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December 26, 2002

Crockett knows sister ’ s difficulties

From: Torrington Register Citizen, CT - 26 Dec 2002

Special to The Register Citizen

STORRS -- Willnett Crockett sat in the nearly deserted Gampel Pavilion in early December. As the University of Connecticut freshman spoke, her voice was cracking with emotion, her eyes were masking the pain as she began apologizing for her good fortune.

Almost from birth, Crockett has been a gifted child blessed with a golden touch. A member of a national championship team as a junior in high school, she was the subject of the powerhouse UConn women’s program’s attention the following year. Yet, through all her successes and all of her glory, the cruel hand dealt to the most important person in her life has always haunted Crockett.

Her older sister Victoria, also a top-flight basketball talent, began losing her hearing as a toddler as a result of nerve damage. There is no operation, no treatment to bring back Victoria’s hearing. The reality of the situation hit the family from the Long Beach, Calif.,suburb of Harbor City many years ago, long before either sister had picked up a basketball.

While she wears a hearing aid, Victoria will never be fully able to hear the cheers that her sister receives every time she steps onto the floor for the third-ranked Huskies.

Ask Willnett Crockett to define courage and she does not speak of drawing a charge, taking the final shot with her team trailing by a point or any other conceivable scenario on a basketball court. In her eyes, courage is spelled "V-I-C-T-O-R-I-A."

"All through the course of my life, I said, ‘Girl, I couldn’t go through half the stuff you went through.’" said Willnett, a 6-foot-2 forward, who is averaging 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds for the unbeaten Huskies (9-0). "Anything I need, I know she will be there for me and I will be there for her. God has really instilled something in her totally different. I always say to her that if I could ever change places with you, I would. Sometimes I feel bad, so everything I get, I try to give her and she tries to give to me.

"She is quiet about it. She is not going to complain because in the end she says, ‘I know that God has something so big planned for me.’ When I look at stuff and say, ‘Oh, this is hard.’ Then I take a step back and look and she is going through something totally different."Willnett has drawn inspiration from Victoria’s quiet strength. She even learned the game of basketball while playing alongside her sister on the Harbor City playgrounds. But more than anything,Willnett learned how to become a better, more compassionate person. She learned the hard way as Victoria was subjected to nasty taunts from those who were not so empathetic about the many obstacles she has faced.

"Throughout high school, I didn’t think people had respect for her, not so much as a basketball player, but as a person," Willnett said. "I would say they gave me more opportunity to play then they gave her. It was like a slap in the face. I was like, ‘Don’t disrespect my sister and expect me to be OK with that.’"

Victoria could not hear the evil words, but she didn’t have to. She didn’t need a hearing aid nor have to read lips to realize that she was the butt of some mean-spirited jokes. Willnett’s perfect hearing allowed her to take in every word and her sense of devotion prompted her to come to the defense of her sister.

"I was upset and mad," said Victoria, a junior at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. "But I look at my sister. She has helped me feel more confident about myself and I really admire her for that. It lets me stand up and not worry whether people take me for who I am.

"If I am down, she is somebody who will help me get back on my feet. I appreciate that she accepts me for who I am. The attitude, the positive feedback, the love, the courage she gives me, it is amazing. I can’t really explain it, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything."

The family that

signs together ..

At first, the idea of teaching Willnett to sign was her mother’s way of facilitating communication between her two daughters. But before long, it was clear that no words gestures were needed for the two to understand each other.

As they went through the sign language classes together when Willnett was 5 and Victoria 7, the bond between them intensified. Now their devotion to each other is unquestioned.

"When I was younger, I would call her name," Willnett said. "I would say ‘Victoria, I know you can hear me.’ Then I have to realize that, ‘Oh my God, she can’t hear me.’ Then with her teaching me sign language, I think that has brought me a totally different respect for people in the deaf world. Now I don’t look at people and judge them as hard. Everybody goes through things and you have to accept them for who they are."

In fact, their mother took additional sign language classes while Victoria and Willnett were away at college.

"I was going to surprise her," said Deborah Polee, Willnett’s and Victoria’s mother. "We had to learn the culture. If my grandchildren are deaf, I don’t ever want to go through this again. This was the worst experience of my entire life.

"When they were young, I made sure Willnett knew how to sign and that gave them an opportunity to communicate amongst themselves. When things were kind of hectic she would relay messages to Victoria. If people were talking and Victoria looked baffled, Willnett would go, ‘Oh no, they said that.’ They grew and they just got tighter and tighter. They cried together and whenever one is hurting, they both hurt and I love them for that."

Don’t think the support of her parents and siblings has gone unnoticed by Victoria.

"I felt left out," Victoria Crockett said. "I am the only (deaf) one in my family.I was angry with God, but when I got older, I realized that God gives you trials and tribulations in life. If he felt that you couldn’t handle it, he wouldn’t put you in that situation."

Even in the Harbor City community of nearly 25,000, the closeness of the Crockett clan is common knowledge. It is something that the UConn coaching staff discovered firsthand during the recruiting process.

"Willnett’s family has sacrificed a lot to allow their kids to have the best opportunity for Willnett, her sister and her little brother Joseph," UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said. "I remember calling Willnett during the recruiting process and her dad said,‘Well, she is doing laundry.’ Kids in this day and age, they are spoiled, they don’t have to do laundry, they have somebody doing it for them.

"Their family and the way they do things is very connected. She has a big family. I went there to visit her and there were aunts and cousins and friends walking around. It is just a nice family, and I think certainly that is the foundation for the type of person that she is."

Caught in the middle

At first, it would seem as if Gallaudet, an all-deaf university, would be the perfect spot for Crockett.

That may eventually end up being the case. But when Victoria arrived in the nation’s capital in the fall, she was in for a little culture shock.

While she has been dealing with life in the deaf world almost since birth, it was the first time she was isolated from the hearing world.

She took the year off from playing basketball to help her get situated at Gallaudet. However, it has still been a struggle for her to fit in.

While Victoria knows how to sign, she communicates as much orally as she does with sign language. She is completely deaf in her right ear, but has 30 percent hearing in her left. When she found herself in a community dominated by the deaf, she has sometimes struggled to fit in.

"When we got there, they were like, ‘She should know how to sign,’" Polee said. "We were told that if we taught her how to talk, she would be more accepted in our hearing society.

"Then when we got there, she got removed from a class because she can talk and the teacher put her in an oral class. The totally deaf community doesn’t embrace the hard of hearing as well because they feel like they have an advantage. That isn’t necessarily so because Victoria is kind of stuck in the middle. Sometimes we feel bad because she is too deaf for our hearing world and (has) too much hearing for the deaf world, so we are always straddling the line."

Destination: Storrs?

Victoria Crockett is still undecided where she will attend college next season, but she has wondered aloud whether UConn might be a good fit.

She was a two-time All-South Coast Conference selection at Long Beach City College, where she averaged 14 points and 11.5 rebounds last season. As a member of the United States team which won the gold medal at the inaugural World Deaf Basketball Championships in Athens, Greece, in July, she averaged 4.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 1.0 steals.

However, her basketball future is very much up in the air.

She is a legitimate basketball talent --- hearing impaired or not.

"She can play," said Narbonne High coach James Anderson, a close friend of the Crockett family who did not coach Victoria but coached Willnett as a junior and senior in high school. "People don’t realize what a great player she is. She just needs to find a school that can be understanding to her needs."

So how did UConn become a possible destination for Victoria Crockett? Well, let’s go directly to the source.

"I haven’t decided yet," said Victoria, a 6-foot guard/forward. "I may stay another year. It depends. I will decide by next semester. I am going to weigh my options because I do have other things that are open. (UConn coach) Geno (Auriemma) came down here for the Narbonne banquet (after the 2001-02 season), and he said I could be a walk-on, so I might try out and see what happens. I don’t know yet."

While Willnett would cherish the opportunity to be reunited with her sister on a basketball court, she believes Victoria will stay at Gallaudet.

"I think she is content where she is right now," Willnett said. "As much as she wants to play with me. I think she wants to be happy. I think she is happy right now. It would be nice, but only Gold knows what will happen."

It would be a role reversal for the Crockett sisters.

When Victoria was a junior at Palisades High, Willnett was enrolled as a freshman so the sisters could attend school together. When Victoria transferred to Lynwood as a senior, Willnett went with her. Following her sister’s graduation, Willnett was allowed to pick the school of her choice. She chose Narbonne.

"Willnett saw on the Internet that people had put comments on why she had transferred from school to school, she called me crying," Polee said. "I told her that people don’t know, and I told her that anybody who wrote something like that, they don’t hang around us. They never communicated with us because Willnett went to three different high schools only because we were trying to find an academic program that was appropriate for her sister.

"People misconstrued it and said we were going after the No. 1 school. It just so happened that when she went to the schools, they became No. 1. She made some of them become the best. She didn’t go there because of it."One thing that followed Willnett was success.

As a freshman, the Crockett sisters were a member of the Palisades team which advanced to the California Interscholastic Federation Division I championship game. In Crockett’s junior year, Narbonne won the CIF Division I title and the national high school championship.

Getting a late start

Believe it or not, basketball was not the first passion for the Crockett sisters.

Long before they rose to prominence on the basketball court, they tore it up in the track and field arena.

"We got into it at the same time," Willnett Crockett said. "We ran track and somebody said, ‘You know, you guys are tall. Come on pick up a ball.’ So we picked up a ball and just went from there. We always played against the boys at the park. We never really played against each other because it got too competitive. We are always challenging people and saying, ‘Come on, come on, we’ll play you.’"

More often than not, they backed up their words even though their opponents were normally guys from the neighborhood.

Both Victoria and Willnett agreed that as they reunited for the holidays, they would spend much of their free time on the basketball court.

"We are basketballaholics. It is the first thing on our mind when we wake up in the morning," Victoria said. "We go to the park and don’t leave until midnight or 2-3 in the morning."

Now for the all-important question if it comes down to Crockett vs. Crockett, who would win?

"She beats me in the post, but I will get her on the 3-pointer," Victoria Crockett said with a laugh. "She will kill me in the post. I can’t stop her. She is too big for me."

©The Register Citizen 2002