Kenai Central senior Nick Barnes is deaf, but that's not the reason Barnes frequently draws attention on the basketball court.
Barnes draws a lot of attention, especially from the opposition, because he's such a good basketball player.
"What did Barnes have? One point," said Palmer coach Brandon Blake while looking over the box score after his team's 52-35 victory over Kenai Friday. "He's such an important player for them.
"Our goal coming in was to shut him down. If we shut him down, we win."
Kenai coach Rich Bartolowits said Friday was just another example of Barnes' athletic ability standing out over his deafness.
"I have coaches come up to me after they've played us, and they'll have no idea that he's deaf," Bartolowits said. "That to me is the ultimate compliment."
The opposing coaches can hardly be blamed for not noticing. Barnes and most of his teammates can converse using sign language, and an interpreter sits on the bench to give Bartolowits' instructions to Barnes.
Barnes also has an uncanny alertness on the floor. Bartolowits can never remember him playing after the whistle has blown.
"I can't hear the whistle so I depend on my eyes more than most people," Barnes said through an interpreter. "I'm always watching the referee.
"I think it makes me a better player. I always have to know what's going on. I always have to be more alert."
In addition to that alertness, Barnes has a natural athletic ability that overshadows his deafness.
"He's one of the most athletic players I've worked with," Bartolowits said. "You could walk into an open gym and have no idea he's deaf."
Barnes' mother, Carolyn, said her son lost his hearing when he was 9 months old. Not long after that, his stellar sense of coordination and balance started showing itself.
Carolyn said her son could ride a bike by the time he was a year and a half old. Then when Barnes was 4, Carolyn said her son's athletic ability became even more evident when he started taking apart other teams on the soccer pitch.
Barnes spent his childhood excelling at many other sports, including hockey and basketball.
"As long as I've know him, he's been the best basketball player in our grade," said Kenai senior Cole Chappell, who has known Barnes since the fifth grade. "He can do it all.
"He plays great defense. He also shoots the best and dribbles the best."
When Barnes got to high school, he narrowed his focus to basketball, although he also played varsity soccer his freshmen and sophomore years.
As a freshman, Barnes played junior varsity basketball and swung up to varsity for a few games. He also attended a camp in Anchorage and was selected to play on a hoops team that represented Alaska in Australia.
Barnes made the varsity basketball team as a sophomore. As a junior, Barnes was well on his way to being a varsity contributor when he completely tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in an early season game.
Barnes went to Colorado for surgery on the knee, then had to go to physical therapy for three days a week for eight months to fully mend the knee.
"It was really frustrating because it took so long to get over it," Barnes said of his injury. "But in a weird way, it made me work harder.
"I knew I'd have to work hard to get back to where I used to be."
At the start of the season, the knee was fully healed but Barnes still had to get confidence back in the joint.
"He drives a lot when he plays basketball," Carolyn said. "I saw him holding back more in the beginning of the season.
"Sometimes, you can overcompensate and injure the other knee. I can see him playing with a lot more confidence as he plays each game."
Barnes was named the Most Valuable Player at the SoHi Tipoff Tournament early in the season, but Bartolowits and Chappell said the first time the old Barnes fully appeared on the court was a mid-February game at Nikiski.
In that game, Barnes nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from deep in the corner to give the Kardinals a 68-65 victory and cap a 31-point performance. The shot allowed Barnes to get the better of Jeremiah Taylor, who had 28 points for the Bulldogs.
"Nick respects Jeremiah as one of the best players on the peninsula," Bartolowits said. "I think that game did a lot for Nick's confidence."
Just as interpreters have helped Barnes to good things on the basketball floor, interpreters also attend classes with Barnes at Kenai Central, where Barnes has a 3.6 grade point average.
Sue Sizemore is an interpreter for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District who has worked with Barnes since the sixth grade.
"The first thing that comes to mind is he's the most patient kid in the world," Sizemore said. "He also has a great sense of humor.
"He's intense about sports, school about everything he does."
Barnes enjoys math and government in school. He would like to go to college next year, where he will pursue engineering or owning his own business. He also would like to take a shot at playing basketball in college.
Barnes said it will be tough to leave Alaska, where he enjoys activities like snowmachining, camping and downhill skiing, but he would like to leave for the sake of education.
Sizemore thinks Barnes will be successful in the next phase of his life.
"Nick is the easiest person to get to know," Sizemore said. "He doesn't let the fact that someone doesn't know sign language get in the way.
"He's quick to pull out a pen and paper. He can adapt quickly and that will serve him well in whatever he chooses to do."
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