students to a Timberwolves game, where they got a chance to go on the court during halftime. After the season, at the end of May, he sent the students who had met their reading goal—which he established with them during the school year—a signed action photo of himself with a message acknowledging their accomplishment.
Through the years, Metro Deaf School, which started with elementary students and expanded over time down to preschool and up to higher grades, has had students go on to four-year colleges. Now, some are working for the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, others are civil and mechanical engineers, and a few received their master’s degree and came back to teach at the school.
Overall, it’s one of the most diverse and international deaf schools in the country, as its student body is 30 percent first-generation African, 25 percent Hmong and 20 percent Hispanic. Students can be up to 21 years old, engaging in on-the-job preparation with work coaches.
For his different times at the school, LaVine has hardly wanted any media coverage. He only granted different reporters access for the kitchen unveiling.
“I wanted just to let them know that I cared and I supported their cause,” he said. “I just want to continue to help support them.”
Lane-Outlaw shared her thoughts on his private visits.
“I think it means more that way. I think the students then develop a sense that they really get to know him, and the staff as well,” she said. “It’s been nice to see him I think more and more comfortable every time he comes, too. He knows different kids and who has siblings here. It’s a different level than if he just came that one time. He doesn’t just come to be in and out, get some media publicity and then leave. It’s very different with him.”
Outside of Metro Deaf School, LaVine also met a group of deaf students at an NBA event during his first trip to China last year. His overall passion in this realm even motivated his youngest sister, Camryn, who’s a sophomore in high school, to sign up for ASL, and she encouraged some of her friends to tag along.
LaVine would also like to replicate his Minnesota efforts in the Seattle area, where he grew up and returns every summer, playing in Jamal Crawford’s Seattle Pro-Am Basketball League.
“I just want to shed light on the subject, and maybe more people can join in and just bring awareness,” he said.
Perhaps you’ll even see LaVine use sign language during a future All-Star dunk competition to reach an even bigger global audience.
“Hey, man, you can make up a big idea right there,” he said, smiling.