Gallaudet women's basketball coach thrives through extreme hardship

Despite battling Parkinson's disease and grieving his sister's death in a house fire, Coach Kevin Cook has remained focused on the court.
Despite battling Parkinson's disease and grieving his sister's death in a house fire, Coach Kevin Cook has remained focused on the court. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Saturday, April 3, 2010

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 Four on 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?

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.

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