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Gallaudet women’s basketball coach thrives through extreme hardship

Those around the WNBA have known Kevin Cook a long, long time.  The quiet, behind the scenes genius who was Van Chancellor’s right hand on the Comets run to all those WNBA Championships.  Kevin is as good a person as you will meet.  I’ve been fortunate to call him friend for many years.  Please keep Kevin in your thoughts and prayers.  This is an excellent article and story by Mike Wise of the Washington Post of a good and strong man.

When we think of hardship in college basketball, we think injury, graduation loss or must-win expectations. The banged-up Michigan State men, after all, somehow got to the Final Fouron subs and sutures. The Connecticut women, unbeaten in their last 75, have to win it all, or else they become the Greg Norman of their sport.

But what if hardship meant genuine hardship?

Kevin Cook

What if, after coaching some of the best players in the world, you got the short end of the stick during an ownership change and had no full-time job?

And after raising championship trophies with the Houston Comets, whom you coached as a WNBA assistant, the only chance anyone gave you to be a head coach in college was at the world’s only university that’s exclusive to deaf and hard-of-hearing students?

Oh, and you didn’t know a word of sign language when you pulled hard off Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington, through the gates of Gallaudet University?

What if you were Kevin Cook, and three seasons in, none of that ended up amounting to real hardship? What if the Division III women’s team you agreed to coach via e-mail, the team that had not won a conference game in the three years prior to your arrival — one that would lose a league game by 75 points that first year — would one day seem so trivial a problem?

Especially when your hand began shaking two years ago, and the physician said the word you didn’t want to hear: Parkinson’s.

Or when your sister, the person you were closest to in this world — the little girl you grew up with, the woman who helped you move halfway cross-country and then researched a holistic diet when she found out you had a life-altering disease — died at the age of 47 in an Ohio house fire this past December after rescuing two of her children.

“Beautiful girl,” Cook said quietly in his office late Thursday afternoon. “She was really somethin’. “

He hands you an obituary of Kelly Lynn O’Neill Preston, which features a small photograph of a striking, smiling blonde-haired woman. “At times people said she looked like Stevie Nicks. We actually were both adopted, but I never felt that way. She was my sister. Didn’t think anything else of it.”

“She lived in an old farmhouse. It was an old electrical cord that caught on fire in the kitchen. Windy, winter night — the whole thing. I still keep and look at her e-mails.”

Seated across the desk from her coach, Easter Faafiti, his best player, lowered her glance.

“We wore her favorite color in our shoe strings after it happened — baby blue,” she said. “We just got all the team together and tried to make him feel like he has a strong family here. He cried at first, but he stayed strong for us. He was always strong, even in the most sad times.”

The coach manages a half-smile and begins to talk about the good things that came out of the most trying year a 49-year-old divorcee, trying to hold down any job in his profession, could imagine. And of course that’s where the story forks.

See, after the tragedy and the tears, something special happened: Gallaudet, perennial doormat, got good.

By compiling a 14-12 record, Faafiti and her teammates won more games in one season than the program won in the previous three years combined, and it was Gallaudet’s best record in 10 years. After losing 63 straight Capital Athletic Conference games, the Bison won one for the first time in five years this season.

And that team that laid the wood on Gallaudet, 101-26, in Cook’s first season? St. Mary’s went down hard in February, but only after Cook changed into an all-pink suit at halftime during a breast cancer awareness charity night.

An image of Cook pulled up on a mobile phone, of essentially a human Easter bunny leaping for joy after Faafiti fired a beautiful baseball pass from her own end line for the game-winning layup with eight seconds left, is a marked contrast from the person who sat in this very office in mid-December and dropped the phone when he heard the news of his sister.

“One of my players signed ‘pink’ that night, and I just went in and changed,” Cook said, taking his index and middle finger and positioning them near his chin.

In a slow, measured tone, the coach added, “It’s been an incredible year — of highs and lows.”

East Indian yoga in a heated room has helped. “That and a lot of prayer,” he said. Asked the prognosis he was given for Parkinson’s disease, he added, “I was told, ‘In 20 years you’re not going to have much of a quality of life.’ I had to rebuke that statement right off. I say, ‘My healing is right around the corner.’ “

This weekend, Cook will go to the women’s Final Four in San Antonio. On Tuesday, he will become the second Division III coach to receive the prestigiousCarol Eckman Award, named for the late West Chester coach who organized the first women’s college basketball championship in 1969.

He is much better at sign language today than his first season. Though most of his players are completely deaf and a few, like Faafiti, are hard of hearing, Cook did not use an interpreter for the first three weeks of practice this year.

“I’m still learning,” Cook said, chuckling. “I still don’t understand when Easter asks out of the game. The finger spelling is hard. I just sign: ‘I don’t understand. Keep playing.’ ” Faafiti is cracking up now, smiling.

“Funny, huh? I’m a guy and I wound up coaching women. . . . I’m not deaf and now I’m at Gallaudet.”

It all seems to fit in the end.

Who knew the man who once had offices down the hall from Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Jeff Van Gundy at different times during his coaching career would end up just fine with guiding the Gallaudet Bison as far as they can go.

“I like it here — feels like family, you know,” Cook said.

Before you leave the office, there is a quiet moment and an uncomfortable pause and you end up mumbling the old cliche during times like these: “What’s that saying, ‘When one door closes, another opens’?” Cook’s eyes suddenly grow wide and he reaches for the keychain in his pocket.

“It’s amazing you said that,” the coach said. He pushes aside the regular keys and finds the knickknack given to him after he lost his job in Houston. “God Never Shuts One Door Without Opening Another,” it reads.

Kelly “gave me that key,” said Kevin Cook, pursing his lips, nodding.

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