COLUMBIA — A basketball coach and five players are huddled, discussing strategy, when a player outside of the huddle bends down beside the coach’s face to interrupt.
“Coach, they’re going zone,” the player says.
The coach is confused by the comment.
“Well, I read the coach’s lips out of their huddle and he said that they’re going to go zone,” the player says.
It wasn’t the last time Stephens' Tia LaFavor used her lip-reading on the court. For a legally deaf basketball player, that is one of the perks.
“Maybe she did it more for her own personal benefit rather than necessarily telling me and the whole team,” Stars coach Dane Pavlovich said. “We’ve kind of joked about, ‘Well Tia, figure out what they’re going to do.’”
In the past 14 years of her life, being deaf has not kept Tia LaFavor from playing basketball.
After failing an elementary school hearing test, she immediately began wearing hearing aids. Rowena LaFavor, her mother, said the adjustment went smoothly, in part, because she was so young. As a result, talking to Tia LaFavor is no different than talking to a person who has perfect hearing. She enunciates well and can understand everything someone is saying as long as she can see their lips.
She became enamored with basketball when the Leeton Lion’s Club basketball clinic introduced her to the sport in the third grade. By that time, she was plenty comfortable with her hearing aids. During one junior high school game, after an opposing player accidentally knocked the hearing aid out of her ears, she simply picked up the broken pieces, ran up the bleachers, gave them to her mother and ran right back to playing.
"I just put it back together, put the battery in and walked it back over so she could hear again," Rowena LaFavor said.
In high school, she played with girls who had known her since she was 3 years old, girls who knew her before she even used hearing aids. They knew the best ways to communicate with her, Tia LaFavor said. She helped Leeton to a second-place finish in the Class 1 state tournament. The Associated Press even named her to the All-State second team. College basketball became a realistic option.
Growing up on a farm and riding horses, it was Stephens’ equestrian program as well as an early starting role on the basketball team that satisfied Tia LaFavor.
She could ride American Quarter horses, her favorite breed, and play the sport she loved, basketball, for a scholarship.
Once Tia LaFavor arrived at Stephens, college proved busy and she found herself in a rigorous daily routine. She woke up at 5 a.m. to be at the stables all day until practice. After practice, she took her own time to fine tune problems with her playing. Finally, often after midnight, her day ended with homework.
But nothing stood between Tia LaFavor and basketball.
“When she first came to Stephens, she would come in to the gym and stay for late nights,” Pavlovich said. “She would bring her studies over and she would shoot for awhile, then study for awhile, then shoot for awhile more. She would be here half the night.”
In her freshmen year of college, Tia LaFavor was worried about her partial hearing. Now she had new teammates, new coaches and a new program trying to work with her.
At Stephens, the coach relied on hand signals for communicating plays to Tia LaFavor. For inbounds plays they assigned a three-number sequence. For half court offenses, the coach extended his pointer and pinky fingers to resemble the Texas Longhorn symbol. In case Tia LaFavor missed the sign, players repeated the symbols back to her. After enough practice, the symbols became another part of the team, Pavlovich said.
“I think that’s a strong point for a team, to be able to communicate well no matter what the situation is,” Pavlovich said. “We have a couple obstacles to overcome, and I certainly think that helps our communication on the floor overall.”
Although Tia LaFavor is ready to move on from playing basketball to horse training, basketball has made a positive impact on her life.
“It’s really taught me how to work hard and set goals and always try to achieve them,” Tia LaFavor said.
Now, after a postseason run thwarted by William Woods in the American Midwest Conference tournament, her college career is over. There was no title run and her team finished a meager 9-20.
“You asked me if today is emotional, and it is,” said Rowena LaFavor after watching her daughter's last home game for Stephens last month. “But I think its going to be worse when the starting of next season comes around, when it hits me really hard that she’s not playing.”
In her last game of the season, Tia LaFavor was fouled and given a shot at one last point.
With only 27.8 seconds left to play and an insurmountable deficit to overcome, it was in her last trip to the foul line that she etched her name in Stephens’ basketball record books. She nailed her first free throw, becoming only the second player at the school to score 1,000 points in a career.