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Originally published Friday, January 7, 2011 at 5:20 PM

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Cal State-Northridge forward is the only deaf player in Division I

CSUN's Michael Lizarraga, the only deaf college basketball player in Division I, will face Seattle U. on Saturday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Cal State-Northridge @ Seattle U.,

KeyArena, 7:10 p.m.

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It's sometimes said in journalism that a story can be so compelling it writes itself.

In the case of Michael Lizarraga, a forward for the Cal State-Northridge men's basketball team, an out-of-town reporter has no choice but to let Lizarraga serve as something of a co-author.

A phone interview, you see, doesn't really work with Lizarraga, the only deaf player in Division I men's basketball. Lizarraga and his Northridge teammates will play at KeyArena in a 7:10 p.m. game Saturday against Seattle University.

Lizarraga, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward, is more than happy to e-mail answers back to an inquiring scribe.

"I like the notoriety and want to show people that I can play without needing to hear," he wrote. "I just use my eyes."

He has for four years now at CSUN, including games at Washington and Gonzaga, where unsuspecting fans inevitably razzed him during games.

Matadors coach Bobby Braswell laughingly recalls the visit to Gonzaga a few years ago, where Lizarraga was once again one of the first players on the court before the game.

"The fans were right on top of him and they are yelling and pointing and he's just smiling and shooting," said Braswell. "And the rest of our players are laughing at it because they know these guys are just wasting their energy trying to rattle Mike."

Lizarraga was born deaf, as was his younger sister, though no one has ever figured out why — both of his parents hear just fine.

A standout athlete growing up in Northern California, he was initially encouraged to attend Gallaudet, a university in Washington D.C., for the deaf and hard of hearing.

But Lizarraga wanted to play at the Division I level and enrolled at CSUN, then walked on to the basketball team. The school also houses the National Center on Deafness, making it a natural fit.

"He reached out to us and had already done everything to enroll in school," Braswell said.

The coach had seen Lizarraga play and welcomed him to the team, though not before making some necessary adjustments.

Lizarraga usually has an interpreter nearby, often perched behind Braswell, and the coach jokes that "I've bopped them a few times swinging my arms and forgetting that they are there."

An interpreter doesn't attend all road games but will be at KeyArena.

Braswell also often has Lizarraga sit out the first play or so of a new drill to watch it before taking part.

"But he's very good at picking things up," he said. "It takes most guys 20 times to get things right. It doesn't take him long."

Braswell also usually notifies officials before the game of Lizarraga, letting them know why he might not always stop when the whistle is blown.

Braswell calls Lizarraga's inclusion with the team "a great experience," saying that many other players have learned at least some sign language — a few have even taken classes — to communicate better.

"They don't treat him any differently than anyone else," Braswell said.

Lizarraga is averaging 6.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in 19.6 minutes a game, having started nine of 14 games for the 4-10 Matadors. His shooting percentage of 54.1 is second on the team and he's also second in steals with 14.

"If anything, I think being deaf has helped me more," he wrote."I am able to focus on the ball and the game without the distraction of the crowd or other noises."

Sometimes, though, Lizarraga admits he wishes he could hear what the fans have to say.

"I was born to play basketball and have been playing since I could hold the ball," he wrote. "I have faced some challenges being deaf because I cannot talk and sometimes fans will come up to me to say something and I have to gesture to them that I can't hear. It's frustrating because I want to know what they say and when an interpreter is not available, I am unable to understand them."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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