Gallaudet makes noise with 14-0 mark, top 25 spot
The head coach is battling Parkinson’s disease, daily mourns the
loss of his sister and isn’t fully fluent in the language used by
One senior co-captain nearly quit school after her brother died.
The other is a junior college transfer who was picked on as a
Those would be compelling stories for any basketball squad, but
this is Gallaudet, the university for the deaf whose women’s team
is making noise with a 14-0 start and a No. 24 ranking in Division
III, its first appearance in the top 25 since 1999.
”There was a little talk early in the season with some of the
freshman, that this is a deaf culture,” coach Kevin Cook said.
”So I stopped them. I got upset. I said, ‘Look, this isn’t a deaf
culture. This isn’t a hearing culture. This is a winning
”I point to them at different times: ‘Look, situations aren’t
going to be fair. Look, I’ve got Parkinson’s. Is that fair? You’re
deaf. That’s not fair. But this is life, guys, and we’re going to
battle as best that we can, and we’re going to battle it together.’
This team’s had adversity. We’re used to battling. Let’s keep
Cook is an unlikely fit for Gallaudet. He was a part of four
WNBA championship teams as an assistant with the Houston Comets and
has coached the Nigerian women’s national team. He arrived in the
nation’s capital four years ago not knowing sign language; he
didn’t even have time to learn the alphabet before his first
”It was very awkward,” center Nukeitra Hayes said through an
interpreter, ”because he didn’t know how to sign. And so we had to
have patience with him. … My freshman year I felt a connection
with him, but I needed that one full year for both of us to
understand each other and to be on the same page. I’m always
constantly learning something new about him. This is my senior
year. I feel he could be like a dad to me – we’ve bonded with each
Gallaudet teams hold the quietest practices in sports. No
whistles. No constant yelling of instructions. Just the sound of
the dribbling ball, the occasional rhythm of hands clapping, the
intermittent yell or conversation between Cook and his assistants.
The official coaching staff is quite a foursome: Cook (still trying
to master sign language), Sam Weber (a volunteer who is completely
deaf), Stephanie Stevens (a hearing graduate assistant who majored
in sign language while playing Division I ball at Cincinnati) and
interpreter Chris Bahl, who acts as the communications glue during
coaches’ meetings and frenetic in-game huddles.
Games can be tricky because, under college rules, only the head
coach is allowed to stand while the play is in progress. Cook will
sometimes stomp his feet to get the players’ attention, and the
seated assistants hold their hands high to help him signal the play
in American Sign Language.
”I practiced all my life being calm and not showing any
emotion,” Cook said, ”but now with ASL I’ve got to show emotion
during a game, and that’s really not my nature. I’ve got to run up
and down the sidelines a little more.”
Cook, 50, has drawn upon his coaching experience to bring a new
level of discipline to the team, both in practices and in the
classroom. The victory totals have grown from three to six to 14
since his arrival, and this year’s start is the best in school
”Kevin Cook is a terrific coach,” said Van Chancellor, the
former Houston coach and current LSU women’s coach. ”The toughest
thing he has had to do is learn to sign. But more than a good
coach, he is a good person. I’m not surprised how well he is
As a hearing coach, Cook is sensitive to the fact that he’s
teaching players who live in a world he can’t comprehend. He makes
it a point not to talk on his cell phone or listen to music during
bus trips – because his players can’t.
But he’s had his own unexpected hurdles. Tremors he experienced
during his first season turned out to be Parkinson’s, which
sometimes inhibits his ability to sign. He takes four different
”It’s something that I’m still learning to live with,” Cook
said. ”I’m believing there’s going to be a cure. I’m staying
positive in that regard.”
Then came a greater tragedy. Cook’s sister – his best friend –
died last season in a house fire.
”I miss her especially this year, because I want to share in
these happy times. She was there as such a support for me during
the down times,” Cook said. ”I talked to her on phone, every day,
every other day. She’s still on my phone. I called her and left her
a message on the line just the other day. I just wanted to do
Hayes has an eerily similar story. Her older brother died in a
house fire just as she was settling in at Gallaudet as a freshman.
She went home and told her mother she wasn’t going back to school.
It was her brother – posthumously – who convinced her to
”There was a letter I had found after my brother had passed,”
Hayes said. ”I’ll always remember this. He says, ‘Wherever you go,
I’m always with you. Please be the best. I never finished my
college degree because I had a kid. Please complete that college
experience for me.’ I realized at that moment, I need to go back.
And now I’m in my fourth year, and every day I feel my brother’s
trying to push me, trying to motivate me.”
Hayes shares the frontcourt with Easter Faafiti, who transferred
from junior college in California. The only deaf member of her
family, Faafiti went through a variety of schools growing up,
including regular hearing classes in which she relied on
lip-reading to try to keep up. She has found happiness at
Gallaudet, although it meant mastering a different type of sign
language. She’s averaging 19.1 points and 12.2 rebounds.
As at any school, a winning team can swell pride throughout
campus. That is especially true at Gallaudet, where there’s a
constant struggle to prove to the world that hearing loss doesn’t
have to be a handicap.
”Most of the time when I was growing up, I would hear other
people say ‘I don’t think deaf people can play sports.’ Just
because of a hearing loss? Give me a break,” Faafiti said through
an interpreter. ”I actually got mad a lot. You know what, I can
prove it to you. I feel like I constantly have to prove it to
people. Just because I can’t hear doesn’t mean I’m not as
athletically talented as somebody else.”