- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

The word "inspiring" is frequently overused, but no other serves as well to describe Wayne Coffey's "Winning Sounds Like This" ($24, Crown Publishers, 239 pages, illus.).

The book deals with the players on the women's basketball team at the District's Gallaudet University during the 1999-2000 season, but this isn't a book about basketball. It's a book about trying, achieving and living with a condition most of us would consider a handicap but one that the athletes in question don't deafness.

Coffey, a hearing sportswriter for New York's Daily News and a former high school basketball coach, sat on the bench, rode the buses and stayed in the dorms throughout the season to chronicle the Bison's season. It was a winning although disappointing season Gallaudet's record was 14-11 but that is almost incidental to his account.

The author describes the players' lives in detail, before and after they arrived at the nation's only university for the deaf. Some have deaf parents, others don't, but all the women found a welcome haven in surroundings where not being able to hear or speak isn't considered a detriment.

"I asked each player if she wished she could hear," Coffey writes. "Not a single player expressed any interest in hearing. The closest I got to a dissenting opinion was from Nanette [Virnig], who said she'd like to try it for an afternoon, then go back to being deaf. … The players on the team indeed, nearly every deaf person I met at Gallaudet do not see themselves as needing to be fixed."

One of the players, Shanada Johnson, described the biggest misconception the hearing world has of the deaf: "People don't think we can do anything. They're surprised that we can drive a car, go to college, travel around the country, or even take care of ourselves. … We're not helpless. We just can't hear. Otherwise, we're no different than you."

Key figures in the book include team star Ronda Jo Miller, Gallaudet's first All-American; Touria Ouahid, who had to overcome the objections of her Muslim family to pursue basketball and education; and Kitty Baldridge, the hearing daughter of deaf parents who has coached Gallaudet's team for a quarter-century.

Baldridge, a tough coach, must do things that Gary Williams and Pat Summit never dreamed of. Before games, Baldridge signs the introduction for each player and motions when it is time for her to run onto the court. She also must remind the referees to point in the proper direction when a ball goes out of bounds instead of merely yelling "blue" or "red" the way some zebras do.

Yet there are advantages, too, for Gallaudet's players. The title of Coffey's book, and the accompanying picture, show how the Bison's fans respond to positive developments in a game by thrusting their hands in the air, fluttering their fingers and stomping relentlessly rather than yelling or clapping. In what Coffey calls "a surreal, silent world" for visiting teams, it is easy for their players to be intimidated. A Gallaudet student, Linnae Gallano, even signs the national anthem. The entire scene, Coffey says, can make visiting teams go flat, "more observers than competitors."

Gallaudet was ranked as high as seventh in the nation among Division III women's teams before that season, and Coffey describes how the frustrations and tensions of trying to live up to expectations affected the players.

Aside from basketball, the book also deals with the history of deaf education and the essence of deaf culture and American Sign Language. We also learn how and by whom Gallaudet was founded facts most Washingtonians presumably do not know.

The book climaxes with Gallaudet's 72-56 loss to Salisbury State in the semifinals of the Capital Athletic Conference tournament, a defeat that cost the Bison a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament and left them far short of the previous year's 24-6 record. At game's end, Salisbury's Lisa Neylan asks Baldridge to interpret as Neylan speaks to Miller. Says Neyland: "It's been an honor to play against you. You motivated me, and you made me a better player. I hope you make the WNBA [Miller didnt]. I wish you all the best in whatever you do."

Miller's response: "Thank you. That means a lot to me."

And Coffey's book should mean a lot to anyone who has faith in the human spirit.


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