Feb. 7, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
Regrettably, like most of you, I never met Kay Yow. In 35 years of sportswriting, I watched her teams play numerous times, sometimes on TV, occasionally at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, always with admiration. I sat in on a post-game press conference or two. But I never really met the woman who was a good a basketball coach as ever walked a sideline or worked a referee, and as fine a person as the game has ever known.
In the past two weeks, though, I’ve come to know Yow much better. Hopefully, you have, too. Since her death at age 66 on January 24, when breast cancer finally prevailed after more than two decades, Kay Yow’s story has touched millions. Her legacy, of course, is as untouchable as it is undeniable.
Yow not only taught her players how to play, but also how to live with purpose and joy, by sacrificing and succeeding, and especially with grace. And also how to die. She did that with singular grace, too.
At Yow’s funeral at Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, N.C., a 25-minute video the Hall of Fame coach had recorded for the service was shown. It included her reading of “My Thoughts on Sport,” a poem Yow wrote in the spring of 1976, a few months after choosing to devote her life to God.
“There’s just something about sport that reaches the depth of my soul,” Yow recited. “Sports stretches me to my limits.” She spoke of “commitment, dedication and sacrifices…” Of how “Winning is relevant and can be quite elusive…” But that “Our fate in games is always just.”
“There’s something about sport,” Yow said, “that touches every part of me.”
The coach touched every player, indeed everyone she encountered, in 34 seasons in Raleigh. Her basketball success was remarkable: An overall career record of 737-344, 680-325 at N.C. State after coaching four seasons at Elon. One of just three Division I women’s coaches with 1,000 games at a single school. Her State teams played in 20 NCAA Tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 11 times and the Final Four in 1998. They won the ACC regular-season title five times and four ACC Tournaments.
In 1988, 20 years before Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski led the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team to the gold medal in Beijing, Yow’s women’s team took the gold in Seoul. Well before Coach K, there was Coach Kay. She was a tower of positive thinking. Yow had her truisms: “When life kicks you, let it kick you forward.”
At Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack plays on Kay Yow Court (dedicated in 2007 on the night N.C. State upset No. 3 North Carolina). But then, she’s long had her imprint all over N.C. State’s women’s basketball and the entire sport itself.
“She’s a mentor,” said Georgia Tech women’s coach MaChelle Joseph, who remembers well how Yow welcomed her into the ACC coaching sorority.
“The thing that stood out about Kay, she made an effort to sit beside me in my first [coaches] meeting,” said Joseph, whose Jackets host N.C. State Sunday at 2 p.m. “She did that to everyone. She just had a way about her…It just seemed everyone would hang on her every word.
“It’s amazing,” Joseph said, “that with almost everybody that’s coached, in the ACC and the country, she didn’t have an enemy. No one had a bad word to say about her.”
“Kay was one of the most gracious coaches, and people, I’ve ever met,” said Theresa Wenzel, Tech’s associate athletic director/senior woman administrator. Sitting in a pew at Yow’s memorial service, Wenzel was struck by many things: How genuine a person Yow was and, beyond her coaching greatness, how religious, too. “How important it is to treat people in a gentle way,” Wenzel said, “to get the best out of them.”
In the 2007 ACC Tournament, Wenzel was in Greensboro Coliseum when N.C. State stunned top-ranked and undefeated Duke in the semifinals.
“To sit there in that arena,” she said, “and to not only watch a team play and win, but to see a team do that and feel the emotion was unbelievable.”
By then, Yow’s cancer had already resurfaced, her chemotherapy having resumed. It resulted in the loss of Yow’s hair, appetite and fingernails, causing her to wear gloves for awhile. It sapped some of her energy, but never her faith in God.
Watching the video for Yow’s funeral which she planned to the very last detail, Wenzel said Yow spoke of the “gift” of cancer. “How God gave her a chance to touch so many people,” she said.
Yow’s pastor once asked her to watch the toddlers during one Sunday service. As the congregation worshipped, the coach had about a dozen 2-to-4-year-olds walking around a room, chanting “Go Big Red! Go Big Red!” while Yow hummed the N.C. State fight song.
And then there was one of Yow’s favorite anecdotes, about the mix-up by a florist in Binghamton, N.Y. A bank had relocated, and a well-wisher ordered a congratulatory display. But the flower shop mistakenly sent those flowers to a funeral home, with this message for the deceased: “Congratulations on your new, better location.”
Yow told that story in her farewell video, and the mourners inside Colonial Baptist _ her family and players, her friends and admirers _ roared. She used it to reassure them, too, saying, “I’m at a new, better location.”
“It didn’t matter what your title or station in life was,” Wenzel said. “Kay always took time for everyone.”
On Sunday afternoon, we can take time for her. Georgia Tech hosts N.C. State in Tech’s second annual “Think Pink” game to promote breast cancer awareness. As part of the WBCA Pink Zone initiative, the Jackets will wear their dark pink uniforms, while State wears its white uniforms with light-pink trim. Pink, of course, is the color in the fight against breast cancer.
The first 1,000 fans at Alexander will receive free pink rally towels. Tech will also sell pink hats and visors for $10 each. Half those proceeds will go to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, half to the Susan G. Komen Foundation to fight breast cancer.
All of this will honor the memory of Kay Yow, who did some of her best coaching in the paint, and finest teaching in the pink.