Michael Lizarraga, 22, the only deaf player in Division I men’s basketball last season, had his inspiring story covered by “The New York Times,” “Los Angeles Times,” ESPN, Fox Sports, “Los Angeles Daily News,” CBS Sports and many other media outlets.
Having to cover the Cal State Northridge men’s basketball team for the last two seasons, I had the opportunity to see all the attention Lizarraga received from reporters and began to wonder if he ever got tired of the spotlight.
Prior to a road game against UC Riverside in February, Erin Matthews, Lizarraga’s interpreter, told me the 6-foot-7 senior forward does get annoyed at times, especially if the interview is after a loss, but he understands it’s for a good cause.
Lizarraga has become a role model to many young deaf athletes and has been receiving countless fan mail through his personal and fan page on Facebook.
“Mike you are an amazing inspiration. I just worked a basketball tournament for hearing impaired children and these kids are learning a lot from you. Keep up the good work,” Maura Baginski said.
Lizarraga doesn’t only encourage deaf children.
“It was amazing and inspirational being able to sit on press row and watch you (Lizarraga) play in person tonight at Pacific. From one D-I athlete to another, congratulations on all that you have achieved in your career and good luck in the Big West Tournament. You represent everything that is great about an athlete overcoming a challenge to pursue their dreams,” said Gwen Arafiles, a senior softball player at UC Berkeley.
I asked Lizarraga if we could schedule a meeting so I can ask him a few questions.
“Sure, but how do you want to do this?” he said.
I paused and realized his interpreter Matthews wouldn’t be around since the basketball season was over. We arranged to meet in front of the Matadome with our laptops to talk through Google chat.
During our one-hour chat, I got to know Lizarraga’s personality off of the court and how he handles being a role model.
Off to a bad start
Lizarraga and I decided to get together at 3 p.m. on May 6 after he was done playing pick-up basketball with current and former teammates. It’s 20 minutes after 3 p.m. and I’m starting to think he forgot about our interview or he just didn’t want to talk.
A CSUN assistant coach walks by and I ask him if he can remind Lizarraga about our interview.
“Oh, no, I can’t do that. Michael (Lizarraga) won’t stop playing until the game is over,” he told me.
A few minutes later Lizarraga comes out of the gym and points at my laptop and gives me a disappointed look. He then pulls out his fancy Apple MacBook and I realized that he was making fun of my less-expensive PC Toshiba.
So far I’ve learned that Lizarraga takes pick-up basketball seriously and is a jokester. Oh, wait, and he gets bored easily.
While I ask Lizarraga who he has winning the NBA Finals (he picked the Heat and was right about the Lakers going down), I catch him on his Facebook and watching YouTube videos of Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin.
It turns out Lizarraga wanted to show me one of the letters he received on his fan page.
Gilberto: Do you respond to most letters?
Michael: Yea some, but sometimes I get e-mailed long letters and at times I’m not in the mood to respond back.
Gilberto: Does it get tiring being a role model?
Michael: Not really. I like to get attention (laughs).
I then remind Lizarraga about the video Telemundo, a Spanish-language TV channel, ran about him.
Michael: Oh yeah!! I love that video, but sucks that I don’t understand it at all!
Gilberto: So you don’t know Spanish?
Michael: Te amo (I love you)…. hermano (brother)… hermana (sister)… lol
I guess that’s a no.
Lizarraga, a native of Dixon, California, will return to his high school, California School for the Deaf, on May 26 to be a guest speaker at a banquet. He will discuss his time as a student-athlete at Northridge.
Gilberto: Have you ever been a guest speaker?
Michael: Never! I’m looking forward to it! I am so excited about it.
Just a regular guy
Lizarraga’s teammates began to walk by and he would stop them to show them videos on his laptop or just to talk. Freshman forward Jordan Mitchell began to talk about the movie “Thor” with Lizarraga.
“I love Jordan (Mitchell) but he’s a big nerd,” Lizarraga, said. “He loves to read comics.”
I then noticed that Lizarraga is watching at least his third dancing video during our interview.
Gilberto: You like to dance huh?
Michael: Yeah, I love to dance because of my team! I dance a lot at bars and parties. Oh, I went to Dublin’s (a bar and grill near campus) and some girls and guys came up to me. They were so crazy.
Gilberto: I then thought about how tough it must be to dance without being able to listen to the music.
Michael: I don’t need to follow the music to dance. I can feel the beats or just dance without the music.
Lizarraga, who is polite, funny, friendly and a leader, has shown that being deaf has not stopped him from living a normal life and doesn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for him.
Except for movies without subtitles.
“Don’t they understand not everyone can hear?” Lizarraga said jokingly.
Just a minor complaint.
I saw your article on ESPN and it was the highlight of my day. I was also born deaf. I grew up with the most powerful hearing aids, wore a microphone through school and also had a sign language interpreter until the end of high school. My sign language is terrible, I just know a few words and my ABCs in sign only because I never communicate with anyone through sign, and so I tried extremely hard to focus on reading lips.
I’m currently a sophomore at Southeast Missouri State University and I wear a cochlear implant. I can hear better than my hearing aids in high school, but it not the greatest since I still ask people to repeat what they say. This is also my second year without an interpreter because I just decided I didn’t need one since I still don’t know much sign language. I just focus on the teacher’s lips and meet after class to be sure what to prepare for the next meeting. It can get frustrating through my hearing sometimes.
I just wanted to let you know whenever I’m reading the ESPN article about you, I’ll be happy again. Today you made my day and you’re my hero.
– Luke Edwards
It was amazing and inspirational being able to sit on press row and watch you play in person tonight at Pacific. From one D-I athlete to another congratulations on all that you have achieved in your career and good luck in the Big West tournament. You represent everything that is great about an athlete overcoming a challenge pursuing their dreams.
Dear Michael –
We’ve never met, but I became aware of you and your accomplishments over the past few weeks. I liked your fan page on Facebook, only to realize I couldn’t send a message (only wall posts) so I hope you don’t mind that I searched out your personal page to send you this message.
Often people go through life and don’t realize by just being themselves, having persistence to achieve their dreams, and the way they choose to lead their life, how in turn they impact, inspire or motivate others. You wouldn’t know it, but you have done just that for our daughter. This all came about because she saw a youtube video about you. Before seeing the video she thought her only college major option was Communicative Disorders with an emphasis in ASL. That’s in part my fault because she’s an only child so I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of sending her to Gallaudet on the East Coast. Instead I steered her in the direction of staying home to get her degree from Fresno State.
After seeing the profile about you and your relationship with your interpreter she came to us and said “THAT is what I want to do! I don’t want a Communicative Disorders degree where I happen to take some deaf studies classes. I want to go to Northridge and study JUST deaf studies”. She went on to say “Why should I settle or have you pay for a degree that doesn’t fully give me what I want?” So it seems we’ve found a middle ground – she isn’t going back east and she gets to study what’s truly in her heart.
I’m confident that you’ve inspired many children and adults that are deaf or hearing impaired to follow their dreams and passions, but I wanted you to know that you are doing the same for our hearing daughter. Within days of seeing the video of you, your teammate, your coach and your interpreter we were on the phone scheduling a tour and she is seriously considering a transfer to Northridge. We tour the campus on March 25 and hope that it will include getting to see part of the Deaf Studies program as well.
In closing, Congratulations on your success at Northridge and Best of Luck as I know you’re a senior about to graduate. Whether your travels keep you in basketball or move you into your field of study, you undoubtedly will continue to inspire people to dream big and follow their passion, what a great feeling that must be for you!