Whether told from the pulpit, the newscast or the ten-year-old kid next door, sports stories are almost always the same. Courts and fields, with their teams and their referees and their spectators, are the stage on which we create our modern morality tales. When the larger-than-life players stride out they become our heroes and their stories unfold with refreshing simplicity. When it’s just a game, good and bad are easy to understand and we can always triumph–even in our losses, we can be winners. For the fans sports stories are idealism in action.
For the players, our would-be heroes, the story is completely different. When you are the one lacing up the shoes what’s good or bad, right or wrong, smart or stupid, can be startlingly confusing–especially if you are deaf, obsessive-compulsive, fundamentalist Mormon kid who wants to play for the NBA. Or in other words, especially if you are Lance Allred.
At first glance Lance Allred is nobody’s hero. Despite his larger-than-life height of nearly seven feet, he is no Kobe or Shaq or Michael Jordan. He doesn’t endorse a product. He doesn’t have a fancy car. He doesn’t even hog the ball. In fact, he can barely cover his rent. He is an NBA player, one of those cultral demigods? Allred’s memoir, Longshot: The Adventures of a Deaf Fundamentalist Mormon Kid and His Journey to the NBA, is his emphatic answer to that question.
Born in sleepy, isolated Pinesdale, Montana–a sort of sister-wife city of fundamentalist Mormon leaderRulon Allred–in 1981, Allred was just one more grubby kid running around the wilderness. Despite the fact that he was born legally deaf and wore hearing aids to maximize his almost non-existent residual hearing Lance described an idyllic childhood. “When people ask me what it was like growing up in a polygamist community, I simply shrug and answer that it was wonderful and I wouldn’t change those memories for anything. I loved growing up in Pinesdale” (7).
As Allred grew, cracks in Pinesdale’s idyllic veneer began to show. His Sunday school teacher told him he was cursed with deafness because he was unfaithful in the preexistence. His father’s second wife left him and he never took another. When an aunt was forced into marriage and Allred’s father spoke out against the marriage it was the beginning of the end. After bankruptcy, a shady real estate deal, a three year lawsuit, and death threats Allred’s family was free of the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) and absolutely destitute. Lance was thirteen years old.
It was about this same time that Allred’s obsessive-compulsive disorder began to surface. After seeing The Mask, Allred began to obsess in the manner that has become known as H-OCD where the individual obsesses about whether or not he is gay without knowing it. Despite his complete lack of athletic prowess (in addition to be severely hearing impaired Allred also has inner ear problems that affect his balance. And he’s asthmatic.) Allred decided to channel his obsessive nature into basketball.
His compulsive nature kept Allred putting up free throws and practicing layups until he found himself a small town high school hero. His basketball skills then took him to University of Utah on scholarship (where he clashed with Coach Rick Majerus and possibly got the ball rolling–so to speak–to get the bigoted man fired. Majerus told Allred he was a “disgrace to cripples” concluding that “if I were in a wheelchair and saw you play basketball, I’d shoot myself.” [145-146].), to Weber State University, then to Turkey, France, and Spain as part of the European league and eventually the NBA D-League. Basketball was the constant in his life and it guided his decisions.
Enmeshed with the basketball story is the story of Allred’s deafness and OCD, but also his spirituality. Shortly after his family left the AUB polygamous sect, his family met the LDS missionaries and was eventually joined that church. Now, perhaps because of his upbringing or maybe just because of his obstinate and colorful nature, Allred is like no other Mormon. He opted to not serve a mission, he swears fairly freely, and hates BYU (he calls out the school in two separate footnotes on pages 104 and 164). But he also takes the time to accurately explain aspects of LDS belief, he lives the Word of Wisdom, he includes a letter written to his Heavenly Father in the book and proclaims–under his breath–that he is a child of God before every game (238). He is a strange, and very likable J. Golden Kimball type, mixture of reality and faith.
Allred’s book, like his life, is complicated. It is strange and touching and funny. It is full of odd characters and big personalities. And, even though Allred’s clipped style and sometimes overlong explanations of allusions make the reader stumble, it is the expertly rendered personalities and oddities and sentiments that make this memoir special and drive it to its satisfying conclusion: Allred playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers; Allred turning adversity into good and finding the heroism in his imperfect, not-super-star self in the process; Allred pushing through loss after loss into the biggest win–achieving his dream.
8 thoughts on “The Heroism of the Longshot ( Or, how to be deaf, OCD, LDS and in the NBA)”
I have a question: does Allred identify and/or interact much with the deaf community? Does his understanding or relation to his deafness change after he joins the LDS Church?
I ask because it occurs to me that, as far as I know, we don’t have a lot of LDS narratives about disabilities that stretch beyond gently inspiring.
Allred does not identify and/or interact much with the Deaf community–at least not in the book. Because his parents chose to give him hearing aids at a young age and because he was raised orally (as opposed to ASL) he is more integrated into the hearing world and not so much the Deaf world. To be Deaf in America (as opposed to deaf with a small “d”, which is a medical condition) means to be ASL and to (usually) have attended a deaf residential school (as opposed to being mainstreamed). There are pros and cons to each way of life, but there is a divide between deaf kids who are raised oral and deaf kids who are raised ASL.
Allred does go to the Deaf Olympics and plays but his agent chooses to take that off his resume because of the prejudice he encounters from prospective coaches.
One reason that there aren’t a lot of deaf narratives out there (either in the LDS market or in the national market) is because the type of people who are likely to write those kinds of books are usually ASL, or Deaf, and ASL does not directly translate into written English. So the individual would probably have to learn English and then write the book in their second language. Or they could record it in ASL and someone else could translate it. But there is definitely a language gap that needs to be jumped.
I have read some articles about ASL and the Deaf community. It’s a fascinating language (and culture) that is, sadly, considered by many Americans to simply be a response to a deficiency rather than a language in its own right.
I think attitudes are changing. It’s mostly just a question of awareness. The more people learn about Deaf people and ASL the more they’ll see it for what it is: a rich, textured, vibrant community.
This fascinates me, communication without vocalization. The whole universe of the deaf is really pretty amazing. Then to layer it upon the complexities of other challenges; no less the amazing difficulties of pro-basketball. I like that you talk about the strangeness of the failings of the book, yet still recommend. Those sorts of reads can sometimes be the best because they often give more to talk/think about than a flawless narrativ, rendered with perfect humor and grace.
Sorry. My first line should have read: “This fascinates me, communication without being able to hear a vocalization in return.
I was thinking too fast and what was in my head did not make it down to my fingers.
Bradly–I love ASL and Deaf culture, too. It is fascinating stuff. You should check out some of the ASL poems on Youtube. Very cool.
As for the importance of vocalization–it actually isn’t all that big. Think how much a teenagers shoulders say when they walk in a door from a date. Or how much your read into the glance of your spouse/significant other. The issue of vocalization doesn’t come up too often for Lance Allred because of his hearing aids and the YEARS he spent learning to communicate orally, but it does surface a bit here and there. Especially because he doesn’t wear his hearing aids during games.
I loved the failures and the strangeness in the book. Accepting them and talking about them the way Allred does ends up being very hopeful and even cathartic. I do worry that other who are deaf or H-OCD or something would be discouraged because their battles take longer or take different forms. But, mostly, I think it’s encouraging. I hope people take the time to seek this book out.
I feel like it needs to be pointed out that ASL is just one of many sign languages around the world. As I understand it, each culture has its own version. In general, they are not mutually intelligible.
I’m sure that ASL is the only one relevant to Allred’s situation, but whenever we go beyond the US, this becomes rather important.