The most successful men's basketball team in Gallaudet history is chasing ghosts again, and they aren't hard to find.
Players can't avoid that team banner inside their campus field house, the one with two small entries on a mostly blank expanse of blue, recognizing conference championships in 1919 and 1943. A few steps outside the gym, the athletic department's trophy case prominently displays the spoils from that last, World War II-era title, when the bottom-seeded Bison upset Delaware in the Mason-Dixon Conference final.
That team — 4-11 in the regular season, and with just five available players in the postseason — stormed to a tournament championship that still resonates at the university. The last surviving member of the group known as the Iron Five, Don Padden, lives in the Frederick, Md., area, and he addressed Gallaudet's team last season. The 1943 team is pictured on a plaque in the field house lobby, right behind the 74-year-old trophy. Good luck ignoring a past like that.
"I grew up with that story," said freshman guard Noah Valencia, who met Padden and the rest of the Iron Five before they began to pass away. "That motivated me to do what I'm here to do right now — basically, what they did. I have an opportunity to do that, to be like them. And I've got to say, it's a huge honor."
Valencia spoke in sign language through an interpreter; Gallaudet's leading scorer is 100 percent deaf. And at the country's leading university for the deaf and hard of hearing, this Bison team — which has already won a school-record 20 games — has a chance to do something grander than notch a few more victories. Gallaudet is hosting the North Eastern Athletic Conference tournament for the first time this weekend. Victories in Saturday's semifinal and Sunday's final would give the Bison their first berth in the NCAA Division III tournament. (That tournament has a 64-team field, but the NEAC is a one-bid league, so only the tournament champion will be selected.)
"I mean, I do talk about it. I think it's certainly big for our community," said second-year Coach Kevin Kovacs, himself a 1995 Gallaudet graduate who played basketball for the school. "I mention sometimes to the team about how special it is to be wearing a Gallaudet basketball uniform. We're the only deaf university with a basketball team in the world. There's really no other college or university that has that same kind of unique experience we have here, so we're very special. I feel like we have a responsibility to do our best and to show deaf people that they can be proud of what we do."
This regular season was a fine beginning. The 20-5 Bison won at least 18 games for a third straight year — the only 18-win seasons in school history. They earned home-court advantage this weekend by going 18-2 in NEAC games. Senior Joshua McGriff, a repeat first-team all-conference player, ranks third in Division III in blocked shots. Kovacs, who led Gallaudet to a 13-0 league start, was the NEAC's coach of the year. And despite playing an uptempo style, the Bison racked up those 20 wins behind their defense, which ranks among the top Division III teams in a host of categories. Because basketball cliches, it turns out, don't sound all that different in sign language.
Defense is "something you can always control," said McGriff, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound center who was the only hard-of-hearing basketball player at his New Jersey public high school. "That's the message that coach is always putting out there: that defense is going to win the games, that championships come out of a defensive system."
"I think that's kind of the fire that burns in our guts," Valencia added. "When it comes to defense, I think we just want it more."
But basketball defense is all about communication, right? So how does a nonverbal team rank in the top 15 out of 416 Division III schools in blocks per game, steals per game, rebounding margin and field goal percentage defense?
Gallaudet's players explain this as a mixture of being drilled in a defensive system that is now instinctual, and being adept at nonverbal communication. Instead of calling out screens or yelling about who will pick up a shooter, players rotate their heads constantly, maintaining eye contact with each other and relying on facial expressions, body language and hand signals. Plays are largely called with one-handed signs; one offensive set is called horns (you can guess what that looks like), and another is named after George Washington.
And, Kovacs said, great defense is about using your hands. His players use their hands constantly in their everyday lives, "so there's no reason that our hands shouldn't be up at all times," he said.
There are other explanations for this year's success. The Bison start three seniors, including McGriff, who ranks in the top 10 in school history in scoring. They're big for a NEAC school; eight of their nine regulars stand at least 6-3. They've found more success since moving from the challenging Capital Athletic Conference to their current league in 2010. And, at 10-1, they were the NEAC's best home team.
"It's a very hard place to play," Smith said of Gallaudet's gym.
Which seems like another oddity. How do you receive a home-court boost when your players are deaf or hard-of-hearing — and so are most of your fans? The team used to crank up the bass during warm-up music so players could feel the beat; that eventually blew out one of the amps. This year, they warmed up in silence. But their on-campus advantage, they said, is real.
"It gets really loud," said McGriff, who is able to hear fan noise. "A lot of the opposing teams say they hate it here, because the fans get crazy when they beat their feet on the bleachers."
"Deaf voices can be loud," Valencia added. "I feel like throughout the time that I've been here, I've made a connection with these hoops, with the court, with the field house. So home-court advantage is something I'm super thrilled about, and I think all our fans are going to go nuts."
Breaking the tournament slump, though, won't come easily. The Bison lost at Morrisville in January, giving up 96 points in their worst defensive showing of the year. They played Morrisville in last year's tournament semifinals, and lost that game too. But that isn't the only history players will have in mind Saturday afternoon. There's also that mostly empty banner, and the Iron Five, and the 74-year wait for another Gallaudet men's basketball team to join them in the trophy case.
"We certainly feel more inspired from that history," sophomore guard Jawaun Jackson said. "Every day we get closer, we're feeling more and more anxious. We really just want it to happen; we want the game to just happen already."
And if this team finally breaks the 74-year drought? Valencia already has their nickname picked out: "The Iron 15."
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