Joe Estep and his teammates came up one bucket short, but he says the overall experience was outstanding.

Estep, a former Valley High School basketball player, is a member of the United States Deaf Men’s National Basketball Team, which — with solid contributions from Estep — recently placed second in the fifth annual Pan American Games for the Deaf and earned a spot in the 2013 Deaflympics.

“The experience playing for USA was amazing,” said Estep, whose team lost 84-82 on June 22 to World No. 2 Venezuela in the Pan Am title contest in Sao Paolo, Brazil. “I was relieved to finally achieve my goal when they picked me for the team. I’d been chasing it for years but that didn’t mean I was at ease once it happened.

“I worked relentlessly in the gym and weight room. There was always that chance that they would replace me if they saw that I was out of shape in USADB tournaments where I play for Austin. The pressure to get USA qualified for Deaflympics, where our undefeated gold streak is still intact, was on my mind daily as well.”

“When I held up that USA jersey with ESTEP stitched on the back, that’s when it really hit me,” he continued. “All the goals, the hard work and the frustrations over the past 10 years had paid off. I’d finally achieved something in life that no one could ever take away from me, something I knew I’d cherish for the rest of my life.”

“Everyone seemed ready to play the game of their lives before tipoff but then what came next felt like a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from,” Estep said of the gold medal game, during which the USA rallied from a late eight-point deficit before falling short. “(We had) so many turnovers and missed opportunities.

“It was heartbreaking.”

The Pan Am event involved six countries from North and South America: USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil. The gold and silver medalists qualified for the Deaflympics, in which the United States has never finished lower than gold.

Prior to the closing two games, the USA posted preliminary wins over Canada (105-25), Mexico (100-27), Venezuela (76-67), Argentina and Brazil (91-38). Against Brazil, Estep received his first international start, and he responded with 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.

In the semifinals, the USA blitzed Canada 96-37, with Estep providing at team-high 16 points and seven rebounds.

Playing with an injured calf muscle, Estep finished the tournament with averages of 8.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. “I feel I gave them the best I could,” he said.

He was invited to try out with 24 other players next month for a spot on the Deaflympic team that will travel to Sofia, Bulgaria next year. Estep declined the invitation but said he will participate if he is called to play.

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The trip was an eye-opening experience, said Estep, a resident of Jacksonville, Ill., which is an hour north of St. Louis.

“I was anxious to start the trip when I left home but at the same time I wasn’t looking forward to being without my wife (Jennifer) and three kids for the two-and-a-half weeks. I’d never been away from any of them that long before.”

The tournament allowed him to learn a lot about the state of international deaf basketball.

“We (the United States) have our work cut out for us over here and not just on the basketball court,” he said. “We’re one of the last countries in the world that doesn’t get support from our government.

“Venezuela ... not only receives full payment to cover their competitions but receive payments and rewards for how they do in each event. Besides our Nike apparel, all USA players earn for all their hard work and dedication is a pat on the back.

“That isn’t going to cut it much longer. Other countries are improving and getting better daily. They have the opportunity to play together year round, while we practice as a team a week or two out of the year.”

“The international game is much more physical than it is here,” added Estep, who was a member of the 2009 United States of America Deaf Basketball national champions, the Indy Hawks.

— E-mail: skeenan@registerherald.com

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