Cuesta student to represent U.S. at World Deaf Championships

Ali Elmasri is a 25-year-old Cuesta student who has made the USA Deaf Basketball team.
Ali Elmasri is a 25-year-old Cuesta student who has made the USA Deaf Basketball team. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Cuesta College student Ali Elmasri is a skilled player on the basketball court. 

He can drain 3-pointers, drive to the basket and finish at the rim with a feathery touch. He has even dunked the ball during games when he got a head of steam. 

The only thing Elmasri, 25, can’t do on the hardwood is hear. 

The San Luis Obispo native has been deaf since age 3 when he suffered a high fever that caused a permanent loss of hearing. 

After years of playing locally and in Los Angeles, mostly with teams consisting of players who can hear, Elmasri will have a unique opportunity this summer. 

He’ll represent the U.S. as a member of the national team at the 2015 World Deaf Championships in Taipei, Taiwan, from July 4 to 12.

After being noticed in a Los Angeles-area tournament for deaf players in 2011, Elmasri was one of eight players from California invited to try out for the national team in Washington, D.C., last fall.

When he learned he made the selective squad, a lifelong goal was fulfilled.

“This is a dream come true,” Elmasri said through his American Sign Language interpreter, Jo Malizia. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve someday wanted to play for USA Deaf Basketball. Now that it’s happening, I feel very lucky. I don’t want to come back with anything less than a medal.”

Early on, Elmasri found basketball as a way to connect with the hearing community. 

The San Luis Obispo native, who now lives in Templeton, started playing the sport when he was 4 years old. 

He played at San Luis Obispo High School, where Malizia would help communicate instructions from coaches and coordinate with teammates.

His coach and teammates also gestured, indicating plays by signals or numbers. 

“I grew up playing basketball with people that could hear,” Elmasri said. “We learned how to communicate with each other.” 

Elmasri can read people’s lips fairly well, though he doesn’t understand everything said to him. He might use a cellphone to text while sitting next to someone or use readily understandable signs. 

It can be frustrating to want to say something and not to be able to, Elmasri acknowledges.

He typically greets friends and fellow basketball gym rats with a big smile when he walks on the court. And he’s a familiar face at Kennedy Club Fitness in San Luis Obispo, where he regularly plays pickup games and is in the recreation league there.

“Ali is one of the best shooters I’ve seen around here,” said Jimmy Lee, a Kennedy Club member and recent graduate of Mission Prep, where he played basketball. “And he has a great handle (dribbling). He’s awesome.”

On the court, people can wave at Elmasri to gain his attention — and he must be aware of where others are on the court through scanning.

His world is one of mostly silence, though he can faintly hear loud shouts.

“When you can’t hear, you see the world a little differently,” Elmasri said. “I’m constantly watching and looking at what’s going on around me.”

Elmasri works at a city of Morro Bay summer recreation camp for kids, which includes basketball instruction and other games. His career ambition is to become a recreation coordinator and basketball coach. 

As a lanky 6-foot-2-inch shooting guard, Elmasri will be responsible for locking down perimeter guards for USA Deaf Basketball. 

Players on the team — who come from around the country — range in height from about 6 feet to 6 feet 10 inches.

His coaches have instructed him to work on defense in particular. 

“They told me to work on a variety of things, but mainly defense,” he said. “I’ve been running, lifting weights, shooting.”

Though he has been abroad before — including to Lebanon, the country of his descent — this will be the first time Elmasri has visited Asia. 

He’s not only looking forward to the basketball experience — which will involve playing in front of many fans who shake their hands in the air to cheer — but also to being around an international deaf community.

He raised about $3,500, with the help of Cuesta College’s publicity to be able to make the trip. The team will practice for a week in Fremont before flying overseas.

“I can’t wait to see how people from other countries use their sign language, which is different from American Sign Language,” Elmasri said. “And it will be a lot of fun to be around my teammates. I have gotten to know them pretty well.”