"Do you know what you're getting yourself into?"
A friend posed the question in September 2007, when Kevin Cook accepted the head-coaching job at Gallaudet (D.C.) University. A man of diverse basketball experience, Cook thought he was ready for the challenge of coaching a struggling Division III women's basketball team at the world's only all-deaf college.
But when only seven players showed up at the first practice with a coach who didn't yet know sign language, Cook realized he still had a long road to travel.
"I didn't realize when I got here that they hadn't won a conference game in years," said Cook, who had recently returned from an overseas coaching venture before his initial interview at Gallaudet. "I thought I was gonna be able to turn things around quick, fast and in a hurry."
The 48-year-old Cook, a native of Fremont, Ohio, has done his fair share of traveling. He spent 10 years as an assistant coach at Kansas, 11 more as an assistant for the four-time WNBA champion Houston Comets and a summer as head coach of the Nigerian women's national team that finished second in the All-Africa Games. He's also the owner of a successful basketball academy.
But getting Gallaudet back to basketball respectability would require a long-term commitment. Twenty-eight months later, Gallaudet is riding its longest winning streak in 11 seasons. On Wednesday, the Bison won their fifth consecutive game, beating Salisbury (a team from the Eastern Shore of Maryland that had racked up 22 straight wins over Gallaudet, dating back to 2000) to improve to 7-3 overall. The seven victories are the program's most in a season since 2000-01, and after four winless league seasons the Bison have posted three consecutive victories for a 3-1 mark in the Capital Athletic Conference.
Gallaudet was at its most successful in the late 1990s under coach Kitty Baldridge. The star center, Ronda Jo Miller, was one of Division III's all-time greats, scoring 2,656 career points as part of a run that included a profile of the team on "SportsCenter," a trip to the Sweet 16 of the D-III NCAA tournament, a WNBA tryout and a brief career playing overseas.
The team's skills, along with the noise that a boisterous fan contingent made stomping on the bleachers (done both to create an avalanche-like sound to distract opponents and to allow Gallaudet players to get a sense of fan support by the level of vibrations), made them one of the toughest programs to play in the country.
But after Miller's graduation, the program struggled to match that level of success. In the five seasons before Cook's arrival, the team went 17-109. In his first two seasons, the team was 3-21 and then 6-19.
This season the Bison are 6-1 at home, junior Easter Faafiti averages a double-double and leads the league in scoring (19.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) and Gallaudet shot a season-best 50.9 percent from the field Wednesday. Cook's efforts in recruiting, player development (both on-court and in-classroom) and in learning the communication skills necessary to work with deaf athletes are paying off, even as he is dealing with his own adversities.
Cook was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a little more than a year ago. His hand sometimes shakes when he diagrams plays. He "stutters" when he signs, and he can't dribble as well as he once could. Doctors have told him his quality of life might not be good within the next 20 years, but Cook is convinced otherwise.
"I'm gonna beat it in that time," Cook said. "I feel that there's going to be a cure, through medicine or through a miracle."
But life dealt Cook another blow just before the school's winter break when his sister, Kelly Preston, was killed in a house fire in Ohio while evacuating her family from the blaze. The players broke down, along with their coach, when he told them the news. They sent him multiple text messages of condolence when he went to the funeral.
"They tried to reach out to me," Cook said, "and they'll never know how much that meant to me."
They reached out to him as he has reached out to them, with much success. After opening the season with back-to-back losses, Gallaudet snapped a 66-game CAC losing streak Dec. 2, defeating Stevenson (Md.) University 57-51. A week later, the Bison -- who now have 14 players on their roster -- won again, routing defending league champ York (Pa.) on its home floor 70-44, snapping a 19-game skid against that opponent.
Cook and his lone assistant, grad student Bridget Catanese, have a roster with the talent and size to compete in D-III, maybe not to the level the program once did, but one that might someday approach that again.
"I ask them what our identity is, and they always sign back 'Defense!'" said Cook, who acknowledges that the inability to call out changes mid-play and being forced to make adjustments only at stoppages can be challenging.
"They take a lot of pride in trying to stop people. We also work a lot on rebounding. I've tried to take a page out of Tennessee's playbook, with how successful they are in mauling people on the offensive boards. We may not be a good first-shot team, but we're really good at getting multiple attempts. That allows us to do some things."
Effort and hard work are constantly emphasized at Gallaudet.
"All we can do as coaches is encourage and try to motivate, but there have to be enough players buying in. When you've got your better players as the ones who have the best work habits -- like Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes did with the Comets -- everyone else has to fall in line. Here, our better players work the hardest. That has been a difference having some success here early. And in our early losses, we didn't even have our full team yet."
Center Faafiti, a junior-college transfer from Pittsburg, Calif., said via e-mail: "Playing for coach Cook is a different level. He teaches us little by little. If you work on it, he'll teach you the next level, as long as you do your part. If you work hard, everything will pay off."
Added junior Brittainy Payne, the team's top rebounder (10.5 rpg): "It is an honor to play for coach Cook. He truly goes out of his way for us. He knows each one of us and knows what we need to do to improve ourselves on and off the court. He knows my weaknesses and my strengths, and he's great at using them to make me a better player."
Still, there were a lot of people who didn't think Cook's tenure would last long. He asked one Gallaudet employee what the over-under was on how long he'd be coach, and the response was that they figured him to be gone pretty quickly.
"I felt unsure because I didn't know what it would be like," said Payne, a mainstay of those Gallaudet teams that struggled in Cook's first two years. "The question was, can he do it [here]? … I can imagine it's totally different from where he has been, language- and culture-wise, and he's still here. That says a lot about him. He will do whatever it takes to become a better communicator."
Every once in awhile, Cook forgets where he is and starts talking to his players without signing. But he and his team laugh those moments off now, and he's able to understand their responses when the players sign back.
"What [Cook] does best is listen," said junior center Nukeitra Hayes. "He is always there to support everyone."
He also made them laugh last season, when Cook surprised the team by wearing an all-pink suit at one game as part of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's initiative to promote breast cancer awareness.
"Whoa, is that our coach?" Payne remembered thinking. "He was looking [awesome)]. The fans and players loved it."
The program has embraced Cook, and he's fully committed to this team and this level. He talks of campaigning to allow D-III coaches offseason time to work with their players in small groups. And to help instill pride in the program, Cook made a prominent display of a team picture and a Miller jersey from a decade ago to show the players their legacy.
"I'm so pleased with this team's commitment, and they're gaining the understanding of what it takes to be successful," Cook said. "It takes hard work. It's not easy to achieve success. Once they got that first win, that taste, it caught.
"They understand that the wins don't come for free. It's hard to win a game at any level. We used to say that with the Comets. To win a game is hard. To win multiple games takes tremendous effort. They understand that they have to do the extra things to succeed."
Mark Simon is a researcher for ESPN and "Baseball Tonight."