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Ask 8-year-old Zeke Ortiz what he wants to be when he grows up, and he’ll answer without hesitation — a pro basketball player.
Zeke has been playing since he was a 2-year-old, but he decided earlier this year it was time to step up his game. That meant leaving his YMCA league to join a more competitive team – the Playmakers.
“The team I’m with now is a challenge,” Zeke said. “It’s tough for me.”
But it wasn't the skill set or the level of competition that was the biggest hurdle in making the change for Zeke. It was the fact that none of his new teammates knew how to sign.
Zeke, his 10-year-old brother Zion, their parents, grandparents and nine cousins are all deaf – and this was Zeke’s first time playing a sport with hearing teammates.
“He’s lucky that he was born into a family of deaf people and to have deaf parents, so he’d had full access to communication since birth,” his mom, Jennifer Yost Ortiz, said.
Zeke, who attends a deaf school, had always been able to communicate with his family and peers. When he joined the Playmakers, his parents say that for the first time, he felt lost.
“Everybody was talking,” Zeke said. “I didn’t know what they were saying or what to do. Nobody was interpreting for me.”
“At the very beginning, the first practice, Zeke kept looking at me saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ Ortiz said. “And we said, ‘It’s okay, just watch.’”
Without an interpreter, it was like a guessing game. Zeke couldn’t do the little things, like hear a whistle blow or a call being made.
His father, a former basketball player, picked up on the coach’s signals and was able to interpret plays and drills.
“He would tell me what to do, what the plays were,” Zeke said.
Coach Korey Cobb began drawing plays on boards and using gestures to communicate with Zeke and his father. And as the rest of the team began trusting Zeke, they developed their own ways of communicating.
“It was tough, but Zeke earned his respect,” Coach Kobb said. “Kids are not like adults. They don’t judge, they see Zeke as a natural kid, just as another one of the boys.”
As Zeke improved and built trust with his team, the communication barrier with his teammates began to dissipate.
“If you see someone scoring, if you see someone aggressive, if you see someone really hustling for the ball, eventually they’re going give you the ball because they’re going to trust you,” Coach Cobb said. “Kids are about trust sometimes.”
The other players on the team say he’s “the best.”
“He’s fast,” 7-year-old Joziah Cobb said.
“He shoots a whole bunch of three’s,” 7-year-old Andrew Spencer said.
The team has come up with motions and gestures so Zeke knows when to put the ball down, when to shoot and when there’s a time out.
Two championships later, Zeke and his family created a video to teach the team how to sign helpful basketball terminology. One teammate even signed up for an American Sign Language course this summer.
“It’s a gift to be deaf,” Ortiz said. “There’s no reason to let being deaf be a barrier for us in any way.”
Next up for Zeke and the Playmakers — the AAU National Championship game in Maryland.