Adversity makes Loyola's Bergan tough, tender


February 17, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

When Loyola guard Tracy Bergan wins the game in the final seconds, which is how most Loyola basketball games seem to end these days, his mother and father don't hear the buzzer sound. Neither does his brother. If his uncles were on hand, they wouldn't hear it either. And neither would any of his grandparents.

They wouldn't hear the wild applause or the P.A. announcer delivering the final score or the hum of excitement at the sound of Bergan's name.

They wouldn't hear any of it because they are deaf. Everyone in Tracy Bergan's family is profoundly deaf except Tracy Bergan, who is unusual only when he has a basketball in his hand.

"I don't know why I turned out different," he was saying the other day. "I've thought about it. Sure, I've thought about it."

He will be 20 years old next week, and, as any college sophomore might, he is in the process of sorting out who he is. But he knows where he has been and how being the only so-called "normal" person in his family has shaped him.

"He's as fierce a competitor as I've been around in 20 years of coaching," said Loyola coach Tom Schneider. "He has that intrinsic value that takes the athlete to the next level.

"I'm not a psychologist, but a lot of that has to come from the adversity, if you want to call it that, of how he grew up."

He grew up too fast. He grew up with a loving family that couldn't hear and couldn't speak and could, only with great difficulty, protect him from the outside world.

"I don't remember when I realized I was the only one in my family who could hear," he said. "I learned to sign before I could talk. I learned to talk from the TV and from friends my mom always made sure I had.

"I do remember that it was frustrating. I had so much responsibility so young. It was little things, like when we'd go to McDonald's or someplace I'd always be the one who had to take all the orders and interpret back and forth. I was just 5 or 6 years old. Everyone was looking at them -- at us. We'd be sitting down and people would think I'm deaf because I was signing like everyone else. Except I could hear the things they'd say, some of the cruel things. How do you think that made a kid feel?"

You can still see the hurt in Bergan's eyes. He's a soft-spoken young man, smallish at 6 feet and 165 pounds. You don't look at him and see a basketball star or the charismatic player he is on the court, the guy who wants the ball in the last seconds, the one who says he loves the spotlight, although only when it shines on a basketball court.

It was on a basketball court that he made his life. When he was 6, he moved to a new neighborhood, and he already was old enough to understand what was in store. Kids teased him. He had the deaf kid brother who always followed him around. He had parents who talked with their hands. But when he played basketball -- he always had the gift -- he was special. And he made friends. And, suddenly, nothing seemed so bad anymore.

Not that he wouldn't be embarrassed at times. He still had to get through puberty, when nothing seems more frightening than being perceived as different.

"My parents knew it was tough for me," said Bergan, whose mother is a counselor and whose father owns his own business. "My mom always said it would be all right. She knew I'd be embarrassed, but she knew I'd get through it. And I did."

When he got to DeMatha, in Hyattsville, Md., he would become the quarterback of the football team and point guard on the basketball team and life was pretty good.

"Every game, there would be about 20 people, 20 deaf people, in the stands to see my play," Bergan said. "Every game, you'd see the flying hands. They were my people. I really played for them. We'd break out of the huddle, and they'd sign to me, and I'd sign right back to them."

Everybody knew them. Everybody accepted them. And coming to Loyola, Bergan wasn't embarrassed or scared. He was Tracy Bergan, whose family couldn't hear, and that was that. One of the players on the team took sign language, and when Bergan's dad met the team on a road trip, the father and the teammate had long talks together.

"It was so great," Bergan said, "because I didn't have to be there. I didn't have to interrupt my conversation to be there to translate. The guys all think my dad is cool."

So maybe you think this is a happy ending, and you're right. A year ago, Loyola was 4-24 and Bergan, just a freshman, had to leave the team because of academic difficulties. And now Loyola has a winning record, and Bergan is averaged 14 points a game while setting a school record for assists. He's even getting decent grades. And he has led a late-season rally with some incredible late-game flourishes. For example:

* He hit a three-pointer with 26 seconds left against Iona to send a game into overtime on Jan. 26. Loyola would win the game.

* His jump shot with 12 seconds left beat Towson by one point on Feb. 4.

* On Feb. 7, he scored the last 10 points in a four-point win over Canisius.

* On Monday, he scored 22 of his game-high 29 in the second half as Loyola rallied from nine down to win by nine against Manhattan.

"I don't want to lose," he said. "If you play hard enough, you're going to win."

That's one side of Bergan, and there's another. It's clear that he learned to be tough growing up, and that he learned to be gentle, too.

"I care about people," Bergan said, without a trace of embarrassment. "I look for the good in everyone. Some of my friends say I'm too nice, that I get walked on. But I saw people who wouldn't give my parents a fair shake. And I never want to be like that."

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