Coach: Gallaudet athletes have a special responsibility

Brendan Stern was supposed to be a lawyer, not Gallaudet’s basketball coach. Photo courtesy of the Stern family
Brendan Stern was supposed to be a lawyer, not Gallaudet’s basketball coach.
Photo courtesy of the Stern family

If he hadn’t misplaced his wallet containing his ID the morning of the law school aptitude test, Brendan Stern would probably be just another of the millions of attorneys in this nation, albeit a deaf one.

Instead, Stern is coaching the men’s basketball team at Gallaudet, the nation’s only university for deaf students, to the best season in school history. The Bison’s 18 victories, including a school record 10 straight, are their most ever.

A stifling zone defense has been the key to the turnaround from last year’s 6-19 season. Gallaudet holds its opponents to a .376 shooting percentage, among the lowest in the nation.

“Coach Stern’s coaching style has three D’s: dedicated, desired, discipline,” says sophomore point guard Raymond Nelson.

Stern loves talking about basketball. He looks laid back but is so forceful about the game that he convinced Marwan Elrakabawy to leave a job with a law firm in Texas to be an assistant coach while living in a dorm room with his wife and their 16-month-old son.

“Brendan is intense and he demands that intensity from his players,” Elrakabawy says. “That intensity really shows on the defensive end of the floor where he demands constant energy. Brendan was convinced that we could be one of the best defensive teams in the country. He had to drag some of the players along, but it has happened.”

Stern, Gallaudet’s three-year captain/point guard before graduating summa cum laude in 2006, said that his players’ intelligence also makes a difference. Most of them are on the honor roll.

“I always saw basketball and school as complementing each other,” says Stern, who was accepted into American University’s graduate program in political science soon after he missed the LSAT and teaches at his alma mater while working on his Ph.D. “Players who are good students are typically good players because they’re responsible, reliable and consistent and because they understand the game.”

The 32-year-old Bay Area native’s parents, who have long worked as deaf educators, were both graduated from Gallaudet as were his older sisters, an author and an actress, respectively.

“I played in a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball league growing up and probably received more jibes about being a Stern and playing for St. Joseph’s than about being deaf,” Stern recalls.

Stern attended Hebrew school briefly but quit so that he could watch sports on Sunday mornings, a decision he has come to regret. He is a member of the Washington Society for the Deaf.

“I hope to pass on the Jewish values and traditions that I hold dear to my two-year-old daughter,” says Stern, who has fond memories of celebrating Jewish holidays with his family. “I look forward to playing Yeshiva University annually. It’s not often that we play a school with a similar responsibility of serving a minority community whose survival is often hanging in the balance.”

Stern’s Ph.D. dissertation concerns minority communities.

“[We can] break down demarcations in daily life by pursuing relentless dialogue that welcomes and respects diverse identities and divergent views,” says Stern, who still hopes to attend law school.

It’s no surprise that Stern teaches his players the special responsibility that they share as Gallaudet athletes.

“I never want my players to forget that we don’t play for ourselves,” he says. “We play for the name on the front of our jersey and for the deaf community as a whole. At our away games, fans come from all over to watch us play. We represent something larger than ourselves. When people watch us play, they’re going to think that’s how deaf people are. Fair or unfair, that’s the responsibility we have. We take that to heart and try to play hard and with class.”

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