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March was a big month over at Gallaudet. Along with the commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the campus uprising of 1988, a rancorous weeklong student strike that ended with the coronation of I. King Jordan as the first deaf president in the history of the nation’s only four-year liberal arts university for the deaf, came the crowning of Ronda Jo Miller as the NCAA’s first deaf All-American basketball player.
Never heard of Miller? Get in line. Even here in the school’s own back yard, nobody thinks of sports when Gallaudet is mentioned.
It’s basically a secret, for example, that the football huddle originated at the Northeast campus. (In the 1890s, a crafty and paranoid Bison quarterback named Paul Hubbard began assembling his teammates before each play so opponents couldn’t steal his hand-signed calls.)
In time, Miller’s current anonymity may be seen as an even bigger injustice.
“This is a tough town to get noticed in,” says Steve Feit, sports information director at Gallaudet, “but Ronda Jo’s doing things that people should notice.”
Now a 19-year-old sophomore, Miller has almost singlehandedly revitalized the Gallaudet basketball program since her arrival from Little Falls, Minn., a puny burg (pop. 7,000) two hours north of Minneapolis. As a freshman, the 6-foot-2-inch center led the Bison to a 19-9 record, its best mark in 13 years and as many wins as the team had registered in the previous three seasons combined.
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The successes Miller achieved during her first year at Gallaudet triggered a mass migration of hoop talent from her home state, explaining the presence of a Minnesota Mafia on the women’s team: For the 1997-98 season, the Bison roster added four other players from her high school, the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf.
Buoyed by the home folks, Miller put up numbers in her sophomore season that were positively ear-popping—28.7 points per game, 16.1 rebounds per game, 121 blocked shots—making her the second-leading scorer, fourth-leading rebounder, and top shot-blocker in the country among the NCAA’s Division III schools.
No other player ranked in the top 10 in any two of those categories, let alone the top five in all three.
Miller already owns Gallaudet’s career, season, and
game records for blocked shots, as well as season and game records for rebounding and scoring. She’ll need only a
few games, and no Lakesha Sayles-style gimmes, to break the Gallaudet career scoring and rebounding records
When those marks do fall, unless you’re deaf, you won’t hear about them. Because along with Gallaudet’s understated presence outside the nonhearing community, Miller honestly abhors calling attention to herself. Given the rabid support the ladies team receives from Gallaudet students—the men’s team has sucked for years—Miller can’t avoid being a big woman on campus.
But for outsiders, she’s content to let her game do almost all the talking.
When an ESPN film crew came by campus recently and wanted the school’s star athlete to appear in a promo shot for a college sports magazine show, Miller declined.
And during a game against Western Maryland this season, referees stopped the action to honor Miller after she scored the 1,000th point of her career quicker than any player in Gallaudet history. The midgame ceremony was somewhat muted, however, because Miller had no idea that she’d just done something special.
“I never keep track of how many points I have or anything like that,” Miller signs. “I don’t care about records or even know what the records are.
“I admire Dennis Rodman’s style of play. But not his attitude.”
Miller was born deaf, cause unknown. Being good Midwesterners, the Millers had the requisite hoop-and-backboard setup on the family farm, but as a youngster Ronda Jo cared a lot more about tending to barnyard animals (she still has three horses—Dusty Morning, Flash, and Cidy—with a fourth due this month) than sports.
Through fifth grade, Miller went to mainstream schools, where she admits her inability to communicate with many of her teachers and her fellow students proved terribly frustrating. That frustration disappeared once she transferred to the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, where students and faculty understood American Sign Language (ASL), the fourth most popular “tongue” in the U.S.
“Everything changed. As soon as I got there, I just wished that I had been going there sooner,” Miller signs. “For the first time, I could talk to people. I could talk to everybody.”
Miller’s lack of interest in sports disappeared, too, when she hooked up with a clique at the new school that loved basketball. (Miller also picked up volleyball in her junior year and continued playing at Gallaudet, where she led the NCAA’s Division III in kills this season.) By the end of her senior year there, the Academy was holding its own against hearing hoops teams in the region and dominating deaf ones.
Then, as now, Miller was clearly the star. But Miller turned a deaf ear to recruiters from mainstream colleges and their scholarship offers. Kitty Baldridge, who has been coaching women at Gallaudet for 21 years, stopped by the Academy when the NCAA Women’s Final Four was held in Minneapolis two years ago, but she needn’t have bothered making the trip. Without any coaxing, Miller already knew where she was going to school.
“From when I was young, as soon as I learned about Gallaudet, I wanted to go there,” she says. “I wanted to go where everybody was like me.”
Miller might not know the truth—and her humble demeanor sure suggests she doesn’t—but everybody else on campus does: Even at Gallaudet, there’s nobody like her.