Those who have met South Carolina guard Jamel Bradley in the last few years may be surprised to learn that he was quite an introvert when he was young. Having lost 80% of his hearing when he was 18 months old as the result of a 106� fever, Bradley says he often "felt like I didn't really belong in this world," and he spent hours alone in his room just listening to the quiet. His diffidence lifted, however, after his older brother, J.T., started taking him to the YMCA in their hometown of Beckley, W.Va., to play basketball. "My brother's friends were all five years older than me, so he'd tell me to stand in the corner and shoot," Bradley says. "That was my thing, shooting when I was open."
Taking the open shot is still Bradley's m�tier. A 6'2" senior, he was averaging 14.0 points through last Wednesday to lead the Gamecocks (10-3) in scoring for the second straight year. He was also converting 46.5% of his three-pointers and 85.7% of his free throws. More important, he's scoring points with dozens of hearing-impaired youngsters who have written or visited him since he started playing college basketball. His message travels well: Last season, before South Carolina played at Kentucky, Bradley met with students from the Kentucky School for the Deaf. "It's amazing how many people want me to talk to their child," he says. "I'm the type of guy who's willing to talk to anyone whenever I get the time."
Bradley's life changed dramatically during his first semester at South Carolina, when the school outfitted him with state-of-the-art digital hearing aids, which permit him to hear noises coming from all directions. Upon donning them, Bradley for the first time heard the sound of birds chirping. When he returned to his dormitory, he rummaged through his room for several minutes to unearth the source of a ticking sound. It was his clock.
With Bradley's hearing restored to around 85% of normal, his disability isn't much of a factor when he plays, though coach Dave Odom checks with him after every timeout to make sure Bradley understood what Odom said in the Gamecocks' huddle. It wasn't until last summer, when he led the U.S. to the gold medal at the 19th Deaflympics in Rome, that Bradley had to learn to compensate for hearing loss during a game—because all his teammates were deaf. "I couldn't use my vocal leadership, so I had to rely more on sign language," he says. Bradley was the leading American scorer, with a 20.2 average, and went for 33 points against Slovakia in the gold medal game.
Bradley stays in close contact with a number of the kids he has met during his travels. Whatever his chosen profession—he's on track to receive his degree in administrative information management later this year—Bradley plans to continue reaching out to young people who are hearing impaired. "That's something I never had when I was young," he says. "A deaf role model. I went through what they're going through. So they can look at me and think, If he can overcome this, I can do it too."