MILWAUKEE — Mike Budenholzer, the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, recently described Giannis Antetokounmpo as a “monster” at one of his postgame news conferences.
In that moment, as he stood a few feet from Budenholzer, Brice Christianson tried to work out in his head how to interpret that word for his audience watching live on social media. Christianson, a sign language interpreter, decided that using the word “monster” would have been too literal, so he signed for the word “explosive” instead.
Afterward, Christianson was second-guessing himself. Sports jargon can be tricky. He even consulted Christopher Rawlings, a friend and colleague who works as a sign language specialist for the state of Wisconsin. Rawlings, who is deaf, asked Christianson whether he had considered using the sign for “hot” or “on fire.”
It was all about getting to the essence of a simple truth, no matter the language.
“That Giannis is unstoppable,” Christianson said.
The Bucks are trying something new after their home games this season: broadcasting Budenholzer’s remarks to the world in English and in American Sign Language. The Bucks, and especially Antetokounmpo, are leading the Eastern Conference and are as good as ever, but now even more of their fans are able to engage with the team and enjoy Budenholzer’s recaps of the Greek Freak’s nightly feats of awesome.
“It’s one of those small things that’s a big deal,” said Peter Feigin, the team president.
Feigin approached Budenholzer before the start of the season to ask if he would be O.K. with having an interpreter standing next to him on the dais. Budenholzer, who comes from the Gregg Popovich school of communications, has never had any illusions that he reveals great insight after games.
“I always joke that I’m pretty boring,” Budenholzer said in an interview. “So I’m probably pretty boring in sign language, too.”
But he was glad to agree to it — no matter how dry his material. Now Budenholzer’s thoughts on Antetokounmpo’s latest exploits and his team’s overall play are being relayed by Christianson, 36, who pitched the idea to the Bucks in September.
Those who advocate greater access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing say that by live streaming Budenholzer’s bilingual news conferences on social media, the Bucks and Fox Sports Wisconsin are shining a spotlight on an underserved community while highlighting the importance of meeting their needs.
“The deaf community always mentions that they struggle with closed captioning,” Rawlings said. “But with American Sign Language, we get full access to our visual language. There’s clarity. It might be a close game, and I cannot wait to see what Brice does.”
More than 500,000 people in Wisconsin are deaf, hard of hearing and/or deaf-blind, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. And while many people who are deaf have strong English literacy skills, Christianson said, some struggle with it as their second language.
Children who can hear typically learn to read by listening to how words sound. Those who are deaf often struggle to find educational programs in public schools that can help them learn in different ways. As a result, closed captioning is not always an effective form of communication, especially as captions do not capture emotion, inflection or tone.
Interpreters, though, can convey all the nuance that captions miss.
“People just seem so excited and astonished that we’re even doing this,” Christianson said.
As the hearing child of two deaf parents, Christianson grew up in Appleton, Wis., attending sporting events with his father, who would rely on him to act as his interpreter.
“I’m always thinking about my parents,” Christianson said. “And I’m not trying to make it emotional, but it’s always about trying to understand their perspective.”
Christianson is also a huge sports fan who loves the Bucks and the N.F.L.’s Green Bay Packers. When he began “The Unknown Packers Podcast” a couple of years ago, he made sure to help produce a supplementary version in sign language.
“That’s when I started thinking, well, if we can do this with podcasts, which have been systematically and predominantly focused on the hearing population, what else can we do?” Christianson said. “It’s all about access, and I think it’s a fundamental right of humans to have access.”
Christianson had been working as an A.S.L. interpreter for concerts and events at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks’ home arena, when he had lunch before the start of the season with Kieran Nulty, the vice president for arena experience. Christianson asked a question that had been percolating: What did Nulty think of providing an interpreter for Budenholzer’s news conferences?
Christianson said he had gotten used to people politely brushing him off whenever he asked about improving access for the hard of hearing. The line he usually gets is, “I’ll get back to you.” But he could tell that Nulty was intrigued. Sure enough, Nulty went to Feigin, who was so receptive to the idea that he took it to Budenholzer.
“You never know how coaches will react,” Feigin said, “but he was instantaneous: ‘Oh, absolutely. Just tell me what you need.’ This was a 30-second no-brainer for everyone involved.”
It made the most sense, Feigin said, to start by having Christianson interpret Budenholzer’s postgame news conferences. They tend to be newsy for fans, no matter how boring Budenholzer thinks he comes across. The logistics are fairly straightforward: Budenholzer sits at the front of the room and fields questions from reporters for about five to 10 minutes.
The Bucks did a practice run before their final preseason game to determine where Christianson should stand in relation to Budenholzer (a few feet to his left), what he should wear (a blue team-branded pullover) and how Fox Sports Wisconsin should structure the live stream (a split screen of Budenholzer and Christianson).
Still, even though it had been his idea from the start, Christianson had some reservations ahead of the season opener. He had no idea how his presence at the news conference would be received, he said. He did not want it to come off as a gimmick, and he did not want the team’s broader audience to pity the deaf community as a result. It was also one of the most high-profile assignments of his career.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Christianson said.
Making matters worse, the Bucks lost that game. Christianson wondered whether Budenholzer would be in a bad mood. But the news conference went well. Mike Dimond, the senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports Wisconsin, was monitoring the live feed from the production truck.
“You could see people joining in to watch as it was happening,” Dimond said. “I think there was a real groundswell within that community.”
The news conferences are averaging more than 7,000 views per game on social media, a team spokesman said. The TV broadcast does not include Christianson’s signing.
Following Budenholzer’s news conferences, Christianson finds the video to review his own performance — over and over. He wants to be as precise as possible.
“After the last game, my wife was like, ‘How many times have you watched this?’” he recalled.
Christianson is learning as he goes while coping with a sliver of newfound celebrity, which was never his intention. He does not like being the center of attention, he said. But a few people have recognized him around town, he said, and friends are curious about his new gig.
“They think I hang out with Giannis and Coach Bud,” Christianson said, “like we’re getting dinner together.”
The truth is that Christianson is only spending about five minutes with Budenholzer a couple of times a week. But he considers it time well spent.
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