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Published: Friday, 1/30/2009

The grit and grace of Kay Yow

I'D NEVER heard of Kay Yow before her death last Saturday. Unless you're a big fan of women's college basketball or live in North Carolina, you, too, might have no idea who she was and why so many young women athletes are indebted to her.

Yet when I stumbled upon her obit in the sports section, I wished I'd known more about the late head coach of the North Carolina State's women's basketball team. Hers is clearly a life worth examining if only to absorb what she meant by not letting the "urgent get in the way of the important."

The Kay Yow story is one of winning through unrelenting drive and dedication powered by an inspired fire to compete. And trite as it may sound, an integral part of Coach Yow's game plan was to produce not just stronger and fundamentally better players, but better people.

As any valued mentor does, the coach did it by first earning the respect of those lucky enough to play under her tutelage. In 38 years of coaching, 34 at N.C. State, Yow pushed her players to give the max every minute of the game.

She goaded them to show as much, if not more, determination and desire on the court than their male counterparts in the intensely competitive sport. The catalyst for Yow's consuming passion was Title IX.

In this March, 2007, photo, North Carolina State women s basketball coach Kay Yow reacts after her team defeated Baylor in overtime in an NCAA second-round game in Raleigh. Ms. Yow died Saturday after a decades-long fight against breast cancer. In this March, 2007, photo, North Carolina State women s basketball coach Kay Yow reacts after her team defeated Baylor in overtime in an NCAA second-round game in Raleigh. Ms. Yow died Saturday after a decades-long fight against breast cancer.
MARY ANN CHASTAIN / AP Enlarge

A mandated level playing field for women athletes meant no more set shots from the waist in women's basketball. Women would rival the toughness of the men players with driving lay-ups or aggressively fighting through a full court press.

And a trailblazing coach would be instrumental in helping them and all girls interested in sports expand their horizons. On her way to amassing a 737-344 record, four Atlantic Coast Conference titles, 20 NCAA bids and a 1998 Final Four appearance, Kay Yow played a key role in making the women's basketball game faster and more exciting.

She also coached the U.S. women to the 1988 Olympic title, garnered national coach of the year awards, and was honored with membership in the Naismith and Women's Basketball halls of fame. But she considered her greatest achievements to be the players she coached and the lives she shaped.

Through grit and grace she influenced numerous young women in a way that would affect them far beyond the confines of a basketball arena. She insisted on fair play and integrity and was resolute that her girls develop real teamwork and good character both on and off the court.

Sticking to that resolution made her an outstanding basketball coach but it was the lessons she taught her players about living that made her legendary. Besides molding student athletes into accomplished female leaders with university degrees, Yow gave them a memorable education about courage and dignity in a fight to the finish.

The standard she imparted was so extraordinary that even many people who knew nothing about women's hoops came to know Kay Yow from the public war she waged with breast cancer. It was a disease she fought with ferocity for two decades.

One sports writer said, "It was Kay's faith and strong conviction of winning her battle against cancer that should make any sports fan stand up and give a roaring ovation." She refused to drown in self-pity or relinquish the game she loved because of one, albeit formidable, opponent.

Over the years she became a high-profile advocate for cancer research, raising millions through the Kay Yow/Women's Basketball Coaches Association Cancer Fund. She visited cancer patients, coaching them to persevere, to give it all they had for as long as they had.

Yow struggled with breast cancer on and off since 1987. When it returned in the 2006-07 season she took a leave while receiving cancer treatments, but returned to the bench with an assistant to call out plays and help her stand when necessary.

The team won 12 of its final 15 games for the beloved coach in a run that had bleachers filled with fans decked in pink - the color of breast-cancer awareness. When the disease finally pushed the 66-year-old Yow past the point of human endurance last December, she knew the shot clock had run out on her game.

Kay Yow, who will be buried tomorrow, once said she needed to make a difference in the lives of other people or, failing that, "I've missed the whole point of my gift of life." But hers was a life well lived with a leadership that transcended sports and it is mirrored in the lives of so many others made better by a great coach and even greater teacher.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.



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