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Winning at hoops without hearing whistles, buzzers or basketballs

Camryn Lexow with teammates at Gallaudet University
University of Virginia
Camryn Lexow with teammates at Gallaudet University

This game between women from Gallaudet University in D.C. and Penn State Abington sounded pretty much like other college matches. Fans were cheering, the ball dribbled, the buzzer blared and shoes squeaked across the court. But Gaullaudet’s coach never shouted instructions to players, and they never spoke to one another.

“On and off the court, in and out of the classroom, we use American Sign Language,” says Stephanie Stevens, head coach for women’s basketball at the world’s only liberal arts college for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Her players use their hands, fingers and facial expressions to convey their message.

“When we need to get somebody’s attention we wave our hands or we stomp our feet because of the vibrations, and then they look at the bench,” she explains.

She also relies on Camryn Lexow, a hearing player who enrolled at Gallaudet to get a master’s degree in counseling members of the deaf community.

“I know that I will never fully understand the experiences of a deaf person, because I am hearing, but by going to Gallaudet I’m joining their team, I’m joining their culture, and that is something I’m very excited about,” Lexow says.

She studied American Sign Language as an undergrad at the University of Virginia and uses it now to help others on her team – known as the Gallaudet Bison.

“There are times that the ref will call a foul, and some of my teammates won’t know what happened, so I’ll explain it to them in sign.”

Gallaudet has been a leader in adapting to other sports – like football. Associate Athletic Director Sam Atkinson says this school is home to the huddle.

“Back in 1894 we were playing another deaf team that knew sign language, and our quarterback recognized that and huddled the players up and signed the play.”

Later, the school would use sound vibrations to signal its players.

“We used to use a big bass drum to signal to the offense to hike the football.”

And, more recently, Gallaudet worked with AT&T to develop a special helmet:

“The coach can pick a play on a tablet and it gets sent to the quarterback and the play shows up on a lens in the helmet,” says Atkinson.

But in basketball, it’s up to the players alone to compensate. Camryn Lexow says her teammates must do more than keep their eye on the ball.

“The point guard knows to look at the coach for information on what play we’re doing or where we need to set up, and the point guard will do the sign, and everyone on the team is supposed to copy that. Just in case someone missed it, they can look around and see – okay -- we’re doing this play.”

Stevens says she’s learned to be concise in communicating with her players after one of them spent too long looking at her coach.

“Because she was looking at me, her player scored on her – scored a lay-up.”

So she’s faster now – and so are members of the team.

“They are able to see a little bit faster and better than us people with hearing,” Stevens says.

The hands players use to communicate also make shots, grab rebounds and, of course, high-five. In her very first game, Lexow discovered the joy of victory need not be expressed aloud.

“Actually I have the headline hereGame-winning shot in final seconds as Gallaudet University wins season opener for the first time in 11 years. I remember after winning the game everyone running to the sideline and running to each other and hugging and jumping up and down. It was such a great experience and great moment,” she recalls.

While many of their fans are deaf, Sam Atkinson says that doesn’t stop them from cheering.

“Bison Nation, they are as loud as any other college program. Sometimes they can be even louder, because they don’t know how loud they are.”

And despite the extra challenges they face, the women’s team has played well, ending the season in second place for their NCAA Division.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief