LYNDONVILLE, Vt. (AP) — “The sophomore guard, from Whitesboro, New York, number three, Luke Fresdell.”
The voice resonated through Stannard Gym prior to a men’s basketball game between NVU-Lyndon and Colby Sawyer on Dec. 9.
“The sophomore guard, from Bridgeport, New York, number four, Zach Falkenburg.”
Players waited for their introductions, then jogged onto the court. It was a familiar ritual, unremarkable except for the man behind the microphone, 21-year-old Alek Wolfe, the second-year voice of NVU-Lyndon basketball.
“The senior guard, from Jamaica, New York, number 10, Damon Denteh.”
Blind since birth, Wolfe is the Hornets’ in-game announcer and radio commentator.
He can’t see the action — the players dribbling up the court, driving the lane, and cutting to the basket — but he has a vision: To be a professional broadcaster.
This isn’t a pipe dream. It’s something Wolfe has worked hard to realize. He has done internships and job shadows, gotten hands-on experience, and picked the brains of as many professionals as he could find.
Recently he started an Internet radio station from his dorm room, playing music and launching three original programs.
“The true passion for me is radio,” Wolfe said. “It’s where I feel most comfortable.”
If Wolfe is confident, it’s because he’s already come so far. Only a couple of years removed from high school, he’s overcome more obstacles than others might face in a lifetime.
His mother, Staci, can attest to that.
“He’s a survivor,” she said. “It’s amazing how he’s grown and how he’s adapted to everything, all the challenges in his life.”
Wolfe was adopted from Russia when he was six.
Born premature with an eye condition called retinopathy of prematurity, he was given up at birth and raised in an orphanage. Next, he would be transferred to a state-run institution.
Things looked bleak until his story reached Staci and her husband, Jack. They were attending an adult Sunday school class when a member of adoption non-profit Brittany’s Hope made a presentation on Alek.
“While she was talking I was elbowing my husband,” Staci recalled. Her feeling that the adoption was meant-to-be intensified the next day, when a harbinger arrived in the mail. “We received literature for a children’s book in braille. I said it was our sign, this is what we were meant to do.”
A pediatric nurse specializing in care for disabled kids, Staci had wanted to adopt a child with special needs.
“I worked in a pediatric outpatient unit in (Pennsylvania) and it always amazed me. The children would come in there in wheelchairs and walkers and always smile. These children with disabilities don’t complain. I knew a few mothers who adopted special needs kids and I always said ‘That’s what I want to do someday,’” she said.
With the decision made, Staci and Jack traveled to Russia twice.
The first time, Staci recalled, “we took Alek back to the hotel overnight, which was disastrous, because neither of us could speak Russian. Alek wouldn’t settle down, he kept getting out of bed and crying. We were like, ‘What are we doing?’ We had an interpreter across the hall but she eventually fell asleep and we were on our own.”
The second time they stayed for 2 1/2 weeks, completing a mountain of paperwork and jumping through legal and procedural hoops. They finalized the adoption on Dec. 13 and returned to the U.S. on Christmas Eve.
“It was difficult at first. I want to say it was more the language barrier than being blind,” Staci said. “But before we came home from Russia, we were singing the Cookie Monster song, ‘C is for cookie.’ By the time he came home he was singing the chorus to the song.”
As a child, Wolfe was particular.
“He put everything in its place, even his toys. Every time he’d play with the Thomas trains, he’d put them in the exact same order on the track,” Staci said. “One time I moved the trains all around. He came back into the room, felt them, and immediately knew they weren’t the way he left them — and he put them back the way they were.”
Wolfe can only discern light and dark, but he compensates for his lack of sight with his other senses.
“He didn’t use a cane when we first adopted him but he’d get out of the car and know when to step off the curb, where the sidewalk was,” Staci said. “And he picks up on any minute sound. Like, you could be in another room talking about something and he’ll have the door shut and the music on and he’ll still be able to hear you. At the orphanage they said he knew each caregiver by their walk, and he does that with us, too.”
Wolfe came of age in St. Albans with his older siblings Kariann and Mathew. He remembers attending baseball games with his sister and not knowing what was happening. But his curiosity was aroused. So when his brother watched sports and professional wrestling broadcasts, Wolfe took great interest in the commentators.
“My brother got me into wrestling when I was, like, 13,” Wolfe said. The commentators were not only good at their job, but they were very entertaining. Some nights they commentators were part of the storyline, which made it fascinating for me. As a listener I was really intrigued. I thought, ‘I want to do that someday.’”
Scott Martin, the boys basketball coach for St. Albans City middle school, remembers the first time he saw Wolfe.
“I was in the lunchroom and I saw this one young gentleman who was sight impaired but had a lot of enthusiasm,” said Martin. “He was someone you wanted to have on your team.”
So Martin made an offer to Wolfe: Join the Raiders as a manager. The eighth grader accepted.
Being around the team, Wolfe took an interest in the game. Eventually, he wanted to give it a shot.
“He said ‘Hey coach, I want to learn to dribble a basketball.’ I said OK, I’ll try to help you,” Martin recalled. “Eventually he got it down. The he said ‘Coach, I want to learn to shoot.’ I took his cane, tapped the backboard, and told him to shoot it there … and it finally went in. After a period of time I turned to Alek and said ‘Hey, you want to play in a game?”
On the night of Jan. 9, 2014, Alek suited up and took the court against Alburgh. Teammates fed him the ball in the paint, and on his third try me made a basket.
“They put an X down with tape so I could feel where to line up,” Wolfe said. “It bounced off the rim twice, the third time it went in, and the place went absolutely ballistic. It was exciting.”
Looking on, coach Martin felt a wave of emotion.
“At that point I realized that Alek Wolfe was not quitter, Alek was going to find a way to be success,” Martin said.
During his time with the middle school team, Wolfe had a thought: Why not try and broadcast the games?
He began to record a running commentary of the games, speaking into a digital recorder, despite the fact he could only hear the sounds: The voice of the coach, the bounce of the ball, the squeak of the sneakers, and the sound of the buzzer.
“I would sit at the scorer’s table and I would — it’s embarrassing to talk about, but it’s funny at the same time — I would just sit there and talk about the game from the sounds that I was hearing,” Wolfe said.
Those recordings led him to become the in-game announcer for the BFA-St. Albans high school basketball and hockey teams, and later a TV and radio broadcaster for both programs.
During that eighth grade season, Wolfe didn’t limit his commentary to his digital recorder. He offered insight into the St. Albans City team’s play, gave valuable feedback, and in general made the Raiders better, coach Martin recalled.
“I can remember a time when some of his friends-slash-teammates were having a rough stretch. We lost two or three in a row,” coach Martin recalled. “Alek stood up and went around the table, saying ‘Didn’t you do this and didn’t you do that.’ Finally, after the third one, people said ‘Wow, we never saw it that way.’ He had a way of pointing out the positive things they had done to be better players-slash-human beings. It tightened the team up even more.”
“He was passionate about what he did. And he’s still passionate about life and being a part of a team in any way that he possibly can.”
During last month’s game between NVU-Lyndon and Colby Sawyer, Wolfe occupied a corner of the scorers table.
Laid out in front of him, from left to right, were a laptop computer (with a braille readout attachment), an audio mixer (connected to his headset microphone for the online radio broadcast), a folder containing braille lineups and scripts, and the public address microphone.
With the precision of a concert pianist he played audio on his laptop, alternated bteween the two mics, and scanned his braille documents for information.
And when issues arose, he solved them. On this night he hooked an iPhone into the system (to play the National Anthem), adjusted the PA speakers, and reacted when the arena mic fell to the floor — all by feel.
“When he first came to me and said he wanted to be a sports announcer, I said I don’t think you can be a sports announcer,” said Staci. It was intended to be a reality check. “I said if you can prove to me there are blind sports announcers, we can talk.”
So Wolfe did just that.
“He went on the Internet, found them, and brought them to my attention,” Staci said. With that, she relented. “I work with disabled children, so I know how they can grow with a disability. I guess Alek just sort of cemented it for me.”
Throughout high school and into college, Wolfe has continued to work on his craft. In addition to his work with high school and college sports, he interned with radio station 101.3 and job shadowed with the Vermont Lake Monsters.
He broadcasts twice a week on the NVU-Lyndon student radio station 91.5 FM, on Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m., and he recently launched an Internet radio station, The WolfDen Network, which includes a lineup of original programming: The Mixdown (Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m.), Classic Throwbacks (Wednesday 3 to 5 p.m.), WWE Breakdown (every other Thursday at 8 p.m.) and the basketball broadcasts.
He runs the station out of his dorm room with a collection of co-hosts, and it can be found on Facebook by searching “WolfDen Network.”
“I’ve had experience in every aspect of the radio and television business you could think of. I enjoy all of it. But if I had to choose I’d have to stick with radio,” Wolfe said.
Those who know Wolfe don’t doubt he can make a living on the air.
“I told him to remember me when he’s rich and famous,” said coach Martin, who keeps in regular contact with Wolfe. “I think Alek has an incredible ability to look at the world and not let it bring him down or make him feel like he has a disability.”
Meanwhile his mother remembers worrying about sending Alek off to college.
“I was very, very hesitant about letting him go off to college on his own,” she said. “I was really scared, because of his having to be independent. But he really … he gets around the campus by himself and it’s just amazing and heartwarming to see him adapt to the independence.”
Now, listening to his broadcasts, she couldn’t be prouder.
“It shows other people, kids and adults, that it doesn’t matter if you have a disability, you can still achieve what you want,” she said. “This child was going to get thrown away in his country, and now look what he can do. It’s amazing.”