5 Most Compelling Teams in the NCAA Tournament

So, you’re looking for a team to root for in the NCAA tournament? I have seen some well-intentioned people suggest that you root for a team by choosing your alma mater, the school closest to where you grew up, or the university with the the best uniforms/mascot/fight song.

Do not feel obliged to go down that well-traveled road. Instead, you can, and should, refer to my totally subjective list of teams to root for in the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I have five, of course, and my criteria is, quite simply: Are they compelling, according to me?  

  1. Duke. Zion Williamson is to college basketball what the Washington Monument is to the U.S. capitol. A singular force inspiring apotheosis, towering above the landscape. What I love the most about him is not so much his athleticism, size, and feel for the game as it is how hard he plays and how fervently he roots for his teammates. That is, I have never seen such a celebrated recruit carry himself as if he were a walk-on; such a physically gifted and skilled player with boundless energy and enthusiasm. To those who debate whether he is the best prospect since Anthony Davis and whether he can stay healthy in the NBA, I say, with all due respect: Shh. Enjoy Zion in the moment, in all his glory now because we’ll never see anybody like him ever again. What we will see the next two weeks, however, if the regular season is any indication, will be invigorating. Because Zion Lateef Williamson is a 6’7” 285 pound extraordinaire who floats like a butterfly, jumps like a grasshopper, and works on a team like a bee.
  2. Syracuse and Washington. So, two teams who play the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense. Fran Franschilla said it best. If man-to-man defense is a fastball and normal zones a curveball, then the Syracuse 2-3 zone is Mariano Rivera’s cutter: very difficult to hit and if you’re lucky enough to make contact, you “may break a bat” but it ain’t for a “grand slam.” A long-time assistant coach under Coach Boeheim, Mike Hopkins is now roaming the sidelines in the Pacific Northwest and playing a 2-3 zone, reaping similar benefits. If you watch Syracuse or Washington, note how on defense, they discourage the most valuable shots in basketball — uncontested 3s, lay-ups, and free throws — with keen angles, tactical coverage, disciplined rotations, and deceptive length, and make the offense feel as if they are near when they are far away and far when they are near. Boeheim and Hopkins are modern-day reincarnations of Sun Tzu.  
  3. Vermont. Fun fact #1: Head Coach John Becker has won about 70% of his games at the University of Vermont the past eight years. Fun fact #2: Coach Becker used to coach at Gallaudet for two years. Fun fact #3: In both years, he went 3-22 and won 12% of his games. Fun fact #4: Head Coach Kevin Kovacs has coached at Gallaudet for four years now and won about 60% of his games.  
  4. UC-Irvine. I graduated from University High School down the block from UC-Irvine; their mascot is the Anteaters. (Thought exercise: what would it be like if it weren’t the Gallaudet Bison but the Gallaudet Anteaters? Interestingly enough, the question would be not whether, but how many people would be offended.) But, anyway. I realize I told you not to root for the team with the best mascot or the school where you graduated. But we’re talking about the university next to my alma mater.
  5. Gonzaga. Gonzaga has graduated 99% of their basketball players, one of the highest rates in the tournament. Yale is first, having graduated 100% of its  players, but they’re also seeded #14 in the tournament. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is seeded #1. Excellence in the classroom and on the hardwood at the highest level in the country is notable and ought be rooted for.
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Wondering Why, Why, Why

The writer and baseball statistician, Bill James, once asked, “Do people really believe there’s something different about the eyes of murderers?” Being somebody who overthinks for a living, the question stuck in my mind for a while, inching over my thoughts like a measuring worm, but I didn’t have much to say on the subject until recently.

When I was assistant coach of men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we recruited a 18-year-old from southern Virginia. He was 6’5” and athletic with a memorable gait. He ran with feet turned in, like that ungainly bird, and sinewy arms pumping to the Heavens. When he was exhausted out of his mind and told to run sprints after practice for missing study table? He would put up a vigorous but futile self-defense, mutter “Damn, Coach!”, and then heave his arms harder and higher with his neck craning back to the skies, dripping sweat and snot.

He had wobbly eyeglasses that would fall off and break about every time he played. Each time, he would nonchalantly tape them back together and keep balling. When he dove for loose balls and hustled for steals in pick-up games, notwithstanding the condition of his eyeglasses, it was clear as day how he averaged 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 blocks his senior year of high school.

But this is not really why I remember him. He had a natural intellect and relentless curiosity that made him the first-ever (and only) student in Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind history to take AP Calculus. Graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA, he earned a academic scholarship to attend Gallaudet and major in Accounting. His interests went beyond mere numbers, though. He would read this Kurt Vonnegut quote on my office door before coming inside to discuss it with a curious look and a crooked smile:

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.”

He introduced himself to his teammates on the first day of school by dunking in his Timberlands, which garnered “you can play” hoots. But little did they realize it was because he couldn’t afford basketball shoes. As they say in the South, where he grew up, he was so poor, he could barely afford to pay attention.

Showing up to class? Listening to the professor? A dollar for a soda? $5 for a foot-long at Subway? $20 for a required NCAA physical check-up? A new pair of eyeglasses, let alone basketball goggles? He couldn’t afford any of these. Looking back, though, it is rather obvious these weren’t the only things for which he did not have the financial means.

He would stay in his dorm room for weeks with the lights turned off. When he wasn’t sleeping, he showed clear signs of difficulties concentrating and remembering details. Re-reading former conversations with him, he had complained of being “down and stressed.” We told him that he was depressed, that there were mental health services on campus that could help him, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel.  

The coaching staff stopped by his dorm room several times to urge him to get counseling services, often to find his dorm room all dark and him sullen. He brushed us off each time, claiming that it would not help and that it would cost too much time and energy. In his farewell email before leaving school mid-semester — we never got the chance to say goodbye in person — he wrote that he wanted to be “as free from systems and policies as possible.”  

After his departure from school, whenever I watched a bespectacled player dive for a loose ball, looked at that framed picture above my office computer of him smiling with his arms wrapped around his teammates, or read that Kurt Vonnegut poster on my door, I would think of him.

And I wasn’t the only one. Several times after leaving school, the coaching staff tried to contact him but never heard back with the exception of an assistant coach who received a terse response. Then, finally. But for all the wrong reasons.

In January, two years ago, the Roanoke Times reported that he was arrested for murdering his audiologist with a steak knife, that he was found near the scene with blood on his hands and in his car, and that he told the judge in his arraignment hearing that he is “tired of America” and wants to die as soon as possible, because he “never wants to see a human being again.”

After exchanging e-mail with him from prison, who has since been found guilty to first degree murder and sentenced to life,  and finding out that he was off his medication that day, I still wonder. As Vonnegut would put it, “Why, why, why?

What should we have done differently? Did we try hard enough to give him the support that he needed and surround him with role models with whom he could relate? What was he thinking when he left the university? That morning he drove to the audiologist’s office? Was he thinking at all? How do the systems and policies that he was so desperate to flee compare to those of prison?

And his eyes? His curious eyes may have been stuck behind eyeglasses stuck together by adhesive tape, but were they any different from ours? His crooked smile in that pre-game team circle? Was it a glimpse of the happiness that he woulda, coulda, shoulda had if he had received the support he needed and stayed in school?  

Reading the newspaper articles and Facebook posts, and talking with those who knew him at college — all of us asking “Why, why, why?” — we have a grating tendency to throw around simple-sounding theories to explain what happened and how it could have been avoided.

But I wonder. Are our explanations more self-serving than not, simply so that we can claim that we understand, and then move on with our lives? Can the totality of his unimaginable experience — what he went through all his life — and the choices leading to that tragic day really be summed up with a neat explanation? Or does that distract us from the complexities of life and the hard work that must be undertaken if we want to make the world a better place?

We do not discuss the messiness, the inscrutableness of the strange world out there enough at colleges and universities where we have fancy looking student learning outcomes that address knowledge and inquiry, and in our popular culture where we valorize provocative questions, grand predictions, and sweeping explanations in 140 characters.

Yet, what about the timeless virtues of humility, compassion, and friendship? Do we absorb and practice these fundamental values enough? Seeking to understand and explain the world out there is imperative. But this is also a strange day and age where we are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone than ever, and where we virtue signal more often than we practice virtue. As much as we must prepare the minds of our future leaders, it is not the be all and end all.

Picturing that fateful morning the audiologist said goodbye to her family before heading to work, and that moment captured in time when he was smiling with his teammates in the pre-game dance circle, I wonder (there we go again) if we spend too much time with the lights turned off, wondering aloud about the world by that eerie blue glow, dividing life neatly between light or dark, and telling ourselves that we understand.

But do we spend enough time coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that life is infinitely complex and often without rhyme or reason? That there is the capacity of good and evil in our eyes? That the best we can do is sometimes to stop trying to explain, label, understand, and solve everything, and instead, to seek out special moments of human connection, such as when a curious student with pigeon toes, a crooked smile, and eyeglasses taped together with scotch tape enters your office to ask why, why, why?

Why Sports Matter

When one of my more perceptive students walked into my office last semester to talk grades and life, she made a snarky comment that I still think about today. Upon seeing the sports-related memorabilia on my office walls and bookshelves, she scoffed and asked me, “Don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

I think I laughed and dodged the question with a dismissive wave of the hand, telling her something like, “And that is why you, not me, who will run the country someday.”  

Now that I think about it, however, that comment per se did not necessarily reflect a mature observer of what matters in life beyond her years (although she is exceptionally wise about important stuff from whom I have learned so much) so much as it illuminated the worrisome cynicism of our day and age about what matters in life.

If we pay attention to the chatter around us and in the media, it feels like it is becoming hip to discount, and even disparage, the value of sports. To write them off as silly, as frivolous, as unhealthy, as back-breaking labor, as archaic, as a waste of time in an unjust world replete with grave problems.

And it is not just chatter. Youth participation in sports, game attendance and live sports viewership, and traditional fandom are falling like grass before the mower.

While the causes of these negative trends go beyond simple ideology, such as how playing and watching sports have become prohibitively expensive, ideas have consequences. While those critics have good intentions and are not wrong about problematic issues in amateur and professional athletics, fact remains that sports are more important than ever.  Not in spite of, but precisely because of, our serious challenges in society today.

As a lifelong admirer of sports and as the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) at Gallaudet, I am convinced that sports are essential to not only psychological well-being but also the social and political change that we seek.      

At the individual level, sports teach our leaders of the future valuable skills that can hardly be taught as efficiently anywhere else. There are compelling reasons, for instance, why a survey of high-level female executives found that 90 percent of them had played sports. And why the graduation rates for women and people of color at colleges and universities are superior for student-athletes than their peers who do not play sports. Playing competitive sports teaches time management skills and the value of hard work. It nurtures inclusion and confidence.

My six-year-old daughter, who was sometimes painfully shy, is playing organized basketball now, and I see a sense of pluck today that was not always present. Whereas she could barely dribble a basketball more than twice with her dominant hand before joining the basketball team, she can dribble with both hands for nearly as long as she likes today. Not because of luck but because she has taken a liking to dribbling everywhere in the house, to my wife’s dismay.

When she scoffs and reminds her three-year-old brother at the dinner table that she is better than him at basketball whenever he tells her that he is Superman, I secretly smile while telling them to cut it off.      

At the sociological level, sports do not only combat the loneliness and polarization that wreak havoc in this day and age. They also foster social trust, which is a prerequisite for systemic change. At the Willigan Tournament a couple of weeks ago, a national wrestling tournament for deaf schools, I was taken aback by the rabid extent to which students and adults of all stripes rooted for their respective schools.

No longer were they fiddling on their phones in their bedrooms, swiping left and right, up and down, in their own worlds. Instead, they were blissfully in the moment, stomping, chanting, jumping, and celebrating together, as if their lives depended on it.

School spirit is neither trivial nor primitive but a fundamental necessity for a sense of belonging and progress. The more we share common experiences and celebrate shared goals, the more we can have a community of greater solidarity within which more serious problems can be addressed.

At the political level, athletes are the most effective kind of advocates. When I coached men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we played a game versus a school in upstate New York in a one stoplight town smack dab in the middle of nowhere. They have an excellent basketball program and had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament for three straight years at the time. When we came back from being down by 6 with a minute and a half to upset them on a buzzer-beater, their head coach, as well as a random fan from that town, e-mailed later that week to commend our players for playing so hard and never quitting. What was left unsaid but implied, however, was a profound realization that Gallaudet’s student-athletes were just as capable as theirs.

That is, we can yell (assert?) that “deaf people can do anything except hear” on rooftops until our voices (hands?) turn hoarse (weary?). But as they say, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a difference? It is only when we participate in the arena can we advance the truism.

As a former boxer, statesman, and explorer of unmapped lands said, it is not the critic who matters but our women and men, whose faces are marred by sweat and blood and toil, on our courts and fields.

This is why we should play and cherish sports. And celebrate our deaf athletes. And root for our teams at deaf schools and at Gallaudet. Not as crude, silly tools of the human search for conquest and entertainment, but because they teach valuable skills and lessons, which can engender the very change in ourselves and the world that we wish to see.

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Best Non-Fiction of 2018

Alfred Tennyson claims the New Year is a whisper that we will be happier. Others rhapsodize it is a 365-page book waiting to be written. For me, it is an ideal time to think about the best non-fiction I’ve read last year and then write down my personal thoughts and the lessons that I’ve learned from each with special focus on possible applications to deaf people. Because, you know, I am not an elephant. If I forget my son’s birthday and to take out the recycling bin on a regular basis, I ought take notes after reading relevant stuff scarier/funnier/more thought-provoking than fiction.

So, here is a totally non-scientific list of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in 2018. I have five, of course, because this is 5tern.com, because I have never heard of a “Best of” list with four or six, and because you don’t have time for ten. In no particular order, here goes:  

BELICHICK. The biography of Bill Belichick, the current head coach of the New England Patriots, highlights the truism in the NFL that “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” An entertaining (yet unlikely) claim in the book is how Bob Colbert stole playcalls in the NFL as an advance scout with expertise in reading lips by virtue of having coached football at Gallaudet, the “university serving the deaf and hearing-impaired.”  

Really? I’ve studied, played, coached, and taught at Gallaudet for about 18 years now, and the only stuff I can read is inane stuff like non-fiction books and the lips of people (without mustaches) enunciating “fuck you.” Note to biographers and/or fabulists: speechreading is a difficult skill requiring rigorous training. Spending time with deaf people and then squinting your eyes through binoculars is hardly enough.

But anyway, as a sports fan who has long wondered about the secret of sustained success of certain teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the book was illuminating. It nailed home that intelligence, curiosity, preparation, and toughness are as important as jumping high and running fast and yet, massively undervalued. Despite being a Giants fan, I will root for the Patriots in the Super Bowl next week out of (begrudging) admiration, thanks to Ian O’Connor’s brilliant insight into the greatest football coach who’s ever lived.  

EDUCATED. Tara Westover’s lyrical memoir about growing up in the southeastern mountains of Idaho with paranoid, anti-science, survivalist parents and going on to graduate from Harvard and Cambridge is not only a remarkable story in and of itself. (Her father tried to discourage her brother from attending college by lecturing that “There’s two kinds of them college professors. Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth.” After thinking about it for a good while, I have concluded that I am both kinds.) It is also powerful reading for many of those who leave home for an education and then view their family and community across a cultural valley.      

THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND.  Why is this generation the most depressed, anxious, self-righteous, and suicidal ever? According to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, it is because we believe a “great untruth” that children are fragile. And then, with the best of intentions, we shield them from independent decision-making, scrapes, and potentially difficult situations more than ever. The book makes me think of how parents often host a “Trick or Trunk” event where trick or treating is done on Halloween night from parked car to parked car in the school parking lot. And the booming popularity of AAU basketball, which has rendered pick-up games, in which kids draft teams and call their own fouls, rare. In both instances, we’re denying kids the valuable opportunity to roam and explore and do wrong, and mediate conflicts, on their own.

“Resilience” is a hot/smart buzzword these days, but how do we develop it? According to Haidt and Lukianoff, it is by exposing our youth to “normal” stresses and tensions (as opposed to extreme) that will allow them to develop toughness. Think of the immune system, for instance, which requires exposure to certain germs and allergens at a young age to develop the necessary capacity to fight them later on. Contrary to the popular trend of eliminating peanuts at schools and in the diets of children, doctors now recommend that kids are exposed to food containing peanuts almost immediately after birth to harden the immune system and avoid life-threatening allergies later on. Psychological resilience is not all that different, in that it requires independent exposure to open-ended challenges “early and often.”

This makes me wonder about the Deaf community.  Are our students at deaf schools exposed to sufficient normal stresses and tensions?  Should we continue to prepare the road for our leaders of the future by seeking a comfortable environment whenever possible, or should we prepare our children for the road with a more holistic approach? I do not claim to know the answers, but the sociopsychological benefits and risks of prizing self-esteem and ease over experience and accommodation, ought be considered and debated at the very minimum. For that alone, the book is a must-read for parents, educators, and Deaf people alike.

FACTFULNESS. This uplifting yet grounded book pokes holes in the simplistic, pessimistic, hysterical thinking of this day and age with clear, unpretentious, fact-based advice. In one of my favorite chapters, Hans Rosling asks us to assume that our categories are misleading, and to challenge them by looking for differences within and similarities across groups, which is something we do not do quite enough with ‘Deaf people’ and the ‘Deaf community.’  

In another, Rosling points out that sweeping explanations and vivid solutions are attractive because we have the human tendency to want to seem knowledgeable and useful. We often try to explain and solve particular trends and issues with general assertions, based on our personal background, at the expense of complexity and nuance.

Well-intentioned activists in the Deaf community will explain critical issues by pointing at language deprivation, for instance, and Hearing and Spoken Language advocates by bringing in majoritarian culture. This inclination is what Rosling terms “the single perspective instinct.” (Or what English philosopher Gilbert K. Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”) He advises that we resist the temptation to see every problem as a nail when we are handed a hammer. Instead, we ought to step back and use our toolbox, rather than a single tool. In all, I cannot recommend this book enough. (And hey, Bill Gates and Barack Obama agree with me.)  

BORN A CRIME. Trevor Noah, writing about his childhood dealing with apartheid in South Africa, is a masterful storyteller. He challenges stereotypes and preconceptions with colorful anecdotes that entail heartbreak, laughter, and serious thought about growing up different in a strange world.

A major takeaway from the book is racism and colonialism are fraught legacies neither easily understood nor undone that must be dismantled with persistence and care.

Another thought-provoking point is, as he argues, fluency in certain languages are hierarchical forces equated with intelligence and competence which, above all else, wrongly or not, defines who we are to people.

I now watch The Daily Show at every opportunity for the incisive humor and profound wisdom that Noah imparts, and root for his continued success.

What about you? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think? Any recommendations for 2019? Hit me up and let me know.



What Bird Taught Me

I was, and still am, heartbroken when I heard the news that John Perry, affectionately known as “Bird” to many of us, has passed away after several months in a coma. He was a generous husband and devoted father who loved his family dearly. He was also a basketball aficionado who loved the game as deeply as anybody I have ever met.

I met Bird for the first time when I participated in the Gallaudet basketball camp in the mid-1990s as a middle schooler. He was Coach. I got to know him when I played basketball at Gallaudet from 2001 to 2006. He was Coach. I got to know him better when I started playing club basketball in the late 2000s. He was Coach. I got to know him even better when I coached at Gallaudet several years ago. He was Coach. And he had continued to coach until last Fall when he fell.

The truth is Bird will always be Coach to those of us fortunate enough to have played under him.

Coach John “Bird” Perry

Several memories of Coach Bird will stay with me as long as I am alive and able. One is that he would almost unfailingly write “PRIDE” on the whiteboard before the game, at halftime, and after the game. If we won? “PRIDE.”  If we lost? “PRIDE.”  If we played hard or soft? “PRIDE.”  If the opposing team excelled at shooting 3’s? “PRIDE.”  If they were good at scoring in the low post? “PRIDE.”  Sometimes he would mumble something about having “fire in your eyes” for effect. But that was it. Nothing else. No fluff or excuses or tangents or fancy stuff about how to execute a hard show on pick and rolls.

I remember getting rather tired of it after a while when I played in college and thinking that he was being repetitious and missing what it took to win games.

But guess what?

Looking back, Bird nailed it on the head because pride is what matters. Devising and executing good strategy, or telling inspiring stories, is nice but quite secondary because pride is the horse that pulls the wagon. Not the bad kind of pride that is featured in the seven deadly sins but the good kind that represents dignity and sacrifice. The type of steadfast belief that there are many things out there far more important than ourselves, and that which makes us take less than we need and give more than we want. It is what drives players to sprint back on defense, dive for loose balls, and cheer for teammates from the bench.

Another memory that sticks in my head is right after we won the United States Association for Deaf Basketball (USADB) championship in Minnesota a while ago, we were shaking hands with our opponents in a line, as is the custom in basketball. Before I knew it, however, an opponent with whom we had recently shook hands punched me in the head from behind. Bird was right behind me in the line and saw it all. He immediately rushed to my rescue but this is not necessarily why I remember the episode.

Rather, what is still vivid is that Bird was in tears. Literally. His eyes were puffy red and he was wiping away sodium water for the next ten minutes. He was so bothered by what happened, so peeved that comrades in competition would act dishonorably. Although the knot in the back of my head went away shortly after the incident, the heartfelt depth of his loyalty and, yes, pride about what we should represent as athletes has stayed with me to this day.

Goodness, as Robert Goolrich put it, is the only thing that matters in life and is “our soul’s wallet,” leaving behind the sole remnants in life for which we will be remembered. Bird may be gone today but he belongs to the ages. He was an unforgettable human being whose soul will live through so many of our memories. Not because he was fancy (he would have been the first to admit that he was as plain as 2 + 2 = 4) but because of his goodness. In a day and age when voluntarism and virtue are in short supply, he is an inspiration worthy of emulating.  

I once loved basketball mainly because it is a lot of fun. But now, it is not that which will immediately come to mind when I think of the game, whether days or years from now.

Rather, it is the goodness that Bird stood for. His habit of volunteering anytime he was needed, his arms waving us off, his head tilted back softly and mouth slightly agape, showing off that dead front tooth caused by diving for a loose ball and coming up missing vital nerves, whenever we apologized for imposing or thanked him for his help. More games to scout in person? Gratitude for having my back? Working with post players on their drop step after practice late into the night? Dropping off players who lived quite far? We were almost always told that it was “no problem.”

When we tell our loved ones about what basketball has taught us, let it be the pride of Coach John “Bird” Perry about which they will hear first. May we honor him not merely through words but by serving others and being good.

Rest in peace. We will miss you.