Gallaudet University senior Easter Faafiti hits the basketball court with teammates this weekend in hopes of not only winning the North Eastern Athletic Conference title but also extending a playing season that already has changed the minds of much of the hearing public.
“Just because I can’t hear doesn’t mean I’m not as athletically talented as somebody else,” says Faafiti, who shifts seamlessly from center to forward to guard. “I hope all people would be open to anybody who has a disability.”
Indeed, this team of deaf and hard of hearing women boasts an overall 23-2 record-including a 20-game winning streak to start the season. They’re hosting the NEAC tournament as its top seed. Faafiti has been named NEAC Student-Athlete of the Week a record five times this season, including this week.
Adds coach Kevin Cook, who does hear and learned American Sign Language once he took the job four years ago: “Because of us, there’s a growing awareness that there are differences between deaf people and hearing people, but we’re all the same.”
Yet whenever the Bison compete on the road, fans of opposing teams are befuddled by the fact that Gallaudet players cannot hear referee whistles nor Cook yelling from the sidelines. In-game communication consists largely of Cook signing, with his assistants and bench players immediately repeating the signs to ensure that every team member on the court sees them from wherever they are. Cook estimates the delay costs the Bison about six points per game. Furthermore, opposing teams can eventually figure out what plays he’s calling based on the signs.
All this, Cook shrugs off, just as he doesn’t let his Parkinson’s disease get the better of him. “They still have to stop us on the court.”
So far this season, most teams have not. Two wins this weekend would not only capture the NEAC championship, Cook says, but ought to land the Bison a berth in the 64-team NCAA Tournament and March Madness.
Gallaudet’s current success is the latest since Cook, who helped guide the Houston Comets to four WNBA championships as an assistant coach, took over a program that had fallen on hard times. The Bison mustered only three victories his first year. They lost one game by 75 points. Last season though, they finished with a 14-12 record, their best in a decade. Nonetheless, the Bison have certainly tasted the national spotlight before; the team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen rung of the national tournament in 1999.
Cook credits this season’s winning ways to the women not only improving their ball-handling but getting used to keeping their emotions in check when referee calls go against them. “We haven’t had a technical foul called against us all season,” he says with the pride of a parent. When he became coach in 2007, frustrated players often rammed their fists on the scorer’s table or threw away the ball in anger.
Not only does Faafiti shine in the paint, but she and Nukeitra Hayes, also a senior in her final year of eligibility, help him police the team during those rare times when bickering breaks out. “They’ll sign to each other, ‘Coach already told everyone the rules,’ ” Cook says.
Faafiti is averaging 21.3 points per game this season, along with 13.4 rebounds and 4 steals. At Sunday’s regular season finale at home, she scored her 1,000th career point in a Bison uniform-despite it being only her second year at Gallaudet. She transferred from mainstream Pasadena City College.
Her mother initially worried about her moving so far from her hometown of Pittsburg, Calif., but now “she’s proud of me, and we agree I made the right choice,” Faafiti says. “At Gallaudet, I can communicate more freely.”