February 18, 2007

N.C. State coach a 'shining light'

Yow's cancer battle hasn't dimmed her faith, or players' love

Turn your lamp down low, Hear the four winds blow, Bow your head and pray, It ain't what you planned, You've got one last stand, Let the music play.

From a song by Robert Earl Keen

Kay Yow has cancer.

The worst kind. Stage 4. Metastasized. The kind that doesn't go away.

But Wednesday when Yow -- in her 32nd season as N.C. State's women's basketball coach -- walked into her office, she made it seem like any other day.

She admired the three vases of fresh flowers decorating the reception area, chit-chatted with members of her staff, then went back to her office, the swishing of her nylon warm-up pants rubbing, escorting her down the hall.

Yow, 64, hadn't come from home but from another round of chemotherapy, a weekly ritual that can't cure the cancer but can, perhaps, prolong her life.

An afternoon practice session approached as Yow sat in a black leather chair in her office, holding a tissue to wipe her runny nose.

"I want to live," Yow said, pausing. "There are things I want to do."

Yow knows from bitter experience that cancer's only promises are dark ones. She might have months or years left. Her doctors are encouraged by her progress and have encouraged her to live her life the way she chooses.

Don't let the disease rob you.

"It's the struggle of life being handled in the most gracious way," said Nora Lynn Finch, senior associate athletics director at N.C. State and one of Yow's close friends.

Valvano a dear friend

Twenty years ago -- a year before she coached the U.S. women's basketball team to the gold medal in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea -- Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy.In those 20 years, though, cancer has taken Yow's mother, Lib, and her dear friend Jim Valvano, just days apart in 1993. Now it has her body, but to borrow Valvano's words, not her mind, her heart nor her soul.

Yow loved Valvano like a brother. Days after her 1987 mastectomy, she was at home when the phone rang. It was Valvano calling to say he and his N.C. State men's basketball staff were bringing lunch to Yow.

For Yow, it still hurt to breathe, to walk, to laugh. She wanted to say no thank you, but it was impossible to tell Valvano no.

He stopped by Amedeo's, an Italian landmark on the edge of campus, and ordered most of the menu. Lasagna, shells with marinara sauce, eggplant.

The coach spread the food across a dining room table, found a stack of paper plates, and for two hours, sat with Yow, making her laugh with his stories. It hurt so bad to laugh that Yow wanted to cry.

"But it was good medicine," she said.

One of the guys

Yow and Valvano could hardly have come from more different places. He came from Queens, N.Y., full of flash and dazzle, blessed with the gift of finding humor in everyday life and the greater gift of sharing it with the world.

She was born in Gibsonville, just east of Greensboro, one of three sisters, as naturally introverted as Valvano was extroverted.

But they shared interests and passions. Both were English majors and talked for hours about books and literature. Poetry, the classics, bestsellers, the Bible.

And basketball. Valvano won the 1983 national championship. Yow won the 1988 Olympic gold medal and pioneered the emerging women's game.

Some days Valvano would walk into Yow's office at Case Athletic Center and start talking. Other days Yow would find the couch in Valvano's office. One day the subject would be motivation. Other days it would be game tactics or discipline or what happened at home the night before.

The best days were often when Yow could hear the laughter spilling out of Valvano's office and she would invite herself in among the boys. Baseball coach Sam Esposito would be there, so would wrestling coach Bob Guzzo and soccer coach George Tarantini.

The room would be clouded with cigar smoke, loud talking and men. Yow loved it.

"I'd be the only woman among these Italian men," Yow said. "Those were great life lessons for me."

Court bears her name

Yow's life has been a lesson in quiet virtues. She has won 702 games and on Friday the court at Reynolds Coliseum was named in her honor before the Wolfpack upset second-ranked North Carolina.Her name is on the floor of the building where Yow works, but she still introduces herself to strangers in the hallways .

Yow's gift as a coach has been her ability to push her players without pounding them. She can be demanding, but there's more honey than hammer in her style. A player's greatest fear is of disappointing Yow.

Now the sweetness has come back in her direction. More than 100 former players returned to Raleigh recently to honor Yow. Cards and e-mail wishes arrive daily from as far away as Thailand.

After taking a leave of absence in November to deal with her sickness, Yow returned to the bench in late January. She attends practices daily, but it's a chore. She talks to her team but often conveys her message through long-time assistant Stephanie Glance.

"Coach Yow is like a light, our shining light," senior center Gillian Goring said.

`Kay's Kids'

Yow is responding well to treatments, but taking her various medications requires time and energy. Some days she feels good. Other days are bad.

Some days when she was away from the game, she missed the squeak of shoes on the wooden floor and the surge of emotion she feels when a game tips off. Other days, Yow said, she felt so bad she didn't think of basketball . She thought only of surviving another day.

"Because she's back the perception is she's doing better," said Glance, who attended Yow's basketball camps as a teenager. "It's still Stage 4 cancer," the most life-threatening stage.

On a table in Yow's office is a red photo album with "Kay's Kids" stamped on the front. It's a collection of pictures of her former players' children. She keeps a disposable camera in the office in case anyone drops in with their kids.

"Basketball was the common ground that brought us together, but once in her family she's the mother away from home, the teacher. You take a part of her wherever you go," former player Connie Rogers Newsome said.

Simple pleasures

Yow moves slowly now and her soft drawl is more noticeable. She is an iconic figure in the sport and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but she is also a woman who likes grilled cheese sandwiches and watching "Deal or No Deal" between basketball games on TV.She never intended for her private battle to become public, but it has and Yow has found some comfort in that.

In chemotherapy earlier in the day, a woman Yow didn't know thanked the coach for inspiring her, their lives tied together by disease and hope.

"It's wonderful something good can come from something this bad. I praise the Lord for that," Yow said, using the tissue to wipe her eyes.

Yow's faith has sustained her. She quotes Philippians 4:13 -- "I can do all things through Him that strengthens me" -- her favorite Bible verse. She asks people to pray not for her but for her doctors that they find the proper treatments for her and others.

The beauty of Yow's life isn't in the games she's won but in how she's lived.

"People will forget what you said and what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel," Newsome said. "She made me feel loved and accepted and like a child of God."

Keeping the faith

Shortly before Valvano died 14 years ago, Yow attended a Wednesday mass with him. Afterward, they went to a breakfast place Valvano liked. They talked about faith and life and death.

Yow's mother fought cancer for nearly six years and did not respond well to treatments. Almost every Sunday afternoon of her adult life, Yow would drive to Gibsonville and eat dinner with her family. Her mother's illness changed that.

Lib Yow, Kay's mother, and Valvano ended up one floor apart at a Raleigh hospital in their dying days. At night, Kay would sit by her mother's bed. When her mother went to sleep, Yow would go upstairs and sit with Valvano's family outside his room. Valvano died a few months before Yow's mother.

"There's no secret answer to this," Yow said. "Just let Him be in control. I'd like to be in control, but He's in control. If His final say is that I don't make it, as long as I know it's His say, then I know it's right."

Near the end of his life, Valvano gave the world his message of hope, explaining that cancer could take his body but not his mind, his heart and his soul.

Yow has a copy of that speech and has seen it several times -- but not recently.

Her favorite part, she said, is when a stage manager tries to hurry Valvano off the stage. He responds, saying: "That screen is flashing up there 30 seconds like I care about that screen right now, huh? I got tumors all over my body. I'm worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds, huh?"

Yow laughed softly at the memory, the tissue at her eyes again.

"I know how he felt ," she said.

Kay Yow

AGE: 64

BORN: Gibsonville

COLLEGE: East Carolina (1964)

CAREER COACHING RECORD: 702-322 (overall); 645-303 (32 seasons at N.C. State)

HIGHLIGHTS: Fifth-winningest women's basketball coach in Division I history...Coach of 1988 Olympic gold-medal women's team.

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