By Nicholas Leo
Growing up in a family full of basketball coaches and players, it doesn’t sound too far-fetched for Kayla Debrow to pursue her own career in the sport.
The only difference is she’ll have to do it without the ability to hear.
Debrow is now the star center on the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (FSDB) Girls Varsity Basketball team in St. Augustine. Posting averages of 17 points and 10 rebounds per game this past season, she’d also broken a school record with 18 blocks in a single game.
Her mother, Jessica Pierce, was a 4-year member of the University of Georgia Women’s basketball team from 2001-2005. Reaching as far as the Elite Eight in the 2004 NCAA Tournament before losing to the LSU Lady Tigers by just a basket.
Growing and moving from team to team, Debrow and Pierce have an understanding of the balance between interpreter and coach depending on the situation. On her hearing AAU team, Pierce is needed on the bench next to the coach to sign to Debrow while she’s on the court or in the huddle; but teammates are also able to use hand signals and Debrow reads their lips in order to communicate quick actions.
“Here it might be one way, but when you get to the collegiate level it changes. Just starting that transition now… she’s playing on an exposure [AAU] team, they’re all hearing,” said Pierce. “It’s the way of the world, and with her talent she’s going to be in situations where she is the only deaf person around. Athletically that works well with her when she’s on the court, it’s just outside of that where the struggles really come in.”
With the desire to go further with basketball after high school, Gallaudet University is the direction most players turn since they’re the only deaf-led athletic program in the country. Larger Division I or II schools aren’t made for ASL student accommodations in every area, and it’s a change to a team that some coaches may shy away from.
“If I went to a hearing school then I would have to go to the disabilities service center, they would have to request an interpreter, I would essentially need an interpreter with me all day,” Debrow signed.
Joy Fraychineaud, the coach of the Lady Dragons, went to Gallaudet and majored in physical education. As an undergrad, she would give half of the 2012 commencement speech and note that the University helped her become a strong woman and leader.
Debrow can function in both worlds, and communication would be easier continuing in an all-deaf school setting like Gallaudet, but that will not stop her from working towards playing on a bigger stage. On the court, she’ll need an interpreter for some time, but as the season goes on and the team learns basic signs, she will be able to communicate confidently with hearing coaches and players.
“It does not mean that I should go to Gallaudet because of full communication only… I want to communicate and interact with [the hearing team] directly. I do not want to depend on the interpreter signing,” Debrow signed.
Debrow wants to play in the most competitive basketball league she can, and doesn’t look at being deaf as anything more than another obstacle to overcome. Whether it’s writing back and forth, interpreting, captions, or signing; two-way communication may be a process, but it’s doable.
“Deaf person may feel alone with hearing. They can’t be on the same level as hearing. They can’t because of communication. That does not matter,” Debrow signed. “You can write. You can be assertive. You can be brave. You can write or text back and forth. You can gesture. Be confident. Hearing people will do the same.”
It started when Debrow was a baby, going to the girls’ high school basketball games that her mother coached and the boys’ high school basketball games that her uncle coached. She noticed the difference between the two early, and that inspired her to want to play with both boys and girls.
“I had my own hoop at home. I always shoot with my brother and play one on one. I played with my brother at camp. That camp was for everyone, but I joined my brother’s group that was at his age,” Debrow signed. “There were a few kids who were taller, it did not matter, I wanted to play. I noticed one girl that was my brother’s age and she played basketball aggressively. So she and I played together, and then we played with their group, it was so fun.”
Pierce was first her daughter’s teacher and interpreter before becoming her coach. Debrow would play under her mother and alongside her brother with the same co-ed hearing group from ages 4 through 9.
“Having her brother on the team with her made it easier as well, because if I couldn’t get to her, he could get to her,” Pierce said.
Debrow was able to build a foundation with her teammates and continually expand on top of that, allowing her to find comfortability in the sport.
Florida School for the Deaf and Blind
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL
In the second grade, Debrow found herself enrolled at FSDB. She’d play in their youth basketball league and practice on their outdoor court until she joined the Lady Dragons on the official Settles Gym floor in sixth grade. Debrow has since been apart of the Girls Varsity Basketball Team, now approaching the start of her 6th season.
Early in her FSDB career she became a fan of Lourdine Jordonne’s style of play, posting career averages of 11 points and 10 rebounds per game at 5 foot 7 inches. Debrow was taken under Jordonne’s wing and learned from the undersized center through battles in practice.
“Her size does not mean anything. She is versatile. She can play any position. She can dribble, shoot, layup, and box out,” Debrow signed. “I look at her, and I want to be the same. Because of my height, I do not have to be only the center.”
Playing with Jordonne had a lasting effect on Debrow, who has only improved her game and taken a larger role on the team since Jordonne’s graduation from FSDB in 2021. Debrow received recognition from the American Journal Constitution for her play at Mike Glenn’s Basketball Camp for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; and before the start of the 2022-23 season, The St. Augustine Record recognized Debrow as the one who’d be taking over as the leader of The Lady Dragons.
This offseason Debrow focused on improving her ball handling and finishing at the rim, looking to stretch out from the center position in order to create better looks for herself and the team.
“The game has changed where there’s really not a center, like, everybody’s shooting the three, everybody’s bringing the ball up the floor,” Pierce said. “Just to prepare her now, because she has the capabilities to do it, it’s just a matter of ‘do you really want it?'”
Debrow and The Lady Dragons will open their season at home against Matanzas High School on Nov. 29, at 6 p.m. in Settles Gym.