Mbogo, a 6-foot-4 senior forward and one of Rockville’s best players, doesn’t hear any of it. He is deaf.
“I feel like I have to represent the deaf community,” Mbogo said in an interview, answering questions by reading them off the reporter’s notebook. “I have to show them we can do it, too.”
Mbogo has been deaf since his birth, according to his father, Frederick. Born in Uganda, doctors couldn’t offer a cause for his deafness, Frederick said. Mbogo learned Bantu and got through his early childhood by reading others’ lips. When Mbogo was 6, his family immigrated to the United States. In addition to learning English, Mbogo picked up on American Sign Language.
“Changing the language and the difficulty in hearing and the sudden change in environment,” Frederick Mbogo said, “it was a challenge.”
Mbogo enrolled in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHOH) program in Montgomery County, which appoints him cued speech transliterators for class and after-school activities. Most counties in the D.C. area offer DHOH programs, but just a handful of affected students participate in varsity athletics.
Mbogo obtained a cochlear implant for his right ear, and that allows him to hear faint sounds. He believes he can pick up about 70 percent of sounds while wearing his cochlear implant, but he still needs to read lips to understand what people are saying. Without the implant, he said he hears about 30 percent of sounds, such as the beat of a song but not the words.
When he’s playing basketball, Mbogo doesn’t wear his cochlear implant, worried it will fall out. So as his teammates crack jokes in the locker room before their game against Poolesville on Friday, Mbogo sits silently and stretches. Eventually, he wants in on the joke and asks a teammate what they’re discussing.
Mbogo often misses out on banter, and he’s the only player not keyed in on Todd Dembroski when the fourth-year coach enters the locker room and begins his pregame speech. Mbogo looks past Dembroski toward the whiteboard behind him, where a cued speech transliterator uses her hands to communicate what Dembroski is saying.
Signs of development on the court
About a half-hour later, in Rockville’s gym, “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project blasts over the speakers as Mbogo and the Rams’ starters take their seats on the bench and wait for the P.A. announcer to call their names. To know it’s his turn to stand up and run onto the court between the school’s cheerleaders, Mbogo looks to his left and sees teammate Jailen Anderson raise his hand.
Entering high school, Mbogo hadn’t played much organized basketball — mostly pickup ball with his friends — but he tried out for Rockville’s team as a freshman.
When Dembroski learned of Mbogo, he wondered how having a deaf player on his team would work. But once he noticed Mbogo’s transliterator helping him understand everything Dembroski and his assistants said, his worries vanished.
Mbogo made the junior varsity team, and Rockville established hand signals for every play — signs it still uses. Mbogo developed into a varsity player by the end of his sophomore year.
This season for the Rams (8-9, 6-2 in league play), Mbogo is averaging seven points and five rebounds while shooting an efficient 56 percent from the field. Mbogo serves as a “stretch-four,” a power forward who can both play in the post and shoot from the perimeter.
Sometimes Mbogo will miss what is happening, such as an instance during a game when teammate Daniel Pujo pulled him into his spot in a 2-3 zone. Before games, Dembroski tells the referees Mbogo is deaf in case he overlooks a call.
But Mbogo is barely limited on the court, and he’s eager to spread that message. This past fall, Mbogo ran a basketball clinic locally for DHOH middle schoolers.
“It’s great for a freshman to maybe come in and see, hey, there’s a DHOH student on the varsity basketball team. Not only on the team but a captain of the team, one of the leaders, one of the guys that everybody on the team looks to as a role model,” Dembroski said.
Taking it to the next level
In his team’s 83-46 win over the Falcons, Mbogo scores 10 points and secures key rebounds before sitting the fourth quarter after the Rams build a 31-point lead entering the final period.
After the game, Dembroski pauses in the middle of his postgame speech and looks at Mbogo.
“All right, Blessed,” Dembroski says as Mbogo’s eyes shift from his transliterator to his coach. “Great job tonight.”
When the speech is finished, Mbogo goes to his locker to retrieve his cochlear implant. He hears some sounds again, and he walks back through the gym to meet his father and head toward their Silver Spring home. The fans who crowded the bleachers have left. The gym is quiet. To Mbogo, it’s the same as usual.
Time is running out on his senior season, and though Mbogo is undecided on where he will attend college (he is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, one of the nation’s most challenging high school course loads) he knows he wants to play basketball. That’s not something that happens often.
Michael Lizarraga, who graduated from California State Northridge in 2012, was the most recent deaf Division I men’s basketball player. Gallaudet, a Division III school, fields the nation’s only deaf men’s college basketball team.
In 2008, Lance Allred became the first deaf player in the NBA but played only part of one season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Former WNBA all-star Tamika Catchings also has hearing loss. Mbogo aspires to be like them.
Allred, who now gives motivational speeches, has some advice.
“All my life people have been telling me what I can and can’t do. I simply choose not to listen. I can’t hear very well anyway,” Allred said. “To this kid, I would tell him: ‘Yeah, you can’t hear them anyway, so don’t listen. Don’t buy into people’s limitations and just go out and play ball.’ ”
Twice, Mbogo was cut from his middle school basketball team, a slight that has driven him to overcome his odds.
Mbogo is good-natured, but his teammates recognize his tenacity during practices and games. He knows every shot and box-out is an opportunity for more fans and announcers to call out his name — even if he can’t hear them.
“Playing college basketball, it would mean a lot to me,” Mbogo said. “I’m not really doing it for myself. I want to show that people like me can do anything.”