WASHINGTON – 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 his players.
One senior co-captain nearly quit school after her brother died. The other is a junior college transfer who was picked on as a kid.
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 culture.'
"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 going."
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 practice.
"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 other."
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 history.
"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 doing."
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 medications.
"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 it."
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 return.
"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."