January 07, 2009

We've learned not to count out Yow

It was hard to watch North Carolina State coach Kay Yow walk off the court 21 months ago, after Connecticut ended her Wolfpack's unforgettable 2007 season in the Sweet 16 in Fresno. And it's difficult to hear the news today that Yow is stepping away from coaching for the rest of this season as she continues to fight the breast cancer that has been her on-again, off-again opponent for the last 22 years.

Although she had already missed four games this season because of flagging energy, the 66-year-old Yow made her decision with obvious reluctance.

"Stepping away from coaching is one of the hardest decisions I've had to make," said the Hall of Famer, who has spent the last 34 years of her 38-year head coaching career at NC State. "But I have great confidence in the experienced staff I have been working with for such a long time and the character of everyone involved in the program to respond positively to my decision."

Yow will be replaced on the bench on an interim basis by her long-time top assistant, Stephanie Glance.

It's premature to speculate on whether Yow will return to the bench again, but I, for one, would never count her out. Over the last few years I've learned you can't underestimate the passion and fight in this woman.

Two years ago Yow left her team for 16 games as she underwent aggressive chemotherapy. After she returned on Jan. 25, 2007, the Wolfpack won 12 of their next 14 games and "lifted my adrenaline so much that I didn't feel anything that was happening outside the court," said Yow.

The Pack's emotional run finally stopped with a 78-71 loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. As she walked off the court that March night wearing a brown wig on her head and bandages on her fingernails to hide some of the effects of chemotherapy, Yow gave the Wolfpack hand sign to a standing, cheering throng that included fans of LSU, Connecticut and Florida State. There wasn't a soul in the Save Mart Center who wasn't moved by Yow's courage, but many in attendance made the sad assumption that she had probably coached her last game.

I was one of them. I was in Fresno that weekend, and I know some of what Yow endured just to make that trip. An IV drip for the duration of the cross-country flight, daily blood tests, breathlessness, peeling fingernails, numbness in her feet, and skin pulling off with Band-Aids, just to name a few horrors. Basketball allowed Yow to forget, for a few hours every day, the brutal opponent she faces off the court. But I wondered how long she could split her energy between two all-consuming agendas-coaching her team and fighting her disease.

So I was one of the many who were surprised and delighted to see Yow return to the bench last season -- with more energy, a head of silvery hair, and a new treatment regime. She had two missions: to coach her team (the very young Wolfpack team would finish 21-13 and miss the NCAA tournament) and to lend her name to a national fight against breast cancer by launching the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. Along the way, she got Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt to put aside their differences long enough to join her a TV promo for the fund, which has raised over $600,000 for cancer research to date.

Some of Kay Yow's future is uncertain, but this part is not: whether or not she is able to make another comeback to the bench, she will continue to be an inspiration to her players, to legions of cancer patients, and to anyone who has been touched by her or her story.

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