This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The game had already begun for Dan Arabie by the time students began strolling into the gym. Resplendent in his Gallaudet University sweatshirt and wide grin, Arabie stood five bleacher rows up from the floor, his hand in the grasp of his sign language interpreter. He was rapt.
At 51, the former postal worker is among the 95 percent of the Gallaudet University undergraduate population that is either deaf or profoundly hard of hearing. Arabie is also blind, making sign language his portal to the world, each gliding motion of a hand holding his creating a word or phrase. Around him students chatted in rapid-fire signed conversations as the Bison women's basketball team completed pregame warm-ups. Penn State-Berks players were among the few in the gym who could hear the music roaring from large speakers, the thud of basketballs against hardwood, the visiting coaching staff attempting to communicate through the din.
"It's not loud to me," Gallaudet coach Brendan Stern later said, joking.
Many in the stands and on the court this day had found fellowship and commonality for the first time when they walked through the iron gates of Gallaudet -- the only university of its type nationally, according to school literature -- in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing. Many of them became something other than "the deaf kid" for the first time at Gallaudet, they say. Some found what has become known on campus as their "deaf identity" and an entry point into a network with which they will commune for the rest of their lives. Others came to learn skills to compete in a "hearing world" that often feels patronizing, sometimes without even realizing it.
This particular Sunday afternoon, they came to watch a women's basketball team that became something of a national sensation last season, going 24-4 and advancing to the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time since 1999.
For the players, they've come to prove that basketball, as first-year coach Stern says, is a "universal language," and that a lack of hearing is no disability with the proper amount of heart and effort. Increasingly, they are making their point, loud and clear.
A final instruction in sign from Stern. All hands in the center of the huddle. Three quick downward pumps. Silence.
Communication is key
Stern, 29, paces the Gallaudet sideline impatiently. Though the Bison have been in control throughout the game, eventually winning 85-55, he continues to detect mistakes in a rebuilt version of last year's groundbreaking squad.
"I am young and I'm inexperienced, but I say to our players, we share a lot of things in common," he said later through an interpreter. "We just grow together."
Although this would be his team's most complete effort of the season, the group was far from a finished product. But efforts like this one eventually could help keep the season from becoming an entire rebuilding project. The transition is about more than new players. Gallaudet went five years between conference wins before Kevin Cook, a former WNBA and international coach, was hired in 2006 as the Bison's first full-time women's coach. But Cook resigned last summer, as he dealt, according to reports, with Parkinson's disease and the death of his sister. Cook has since taken a job as an assistant with the Winthrop (S.C.) University women's team.
Stern, who played on the Bison's men's team and was an assistant for them the past three years, was backpacking in Colombia when he learned of Cook's departure. He was crestfallen, he said.
"My first thought was 'No!' " Stern said. "KC was really wonderful for Gallaudet, and I'd seen how much the program has grown under KC and I was really sad to hear he was leaving. It's really impossible to replace him. But later, talking with my girlfriend and people who are really close to me, I saw it as an opportunity."
Stern, who is fully deaf, stomps when he has a point to make during games. The reverberations or the sight of it usually is enough to catch at least one of his players' attention. At home, he joked, he stomps and flashes lights, but the latter isn't an option in the Field House. Cook had full hearing capacity and had learned some sign language, communicating with his team during games with an interpreter. On Stern's version of the Bison, the varying levels of hearing capacity -- from completely deaf to those wearing hearing aids -- and proficiency with sign language make uniformity of communication a challenge.
"The hardest part is to communicate with the players on the floor," he said. "That's why I always put increased emphasis on getting the team together on a dead ball, so I can relay my instructions and what defense we're going in next. I can't give advice on the fly. I think that's our biggest disadvantage.
"Also, I think the players we get here at Gallaudet, we're as athletic as any other player in the country, but their understanding of the game and their skills are often different from other players because of communication or the lack thereof they got growing up."
Of Stern's five assistant coaches, only Richard Butcher is hearing, which helps in passing messages from officials, who seem lenient in enforcing the length of timeouts or understanding why a Gallaudet player extended play slightly through the blast of a whistle.
"We touch a lot. We read hands a lot," Stephanie Weiss, a sophomore guard from Wellington, Fla., said through a sign interpreter. "We are always looking for each other. We always have to be looking all around the court.
"Sometimes it is frustrating. I grew up in the hearing world and I have always used my voice on the court and everyone always heard me, and here it is different. I fit in here, though. We make it work."
Sustaining success at Gallaudet would seem be a difficult task, as the pool of deaf athletes skilled enough to play intercollegiate basketball is finite when compared with the hearing.
"I often get two different types of players," Stern said. "I have some players who, like me, have said from when they were young that they want to come to Gallaudet, and I have other types of players who have never heard of Gallaudet or feel nervous about coming to Gallaudet.
"My selling point for those players I try to explain that Gallaudet is a very special place not because you discover your deaf identity. You come actually and you finally become not deaf."
There is a quietly intimidating nature to the Gallaudet gym, an otherwise nondescript hall in a plain brick building labeled simply as "Field House." The cheerleaders, stationed by a set of double doors near a basket, don't actually cheer with their voices, but sign encouragement to the crowd. The gym, when the music is squelched, can become so quiet that the rustling of pompoms is clearly audible. There is an occasional whoop from Stern or a fan, but most approval is signified with a shaking of hands in the air.
The environment can unnerve opposing coaches or players, although they are loath to admit it. Communication among visiting players dwindles.
"The freshmen, of course we try to get them prepared for what is going to happen," PSU-Berks coach Tim Coleman said. "As far as the atmosphere, you just have to prepare them for it. It is kind of hard to get used to. It is odd, yes."
Even coaches appear to become timid, or at least overly aware of their volume against such a silent backdrop, like someone caught yelling something embarrassing when a crowd unexpectedly goes quiet.
"No way, no way!" Coleman barked at an official. "She can't dip her shoulder!"
Then as the brief murmur of noise regains the room, he mutters, "That's terrible."
Five students sitting on the bottom of the bleachers sign to each other, cracking each other up.
The balance between respect and patronization is a tricky one. Sophomore point guard Britny Latham, who grew up in a mostly hearing family and learned to lip-read, sometimes stuns opposing players by responding when they talk trash during games. And a compliment from a foe almost always mentions the team's deafness as something the Bison had overcome. But Gallaudet players don't see their state of hearing as something to overcome. It is a natural state of being.
"We're special. We're deaf," Weiss said. "The hearing world can look down on us and say, 'They're deaf. They can't do anything,' but that's not true at all. We're all really the same and because of that view, that is our advantage as well. We're proving them wrong."
Gallaudet doesn't so much produce alumni as it does disciples. Founded in 1864, the school is considered bilingual because classes are taught in American Sign Language and English. It offers a myriad of Bachelor of Arts and Science degrees.
Guests at the gate are met by a security guard who is deaf, as are the older gentleman and the college kid behind the snack-bar counter. There is a sense of ownership here. It's not that Gallaudet is unfriendly to those from the hearing world, but it is clear that the northeast D.C. campus has a definite purpose.
University president Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz, who is deaf, watched the men's and women's games, taking in the spectacle not of deaf undergrads overcoming something, but college kids being college kids.
"The only thing that makes Gallaudet unique," he wrote on a notepad in reply to a question, "is that the students have full access to communication, language and culture. This is where students can have a meaningful college life experience. Where else can a deaf student become captain of the basketball team, president of the student body government, editor of the school newspaper or have a lead role in a play?"
There was no other place but Gallaudet for Stern, who attended school for the hard of hearing until his senior year of high school in California, then transferred to a large hearing school. Though he said he benefited from the experience, he was clearly transformed by enrolling the next year at Gallaudet. He graduated from Gallaudet in 2006.
"I was the 'deaf guy'," he said of his senior year in high school. "'Hey, there's the deaf guy on the basketball team!' That was my identity. But when I came to Gallaudet, I was the slow point guard guy who ran an underground newspaper in his spare time. That was my identity here, and I had a choice in determining who I wanted to be here at Gallaudet, and that is a luxury for deaf people. Everyone else takes that for granted."
Dan Arabie doesn't. A postal worker for 20 years, the 51-year-old father of four, stepfather of two and grandfather of three was born deaf and forced into disability retirement from the Postal Service after losing his sight in the late 1990s. He enrolled at Gallaudet where he is now pursuing a psychology degree with the hope, he said "to work as counselor to assist disabled citizens to live happily from sadness." He rarely misses a Bison game and is a regular at other local sporting events. Robin Shannon and Jill Owens take turns sitting next to Arabie, the tactile interpreters guiding his hands through a virtual play-by-play. He misses nothing.
"He can remember what it was like to go to a game and see a game," said Owens, who even signed a Rihanna song for Arabie during a timeout. "We do play-by-play. We can tell him what the crowd thinks, what the other coaches are saying."
Victory secured, Arabie applauds in sign language as the Bison and PSU-Berks slap hands. The Gallaudet players hustle back to their locker room chattering quickly in sign language about basketball, the universal language.