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Silent Success : A Basketball Player Who Never Hears the Cheers Proves His Point: Deafness Won't Stop Him

February 06, 1986|ALAN DROOZ | Times Staff Writer

Oskar Schugg didn't intend to start a trend at Gardena High School. He just wanted to play basketball.

But Oskar is an unusual athlete. He hasn't heard a word since spinal meningitis left him deaf at age 3.

In a game where communication is essential, in a thrill-a-minute environment of fans' cheers, opponents' taunts and frantic, shouted instructions, Oskar can rely only on his instincts.

He also has helping hands--interpreters who relay information by sign language during games. They are provided through a program at Gardena High to integrate deaf students into regular classes.

Oskar, 16, has done so well playing basketball at Gardena that deaf classmates are now going out for--and making--teams in several sports.

To break the ice it took Oskar Shugg--aided by a strong supporting cast.

"I was very tickled to see him come out--and he turned out to be a hell of an athlete," basketball Coach Tak Aoki said. "He did a lot for the school. He opened it up. Before, those (deaf) kids seemed to stay off by themselves. Now we've got kids coming out for volleyball, girls basketball."

A natural athlete, Oskar, with his short, straight hair and stocky build, resembles a young Pete Rose. What helped his cause is that, like Rose, he displays a winning personality and a willingness to dive for the ball.

Oskar's mother died in 1978 and his father, Laverne, a truck driver, has raised Oskar and his brother Eric, 14, since then. Eric, who learned sign language as a child, is often the go-between connecting Oskar to the hearing world. They used to play football in the park, with Oskar quarterbacking because he had the best arm and Eric stationed in the backfield to relay signals. The boys not only play together but share household chores and even cooking. "The two guys go together like ham and eggs," Laverne said.

Until this school year, Schugg attended Marlton School for the Deaf in Los Angeles. He was a good student and played on the basketball team. But, his father said, he had gone as far as he could there and was bored. "Marlton figured Oskar should be mainstreamed"--put into regular classes.

Determined to Play

Oskar, who lives in Maywood, enrolled at Gardena, one of four schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that has a program to integrate deaf and hearing-impaired students into regular classes. (The others are Fairfax, Wilson and Birmingham.) Gardena's program has three teachers and 33 students. The teachers act as interpreters in regular classes and teach special classes as well.

Oskar's first question upon enrolling at Gardena was whether he could go out for basketball. Aoki agreed and said he would have encouraged Oskar even if he wasn't very good. The surprise--to everyone but Oskar--was that he could play.

"One other deaf kid came out but quit," Aoki said. "I think he didn't feel like he fit in."

Aoki described Oskar as "a mentally tough kid."

Laverne Schugg agreed. "He's a tough son of a gun."

But Oskar's success was not immediate. Indeed, in early practice sessions his frustration in trying to communicate with coaches and teammates resulted in a few displays of temper. After sitting on the bench briefly for the varsity, he requested that he be shifted to junior varsity, where he could play regularly. However, he confided to his father that junior varsity Coach Lionel Onomura tended to talk with his head down, compounding Oskar's problems. Oskar has some lip-reading skills but is not fluent. He also is taking speech therapy and speaks some words and phrases.

Interpreter Helped

Laverne Schugg suggested to the coach what may become a regular practice for deaf athletes: having an interpreter sit in on practices and games.

Though Aoki did not think a communication problem existed, he looked into the idea. "We discovered that the program had funding for after-school activities, so the district arranged for these teachers to come out and interpret," he said. "It's done wonders for this kid. He's really gotten into the team concept."

Onomura readily agreed to let the interpreters attend practices and even sit on the bench during games. At the beginning, Onomura said, Oskar was "pretty much frustrated. . . . At first it was sort of hard for the other kids to adjust to him. Now they've worked out hand signals. I think they've grown up a lot because of the experiment."

Kathy Merrill, one of the teachers in the Gardena program, is the interpreter who sits on the bench during games. She and Jan Hagan, another teacher in the program, split interpreting duties at practices.

'My Own Kid'

Merrill, who had to ask the coach "What's a baseline?" at the start, now has worked out most of the basketball terminology and has invented signs for terms not available in sign language. The mother of three has gotten so engrossed in Oskar's career that "I feel like I'm watching my own kid. During the games my stomach hurts."

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