Robin Cody Robin Cody

Robin Cody is the author of Ricochet River, a novel, and Voyage of a Summer Sun, winner of the 1996 Oregon Book Award for creative non-fiction. He lives in Portland with his wife, Donna. An earlier version of “Deaf Basketball” appeared in Northwest Magazine in November, 1988.

When you referee a deaf basketball team, keep in mind that the players are deaf. Blow the whistle and they just keep going. How would they know? Make crisp visual signals, and allow them a little more touching on defense. You wouldn’t think sound helps track a basketball opponent, but apparently it does.

I refereed the Oregon State School for the Deaf, from Salem, at Westside Christian School in Portland. Varsity girls. The deaf girls played basketball with exuberant energy and unthrottled emotion. They had fun. I’d forgotten there isn’t much laughing out loud in high school basketball. These girls emitted quick shrieks of surprise or pleasure as they went grunting and careening about the court. They lost badly but cheerfully to the Christians.

They did have one good athlete, a tall blonde with fine springs in her legs and a bright spark to her eye. Gazelle-like, she moved. She snagged rebounds that weren’t meant for her. She fired sharp outlet passes. On offense she had a nose for the basket, but her teammates seldom delivered her the ball.

Late in the game, this gazelle girl got the ball in the key. She took a couple of steps without remembering to dribble, and drilled a sweet hook shot.

My referee partner, Ed Denmark, a well-to-do hardwood dealer in real life – had whistled the play dead. Traveling. The poor girl’s celebration at having sunk her pretty shot was eclipsed now as she realized it wouldn’t count. She grabbed the ball and slammed it to the floor with sufficient force that – although she right away knew better and tried to smother it – the ball rebounded above her head.

The normal and accepted procedure here is for the referee to blow a T. A technical foul. It was Denmark’s call, not mine. What would he do? I held my breath. The kid was sorry. She’d already lost that neat hoop. Her team was getting crushed. Mercifully, Denmark decided just to warn her. He would explain it to her.

But she’s deaf.

The game stopped. We summoned her coach from the bench to sign this decision to the girl. She was contrite but thoroughly puzzled, expecting the T but getting words. So you see. Mercy was the wrong call, the same call I would have made in Denmark’s spot. When you referee a deaf basketball team, keep in mind the kids are just deaf. They’re not stupid. The girl deserved a T.

* * *

After the game I showered, changed clothes, and settled into the deaf section of the bleachers to watch the boys’ teams warm up. The gazelle girl was not wearing a cheerleader outfit, but she posted herself among the cheerleaders and joined right in.

Deaf cheerleaders have all the right moves, but they voice no sound. Here they trotted over to the opposite side of the court to face the home team fans. They mimed an introductory cheer that included acrobatic routines and finished with individual salutes — “Hi, I’m Deborah,” “Hi, I’m Judy” — you know that one. Each cheerleader, in turn, tried to say her name out loud. In most cases, you could tell what her name was.

When they came back to our side, an American flag appeared at mid-court. We all stood at attention, with hands over hearts. A chubby girl from the Christian school sang “The Star Spangled Banner” into a microphone. She was good. She was so good singing the anthem that a great wave of sadness passed through me. I’m not what you would call a sucker for the national anthem, but this was chilling.

When the anthem was over, the deaf kids knew it was OK to make noise. In fact the hearing-impaired can generate unseemly noise just taking a seat, unwrapping a Snickers bar, chewing potato chips and signing joy. While our section was preoccupied that way, the Christian fans across the court had bowed in silence. A young man at the scorer’s table was reciting a prayer.

Nobody else in my section knew it.

Soon the adult sitting next to me – probably a teacher – saw what was up. Her look of panic must have mirrored my own as our eyes met. She tried to nudge and sign silence through our rude section of the bleachers, but we probably succeeded only in drawing more attention from the prayerful. It was awful. What would these Christians think of us?

When their gaffe finally dawned on the deaf students, the prayer was over. They, too, felt awful. For maybe three full seconds. Just long enough for each cheerleader to face the home crowd and – apparently spontaneously, all at once – slap a palm to her forehead and roll eyes heavenward in a how-stupid-could-we-be-please-forgive-us gesture that would break your heart, it was so correct.