Washington Mystics’ Emma Meesseman overcomes hearing disorder

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Washington Mystics rookie Emma Meesseman wears hearing aids to compensate for her 50 percent deafness.

Figuring out what makes Emma Meesseman different from the rest of her Washington Mystics teammates isn’t always obvious.

It’s only when Meesseman leans in and requests that a reporter ask a question louder or needs teammates to repeat a play call that the full scope of her story — and the hearing devices behind both of her ears — come into focus.

Meesseman, 20, was born with only 50 percent hearing, a condition that was discovered more than 15 years ago when her parents in Belgium noticed that she didn’t speak like other children.

“For me, it’s not special,” she said matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t stop me. I don’t know any different.”

Mystics General Manager and Coach Mike Thibault didn’t learn about Meesseman’s condition until days before April’s WNBA draft, when her agent called to inquire about paying for replacement hearing aids should his 6-foot-4 client need them. But that hasn’t slowed the rookie from becoming a key contributor off the bench, even after most assumed her learning curve would be steep as a second-round pick.

“I looked at her when we first drafted her as it’s gonna take her awhile to assimilate. When we talked, basically she was worried that her English wasn’t good enough,” Thibault said of Meesseman, who is fluent in four languages. “Shoot, we’ve bypassed all that.”

Though she was averaging just 3.2 points and 2.4 rebounds entering Tuesday night’s game at Seattle, Meesseman’s pedigree suggests basketball success would have been in the cards regardless of whether she had a hearing impairment.

Growing up in a small town outside Bruges, Belgium, near the North Sea, Meesseman’s motivation was not to prove she could overcome a disability. Instead, it was the more common goal of living up to her mother’s reputation. She is the daughter of Sonja Tankrey, a center who was named the Belgian women’s player of the year in 1983.

“I play to be better [than] her,” Meesseman said with a smile. “And I am.”

Thibault became aware of Meesseman several years ago, before she was named the 2011 young women’s player of the year by FIBA, world basketball’s governing body. She then impressed scouts by averaging 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds on 51 percent shooting last year in her first professional season with Villaneuve, a French team. But coming to the WNBA always lingered in the back of her mind, especially because her mother did not have the chance to play professionally outside of Belgium.

When she arrived in Washington in May, though, Meesseman was introduced to some of the obstacles facing those with hearing disabilities in America. Forward Drey Mingo, who suffers from hearing loss in both ears after a bout with bacterial meningitis, was on the Mystics’ training camp roster and asked Meesseman if she would speak with hearing-impaired children.

“Apparently they bully kids here,” said Meesseman, who has a younger brother who also suffers from hearing loss. “The first time when I went to school, somebody told them about my hearing aid, but I was just a normal girl.

“I’ve always done what I want to do. You just have to follow your dreams.”

Tamika Catchings, who has dealt with an 80 percent hearing loss in both ears her entire life, found that attitude refreshing. On Sunday, when the Mystics beat the Indiana Fever, 64-60, Meesseman guarded Catchings, the 2012 WNBA Finals MVP, during the fourth quarter.

“I think it’s cool,” said Catchings, who didn’t know about Meesseman until informed by a reporter. “For us, it’s just one of those things where we can use our story to help young girls that aspire to be in the WNBA by having role models.”

Thibault purposely placed Meesseman’s locker between veterans Crystal Langhorne and Michelle Snow in Washington’s locker room because he views her as “the baby sister on this team.” Though Langhorne noticed “right off the bat” Meesseman suffered from hearing loss, it has yet to be an issue on the court.

“I feel like it’s more about her being a European and not understanding people’s accent than anything else,” Langhorne said.

Meesseman compensates for her lack of hearing with preternatural court vision and a nice outside shooting touch. Though she tries not to read lips, she said that not seeing someone’s face can make hearing difficult. If necessary, she lets teammates go first during drills because “if I see it, then I know it.”

But Meesseman’s comfort level in the locker room is growing, as she noted, “it feels like we’ve known each other for a longer time.”

It’s to the point that when assistant coach Eric Thibault mentioned a recent exhibition soccer game between the United States and Belgium, Meesseman pretended she knew little about it. But by the next morning, after Belgium had secured a 4-2 victory, she showed up in the locker room juggling a basketball with her feet, accompanied by a steady stream of trash talk.

“She sandbagged us on that one, too,” Mike Thibault said with a laugh. “At least on the outside, she has adapted well — to her teammates, to the situation. She’s confident, but not cocky.”

Mystics fall in OT

Tina Thompson scored 30 points, including five three-pointers, to lead the Seattle Storm to a 96-86 overtime win over the visiting Washington Mystics on Tuesday night. Crystal Langhorne scored a season-high 23 to lead Washington (4-2).

 
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