By Mark Simon
EWING, N.J. -- They attacked the cookies at the press table with the same ferocity with which they had just destroyed their latest opponent.
Not more than 15 minutes following an 81-71 triumph over the much-heralded College of New Jersey women’s basketball team, the Gallaudet squad waited patiently through the queries and curiosities of a handful of sportswriters, then scrambled towards dessert with a vengeance.
From a sportswriter’s perspective, there were so many intriguing things about this Gallaudet team. And so much of it was more than basketball.
First things first, every player on the Gallaudet squad is proud of their deafness. When one writer later posed a question referring to them as "hearing-impaired" the Bison players glared at him. In unison, they emphatically signed "We’re deaf!" Political correctness be damned; this group of young women would have none of it.
That attitude was reflected no doubt, in the behavior of the Bison faithful. I have to be honest, I was staggered by the number of people I saw sitting on the visitors side when I walked into Packer Hall. Estimates run as high as 700 who made the three-hour trip from Washington D.C. compared to about half as many fans on the home Lions sideline. There was also a large contingent from the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf, which is located just five minutes from The College of New Jersey. As one of my colleagues said, it was a major culture shock to see so many people communicating solely with their hands.
At TCNJ, the national anthem is played as an instrumental piece. Nonetheless a group of Gallaudet fans ‘sung’ "The Star Spangled Banner" through a series of motions, and actually kept with the beat. Though I don’t know sign language, I was able to recognize the signals for "... banner yet wave.’’
The introduction of the starting lineups was somewhat surreal, particularly the first time we heard the yells of the Bison faithful. Imagine, for those who can hear, a piercing, wolf-like howl that takes on the repetitive quality of a 5 a.m. car alarm. Imagine how loud you would scream if you knew you didn’t have to hear it. Imagine how much you would have to "woooooo!" to produce vibrations in the floor. Add an occasional stomp and you have the Gallaudet cheer.
It started with the first basket by Ronda Jo Miller 30 seconds into the game. It continued even when Gallaudet coach Kitty Baldridge called timeout to interrupt a 19-2 TCNJ run. It didn’t end until Baldridge and the players did a midcourt mosh just after the final buzzer and signed their thanks to the supporters as the stunned TCNJ fans could only watch in envy.
"Oh, did we have fans?" Baldridge said, as the players laughed, "we couldn’t hear them."
They even chanted "Ron-da" a few times in honor of their favorite star. Miller was Superwoman with a basketball- on this day she could do no wrong. It wasn’t just the 38 points, it was how she got them. The double-clutch jump shots and reverse layups looked so easy. On one Bison miss, Miller grabbed the rebound under the basket – rather than just lay it in, she took two dribbles to her left, floated up into the air and sank a 10-footer. Miller got plenty of support from fellow starters like Touria Ouahid (13 points), Jessica Whitney (nine points), Ronda Johnson (nine points) and Therese Rollven (five points), all of whom helped make Miller the most dominating presence to come through Packer Hall.
"She’s (New Jersey Nets forward) Keith Van Horn!" yelled the reporter from the Newark Star Ledger, who would later say "That’s the best Division III player I’ve ever seen in 20 years of covering basketball."
It really was an amazing display, like watching Michael Jordan drop 50 points on the New York Knicks. There was a buzz in the crowd that a scout from the WNBA was at the game. Whether or not Miller could play professionally is subject to debate, but she left no doubt about her skill level with this performance.
She also left the scribes with a smile following a humor-filled postgame press conference. Expecting just Miller and Baldridge to walk into the conference room, the writers were surprised when the entire Gallaudet team walked in, along with several parents and friends. Clearly they were enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.
The first question set the mood right away.
"Coach," asked one onlooker. "I think what everyone here wants to know is- how did you lose five games?"
That drew a lot of chuckles. So did the responses to some of the other questions. At first the media was a bit tentative to ask the players questions, but once the ice was broken, the interviews flowed naturally.
"I was born with it," said Miller, when asked how she learned to play the way she did. When I followed up by asking about the double-pump shots, she noted "That’s one I learned myself."
"We have great fans," added Baldridge, drawing a round of applause from the players, "The great thing about Gallaudet is that wherever we go, we have alumni. People know us and they come to support us. We play better on the road than at home. I don’t know what that’s all about."
After one inquiry, one player started gesticulating wildly.
"Nanette," said Baldridge, referring to one of her reserves, Nanette Virnig, "always has something to say." More giggles.
One of the questioners spent a long time praising the efforts of Miller.
"Ronda Jo had a great game on both ends of the floor," said Baldridge. "She’s capable of doing that all the time. I’d like to see her do it more."
Finally it was over. One of the more entertaining events I’ve covered in the eight years I’ve worked in the newspaper business. I never really got the chance to thank the Gallaudet people for sharing their world with us, so I hope this column serves as a bit of a thank-you from someone who really appreciated the experience.
Oh, and thanks for not eating all of the cookies.