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Courageous Coach, Kay Yow

November 15, 2007


On Tuesday night, March 20, North Carolina State University defeated the Baylor Bears 78-72 in an overtime basketball game. Coach Kay Yow inspired the Lady Wolfpack team to victory. Seeded fourth in the Women’s NCAA Tournament, N.C. State traveled to Fresno, California, for their next game. They played top-seeded Connecticut on Saturday.

Kay Yow, 65, has coached N.C. State for 32 seasons. She has won more than 700 games. She has two Olympic gold medals, one from 1984 when she served as an assistant coach, one from 1988 as head coach. She was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

The real story here is not about basketball, but about courage. Yow is battling breast cancer that has spread to her bones and her liver. Her disease is terminal. She has lost her hair and eyebrows, her sense of taste, and some of her equilibrium. Her skin is jaundiced.

Kay Yow has endured a long battle with cancer. In 1987, when she was first diagnosed, she had a mastectomy. Seventeen years later, in 2000, the cancer recurred in her chest wall and lymph nodes.

By November 2006, the malignancy had progressed. She was forced to take a two-month leave of absence from coaching to undergo intensive chemotherapy treatments. On the night she returned to her team, the basketball court at Reynolds Coliseum was named in her honor. Since her return, the team has since won 12 of 14 games. The 18th-ranked Wolfpack beat the University of North Carolina and was the only team to defeat Duke. Both the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels are number 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Yow has inspired her players, convincing them that anything is possible, even a national championship.

“With her as our leader, there’s no reason it can’t be us,” senior guard Ashley Key said. “No reason at all.”

Yow’s return to coaching has been difficult. In early February, she was hospitalized with dehydration before being discharged to coach the Lady Wolfpack to victory against Florida State. It was her 700th career win. Ten days later, she was hospitalized again. 

Treatments have left her weak, dehydrated, and short of breath. She has no appetite. Sores irritate her mouth. Coach Yow has courageously persevered.

Wolfpack fans have previous experience in facing this kind of grief. Legendary Hall of Fame Coach, Jim Valvano, led the N.C. State men’s team to the 1983 NCAA Championship. After retiring in 1989, the popular coach died in 1993 following a battle with cancer.

 In the March 18th Sunday New York Times, an article detailed Kay Yow’s week leading up to the NCAA Tournament.

On Monday, March 12, Kay Yow’s 87-year-old father died of congestive heart failure. She made telephone calls to family members and members of her father’s church. She contacted the funeral home, owned by her cousin, to make necessary arrangements.

Wearing her familiar wig, Coach Yow rode to the nursing home where her father died. She had been unable to visit him because her white blood cell count was too low, leaving her susceptible to infection. His death was difficult, but it was a blessing. Her dad died peacefully.

“One of my prayers was answered,” she said. “With my health, I was worried if something happened to me, he’d still be here. I didn’t want that.”

After a couple of hours at the nursing home, she went to the office of her oncologist for routine blood work.

Yow had to be on campus Monday night for the announcement of the NCAA tournament pairings. ESPN wanted a live interview. She was tired, but she wanted to be with her team. Never married, her team has been her family in her 32 years as head coach at North Carolina State.

Last Tuesday, Yow missed practice to complete the arrangements for her father’s funeral in Burlington, North Carolina.

Wednesday, her 65th birthday, began with yet another chemotherapy treatment. She felt weak and a little dizzy. Still, she was upbeat.

Her assistants and staff paid a surprise visit to the oncologist’s office. They brought a birthday cake. As the chemo drugs flowed into her body, Yow sat in a recliner, reading her birthday cards.

Wednesday night she was back in Burlington receiving family and friends. To her surprise, her players and coaches came to the funeral home to be with her.

On Thursday, the funeral was in Burlington. The committal service was in Gibsonville, her hometown. Just before turning into the cemetery, the procession passed a sign bearing the Olympic rings: “Welcome to Gibsonville, Home of Kay Yow, 1988 Women’s Basketball Gold Medal Coach.”

By Friday, chemotherapy and her father’s death had left Yow exhausted. Her team’s NCAA game was two days away. She took intravenous fluids and medication for nausea.

Attending practice for the first time in a week, Coach Yow descended a stairway into the practice gym. Her players clapped and cheered for her. They wore pink shoelaces in their sneakers, the emblem of breast cancer awareness.

 The Lady Wolfpack defeated Robert Morris College in the first round. Last Tuesday N.C. State rallied to beat Baylor. After the game, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and Coach Yow embraced warmly. Mulkey played on the 1984 Olympic team when Yow was an assistant head coach.

Tuesday against Baylor, Wolfpack forward Khadijah Whittington fought through an illness, taking intravenous fluids at halftime before finishing with a career-high 23-points.

“We’re playing for a great cause,” Whittington said after the game. “Coach Yow deserves this.”

“She gives us incredible energy and inspiration,” said Danielle Wilhelm, a senior guard. “She never stops fighting, so we can’t stop fighting.”

Coach Yow’s legacy will be the young women she has mentored. It is not just about basketball. It is about life. She coached Saturday’s game against Connecticut wearing a wig, her skin discolored, a nurse at her side. She knows that the next game the Wolfpack loses could well be her last. She will coach to the end.

 “Cancer cannot be cured by rest,” Yow said. “So I might as well coach.”

At a press conference Coach Yow said, “If a person lives long enough, it’s inevitable you’re going to go through some tough times. You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sail. I have zero control over things like my dad’s death, but I have 100 percent control over how I’ll respond. I know that about everything; cancer, my father, wins, and losses.”

Kay Yow’s determination is centered in her deep, abiding faith. Win or lose, life or death, we never know what the future holds. But Coach Yow knows who holds her future. Whatever the score of her final game, you can bet that Kay Yow will go out a winner.

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2007

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