By Colin Whited and Chris Kaftan
After what is nearly a three-year hiatus from international competition, the United States Deaf Men’s National Basketball team is set to make its return at the 5th Pan American Games in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where it seeks to qualify for the 2013 Summer Deaflympics.
USA head coach Keith Westhoelter, arguably the most decorated individual in the history of United States Deaf Basketball, is once again at the helm of the defending Deaflympic champions. The Pan American Games will mark Westhoelter¹s ninth international competition, where he will carry with him an unprecedented 54-1 record.
In spite of his international record, Westhoelter does not expect this to be a normal competition. The USA Deaf Men’s Basketball team roster is absent some of the premiere names in Deaf American basketball. Westhoelter remains confident that the United States will fare well with a roster he considers a good blend of youth and experience that will demonstrate a balance of size and speed.
“While our roster lacks the top-to-bottom star-power that it has had in the past, this by no means takes away from our ability to come out on top in Sao Paulo,” Westhoelter said.
Entering the Pan American Games, the United States finds itself in somewhat of a pickle. After the 2009 Taipei Games, Deaf International Basketball Federation announced that it would discontinue automatic berths to future Deaflympics for the current Deaflympic gold medalists. Team USA would be forced to finish in the top two in the Panamdes region in order to qualify for the 2013 Games.
In large part due to the lack of funding, the U.S. Deaf Men’s squad decided to forego the 2011 DIBF World Championships in Palermo, Italy, last September. This leaves the United States with an ultimatum: Finish in the top two in Sao Paulo, or they will not have a chance to defend its Deaflympic title. If the United States fails to earn a berth to the 2013 Summer Deaflympics, then the United States will not be able to defend its gold medal for the first time since the 1957 Milan Deaflympics.
Six countries, including the United States, will vie for a spot in the 2013 Games while in Sao Paolo. The five countries also competing for a berth are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela.
When asked which country would prove to be USA’s greatest challenge, Westhoelter immediately singled out Venezuela, which has already gained a Deaflympic berth by placing second at the World Championships last fall. Venezuela is also ranked second in the world behind Lithuania. The United States is ranked third, in spite of winning all the Deaflympic championships since 1957.
“Venezuela is quick, hungry, and plays with a high level of intensity,” Westhoelter said, adding that their notorious full-court press has given even some of the top teams in the world trouble.
“They¹ve been an up-and-coming squad for a while now, and we should expect a motivated team that¹s been waiting quite some time for an opportunity to play us. They probably believe that they have our number, and that will only add to the challenge.”
Westheolter, however, added that the Americans cannot keep their sights only on the Venezuelans.
“One of the reasons we¹ve been so successful in the past is that we¹ve been able to focus on the way we play basketball,” he said. “Everyone, including myself, needs to go into Sao Paulo prepared to give our very best. We need to be confident, we need to execute the little things, the intangibles, and above all, we need to excel defensively. If there¹s anything I¹ve learned over my years in basketball, it¹s that great defense is the key to winning.”