Yow back on the sidelines, doing what she does best

Updated: February 19, 2007, 1:29 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Here in Reynolds Coliseum, it's so quiet that the only sound is the humming of the lights. It's absurd to think that buildings have "hearts" or that they really can hold memories … yet it's hard to shake the feeling that Reynolds is a living entity, that it's somehow whispering about its past.

Kay Yow
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisKay Yow, who won her 703rd game Sunday, this month, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987. It returned in 2004 and it's back now.

On my first visit, years ago, I couldn't believe how many seats are at both ends. It reminded me on a small scale of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Then I walked into Reynolds one afternoon last week and just started smiling. It had been a long time.

There's the 1998 Women's Final Four banner hanging above the court. And four others, too, which honor NC State coach Kay Yow for induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame (2000), the Naismith Hall of Fame (2002), getting her 600th win as a coach (2001) and her 600th at N.C. State (2004).

Yow was directing her team through practice. A few days earlier, the Wolfpack had defeated Florida State, giving Yow her 700th career win. That will be the next banner.

Of course, everyone knows that Yow is sick. She missed about two months of this season battling a recurrence of breast cancer, then returned to the bench in January.

"Some people said, 'I think you should just rest, and next year … '" Yow said after practice. "But I have Stage 4 cancer. I'm taking major chemo. There is nothing that assures me that next year I could do it any more than I could now. Or it could be less. I have no assurance. If I had a cold or pneumonia, something that rest will cure …

"This is something that I love to do. My doctor agreed that if I felt like it, I could do it. I don't feel it has any negative effect on my cancer. It has a positive effect on my spirit and my emotions and just feeling better. I just love being here on the court. Believe me, it was hard for 16 games not to be here."

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But when was Yow really not "there" for NC State? Well, in 1974-75, the season the program began, "Peanut" Doak paced the sidelines for the Wolfpack's 15 games. Peanut, we hardly knew ye.

The next season, Yow took over at NC State after coaching four years at Elon and at the high school level before that. Besides presiding over hoops for the Wolfpack, she was hired to coach softball and volleyball and be associate athletic director.

Kay Yow, right
AP Photo/Stan GillilandFriends told her to rest and return to coaching next year. "But I have Stage 4 cancer. There is nothing that assures me that next year I could do it any more than I could now," Kay Yow said.

Yow was born in March 1942 in Gibsonville, N.C. In the 1950s, some girls had the chance to play prep basketball in North Carolina, and others didn't. Some did for a while, then had it taken away.

In 1994 at the ACC tournament, I watched a taped oral history about girls basketball in the Carolinas. One woman who'd grown up in the 1950s said she had lived for the sport as a high school freshman and sophomore. Then when her junior year began, the school disbanded the girls program. No reason given.

One can speculate. It was an odd time, as American society seemed bent on reversing many of the gains women had been allowed to make due to necessity during the war years. When the war ended, Rosie the Riveter was supposed to go make pies and sweep floors and simply forget she really could build an airplane.

Maybe the team was dropped because some parents or teachers decided it was best for females not to be competing like that. Maybe there were too many other things planned for the gym. Maybe nobody wanted to coach them. Maybe it was a combination. What did it matter? It was "only" girls basketball.

"Just like that, it was over. We didn't have a team anymore," the woman said, and in my mind, I can still hear the way her voice broke, the hurt and disappointment and bewilderment of a teenager still there inside her 40 years later.

It tended to be that in rural areas -- not just in the Carolinas, but many other states -- girls sports survived in the backlash of the 1950s and '60s. That might have been, in part, the fortunate result of small-town pride in the whole of its citizenry. Whatever the sociological factors, many rural girls got to play basketball when city girls didn't.

Yow played in high school. Then she went to East Carolina and earned an English degree at a time when collegiate women's sports as we know them now didn't exist. Her sister Susan, who was 12 years younger, got to be a participant on the ground floor, really, of women's varsity athletics. She played for Yow, first at Elon and then at NC State.

All of this background is to show you the kind of environment in which Yow grew up and started a career. Many doors were closed, but resourceful people could push some open. A woman interested in athletics had to be a little lucky and a lot resilient. She needed to work very hard just to have opportunities, then know what to do with them. And there was something else.

"If you are not grateful, there is so much less of a chance of good things happening," Yow said. "Sometimes I worry that some of our players and young people now don't have an attitude of gratitude. So I talk about attitude a lot and gratefulness, because I think that's the key somewhat to having a full and successful life."

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It wasn't on television; newspapers all but ignored it. Trips were long (Planes? Are you kidding?) and perks were few. But you ask anyone who was part of it, and they'll tell you there was something frontier-style wonderful about women's college basketball in the 1970s. What seems like so little now was so much then. And Yow was right in the thick of it.

In 1976-77, Yow's Wolfpack started a run of nine seasons in a row of 21 or more victories. The inaugural ACC tournament was held in 1978, when NC State and Maryland met in the first of their four consecutive ACC title games. The Wolfpack and the Terps were the initial "giants" of ACC women's basketball.

NC State and Yow stayed relevant as time passed. In 1991, the Wolfpack played in one of the most memorable ACC women's games ever: a 123-120 triple-overtime loss to Virginia at Reynolds when both programs were led by transcendent players (Dawn Staley for the Cavaliers and Andrea Stinson for NC State.) Yow can look out on the court and still visualize key plays from that game unfolding.

Kay Yow, left, and Stephanie Glance
AP Photo/Stan GillilandMany people on Kay Yow's staff have been around for quite a while, including associated head coach Stephanie Glance (right), who has been at NC State 13 years and grew up going to Yow's camps.

Yow has taken NC State to the NCAA Tournament 19 times. And over the years, people have come to Raleigh and stayed. Many who are with Yow now have been around quite a while.

"We are truly a family," she said, adding of her immediate staff, "We eat lunch together every single day."

Stephanie Glance, who has been at NC State 13 years and grew up going to Yow's camps, is associate head coach. Two of Yow's former players, Trena Trice-Hill and Jenny Palmateer, are assistants. Rob Pate was a Wolfpack student manager, then grad assistant, then assistant and is now director of basketball operations.

Nora Lynn Finch, senior associate athletic director, has been at NC State for 30 years and during 1981-88 was the chair of the Division I women's basketball committee. If you want to know anything at all about girls and women's sports history in the Carolinas, you ask Finch.

Ina Wiggins has been Yow's administrative assistant for 30 years. Director of equipment Brenda Keene has worked with Yow's program for two decades.

Yow was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987. It returned in 2004. It's back now. But when Yow was forced to step away this season, she wasn't really away. All the friends she has worked with for so long can bring her presence even when she's not there.

"It's just, we're tight," Yow said. "So the fundamentals and everything about the game, philosophy-wise, we've discussed. We're all on the same track.

"I knew when I left, with Steph taking over as head coach, that she could be a head coach anywhere in this country. I knew all the assistants would step up, and they did. They're very capable."

Yow has been in charge a very long time. But when she stepped aside to attend to her health, she didn't take her authority with her.

"When you delegate something to someone, you have to give them the power to do it," Yow said. "For them to have the chance to do their best job, I could not be a person who was second-guessing or saying, 'I wouldn't have subbed then,' or 'I wouldn't have called a timeout then,' or 'I wouldn't have played this person.'"

I joked that with that kind of attitude, she wouldn't make much of a fan. Yow laughed.

"I knew what I needed to do to help the most," she said. "Be available if help is needed or asked for. Otherwise, just encourage and support them."

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Yes, the person who is fighting cancer is talking about encouraging others. She feels she has received plenty of support herself.

"I have so many e-mails that I haven't even had the chance to read them all," Yow said. "Honestly, I really try, but I get stuck on some of them. E-mails, cards, gifts, prayers -- I have been blessed.

Kay Yow tribute
Don Juan Moore/WireImage.comIn honor of Kay Yow's fight with breast cancer, several ACC teams, including players from No. 1 Duke, have worn pink shoelaces during their games.

"It's been overwhelming. It's been humbling, really. I've had visits and gifts from coaches. From NC State fans and other fans in the ACC. From many people in other places, people I've never met, but I might have coached one time at their place, and they felt they wanted to send me something. It's very uplifting."

Of course, cancer took Yow's friend and fellow coach Jim Valvano in 1993. Yow knows the cancer "scouting report" very well. Too well. You've heard the coaches' saying that nobody ever wants to face a foe three times in a season. In the third battle of her life with cancer, Yow says she is not in pain, per se. It's more what she calls the "side issues" that take a toll.

"What I have to get used to dealing with is nausea, and having a metallic-type taste in my mouth from medications I have to take," Yow said. "I might sometimes get sores in my mouth. Certain kinds of my medicine cause my nose to bleed. It gets packed, and I can't breathe.

"Sometimes I feel more tired than other times. I don't have the same energy I did have. But I praise the Lord for the high-energy person I was. Now I'm down, but not down at the bottom because I was so high-energy to start with."

Yow is nearly 65, old enough to be a grandparent to her current players. She has been honest and straightforward with these kids all along.

"The first day doctors told me the cancer had progressed, it was a Tuesday [in November 2006], and I told the players that night," Yow said. "And I started chemo the next day, before Thanksgiving.

"My assistant coaches gave them updates on me. About six times when I was out, I came to practice and watched and spoke to them. To let them see me, that I wasn't in bed and getting worse. I showed them I lost my hair and all that. But that God was blessing me each and every day. It's a blessing that I'm able to be back now."

Yes, let's focus on that. She's back, and she's a coach. She's feisty, and gets a little ticked at any suggestion that the ACC is "only" its current three big dogs: Duke, North Carolina and Maryland.

"They're the best in the country," Yow said. "But you can't say there is nobody else in the conference."

She wants to get her team to another NCAA Tournament. The bigger and newer facility in Raleigh, the RBC Center, is one of the eight early-round sites.

The Wolfpack (18-8, 7-4 ACC), have dealt with injuries and Yow's absence. NC State has a balanced attack, led by Shayla Fields, who averages 10.1 points, and Khadijah Whittington (10 points, 10.4 rebounds per game).

NC State had won five in a row before a loss at Georgia Tech on Sunday. On Friday at Reynolds, the Wolfpack take on their rival, No. 2-ranked North Carolina.

"We have evolved into a very good team, a very solid team," Yow said. "And we've done all this through a lot of adversity. This is a team that's had to overcome a lot."

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I asked Yow if she'd heard lately from one of my favorite Wolfpack players, Jennifer Howard, a sharp-shooting guard who finished her career in 1997. Howard still holds the record for most 3-pointers in a game by an ACC player, with nine. The really bizarre thing is, she did that twice against the same nonconference opponent: Syracuse. Some of the Orange defenders ought to still be running steps for getting double-roasted like that.

"Oh, yes, Jennifer was here not that long ago," Yow said, chuckling. "And she looks exactly the same as she did when she graduated."

Howard had a little-kid face, which was to her consternation in college. But I always figured she'd see the advantage as she got older, because at 60 she might finally look like she's 30. And she was the classic perfectionist/overachiever who lived in mortal fear of ever getting a B.

"I used to tell her, 'Just get one, it's OK. Then you won't feel all this stress,'" Yow said, smiling again. "But, no, she couldn't. She finished with straight A's."

Yow has so many stories about the kids who've played for her, including one of the Wolfpack's all-time greats, Linda Page, who finished her career in 1985 with 2,307 points.

"You know, she left and didn't come by for quite a while. She didn't even come when her number was retired," Yow said. "But as time went by … one morning, I answered my phone and she said, 'Coach Yow, do you know who this is?' And I said, 'Yes, Linda, I do know.' She just started talking, and now I hear from her a lot.

"That's what it's all about. I said a long time ago in my career that if what I'm doing is just about W's and L's -- wow, how superficial. I give my whole life to that? No, it's about investing in people. If you just help one person in a small way, if they have a better life because of it, you know you've done something."

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Yow has headed home, wryly acknowledging she's got to rest, even if she really doesn't want to. This is when I'm listening to Reynolds' silence. There was more I wanted to say to her, but didn't quite know how to put it.

Maybe … "Thanks, Coach" really did suffice.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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