Hoops coaches, LPGA stars unite in fight against cancer

DALLAS -- Kay Yow couldn't help but grin a little mischievously when she was handed a "decapitated" North Carolina golf tee. LPGA Hall of Famer Beth Daniel had just blasted a shot that neatly removed the little "ram" head -- not exactly on purpose, mind you, as she's a Tar Heels fan -- but simply by the force of her club-head speed.

Daniel might be retired, but she's still got it. The tee had been given to her by broadcasters Debbie "Da Bomber" Antonelli and Beth "Money Putt" Mowins at a golf event that just got started but, let's hope, has a prosperous future.

The Kay Yow WBCA Cancer Fund, which began last December, held its first 4Kay Golf Classic on Monday at Cowboys Golf Club. Once again, the ability of NC State legend Yow to bring people together was on display.

Many of the top coaches in women's basketball -- including you-know-who and you-know-who -- were there, as part of teams that paid at least $5,000 a piece to participate in the fundraising day of golf. And several current and former LPGA players -- headlined by Daniel, Betsy King and Meg Mallon -- also took part.

It all came together very quickly for such an undertaking -- having been conceived only in April -- and it's a further testament to Yow that so many folks cleared their calendars for Sept. 7-8. College coaches are always "someplace important" or need to be "someplace else soon" seemingly 24 hours a day as the school year begins.

But as Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson said of Yow, "There aren't many people in our lives you just never say 'no' to. But Kay Yow is one of them."

Kansas, in fact, had a particularly strong showing at this event, as men's coach Bill Self and athletic director Lew Perkins also participated. It meant the coaches for both the 2008 men's and women's NCAA hoops champions were there, and Self and Tennessee's Pat Summitt applied their signatures to a basketball that was auctioned off for a couple thousand dollars. More money for a cause that cannot be considered any less than urgent.

Sunday night, at a pairings party, the standard meeting and greeting and joking and teasing and general yukking it up came to a respectful halt when Yow took the microphone. She smiled at those who stood before her -- many of the most successful people in her profession.

"Wow, with so many great coaches in the room, I feel like we should have a clinic," she said. "Everybody should put up a play."

Indeed, there were promising younger coaches who are getting the feel of running their programs, like UCLA's Nikki Caldwell and Kentucky's Matthew Mitchell.

There were coaches who are in the prime of their careers, like Texas' Gail Goestenkors, Oklahoma's Sherri Coale and TCU's Jeff Mittie.

There were former coaches like Jody Conradt and Sonja Hogg who, with Yow, began in this business when they barely made enough to pay for monthly expenses -- but still couldn't imagine a better job.

There were the titans of modern-day women's hoops: Summitt, with her eight NCAA titles, and UConn's Geno Auriemma, with his five. Whatever their apparently irreconcilable differences now, together their rivalry brought out the best in their teams for more than a decade -- an absolutely crucial period of growth for this sport.

There's just one word, though, in the previous sentence that Yow would have focused on: together.

"She's a wonderful example for all of us," Summitt said. "She's dealt with a lot of adversity in her life but managed to keep everything positive. She's been a tremendous role model not just for women's basketball, but people across this country."

Fundraising for cancer research isn't just about getting the money, but picking the best places to apply it.

"Maybe just one of those grants that we fund will be the one that makes the breakthrough that can help so many people," Yow told the room, and then she gently reminded everyone that cancer is very likely to affect each one of us -- if it hasn't already -- in a very personal way.

"To do this together," she said, "is so important."

Speaking of which, let's talk about how this event came "together." Former Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp took the reins in organizing it, and she has built up a lot of good will in her native Lone Star State. That helped get things off the ground.

"We felt like that one of the things the foundation should be built around is the passion of coaches for trying to help one of their own," Sharp said. "This fits the whole grassroots feel of women's basketball. I don't know how much we're going to raise, but it will be six figures in the first attempt."

Major sponsors such as Nike came aboard. Dallas was chosen for its central location and the ease with which everyone could get to DFW Airport, then the hotel and the golf course, which are all in close proximity.

Self and Minnesota men's coach Tubby Smith both came at Yow's request. Actually, some other big names in the men's game wanted to participate, too, but had prior commitments, including their own golf events Monday. Yow has always reached across to her colleagues on the men's side, going back to her friendship with fellow NC State coach Jim Valvano.

She has told the story many times of how, when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 1987, Valvano and his assistants visited her. How Jimmy V would sometimes bring her lunch, and even if she could hardly eat, she'd laugh so much at his jokes that she'd forget for a little while how badly she felt.

Cancer then took its toll on Valvano a few years later, ending his life in 1993. Yow currently is in Stage 4 of cancer -- it has been nearly two years since her third recurrence -- and she mentioned that the advancements in treatment now, as opposed to the early 1990s, are why she's alive.

Meanwhile, the fight against breast cancer, specifically, has been a primary cause on the LPGA Tour for the past two decades. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has been the tour's official national charity since 1992.

The LPGA players' involvement in the 4Kay Golf Classic came about because of a Texas Tech connection. Former tour player Laurie Brower, a Tech alum who works at the school, reached out to her pro-golfer pals.

"She came to a couple of tour events and said, 'They're doing this basketball coaches' golfing event; would you be interested?'" Mallon said. "I said, 'Absolutely! I'll be there.'

"A lot of golfers were multisport athletes growing up, and basketball was my first love. I was the captain of my basketball team in high school … but golf was the perfect sport for my foot speed."

Of course, as a professional golfer, Mallon has spent countless days playing in pro-ams, which is a crucial part of the LPGA's finances. And as one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, Mallon has no doubt been a preferred playing partner for more terrible golfers than anyone should have to endure.

But she adjusts to anyone's skill level, or lack thereof, and said that playing with the hoops coaches was actually something she really looked forward to doing.

"What we tend to see with athletes and coaches we meet in all different sports," Mallon said, "is that they say, 'We wish we'd learned more golf when we were younger, so we'd be more accomplished at an older age.' And, of course, all the golfers wish we were better basketball players.

"It's fun; we have a mutual respect and just enjoy and love both of our sports very much. I was talking to people today about the fact that we could really make this a huge event."

Indeed, there were moments on the sun-soaked Cowboys Course -- with both birds and airplanes passing in the blue skies overhead and friendly gibes traded all morning and afternoon -- when ideas had to be brimming in everyone about what this event could be.

The fan bases of women's hoops and women's golf do overlap. And while these fans generally aren't big-money sports consumers, they are fans of great loyalty and passion. Maybe there's a way to get supporters of both sports more involved in the 4Kay Golf Classic.

Time is of the essence. Yow acknowledges that every single day for her is part of a great fight, one of life and death. But with her humor and attitude, she still makes people feel lighthearted in her presence.

Yow cruised the Cowboys Course in a cart, with a group that included her associate head coach, Stephanie Glance. Yow stopped to pose for pictures and see how all the teams were doing. She came upon Antonelli, Mowins, Goestenkors and Cal coach Joanne Boyle about to tee off, along with Daniel.

Well, actually, one of these people wasn't going to hit a tee shot. Let's just say the "G" in "Coach G" definitely doesn't stand for "golf." In fact, she earned the nickname "Shoeless Coach G" on Monday, preferring to tour the course barefoot and unencumbered with either clubs (except for her occasionally used lefty putter) or the need to make any shots.

When Goestenkors ever has free time, she'd rather do something that's more an adrenaline rush, like jet ski. Golf would be just about last on her list of chosen activities.

But for Kay Yow, she was there Monday. And, of course with her Duke background, she cracked up with Yow and everyone else present when Daniel "beheaded" the Tar Heels tee, given to her by merry pranksters Antonelli and Mowins.

This also prompted Glance to recall the time that Antonelli, a former Wolfpack player, picked up a technical foul with her vocal, um, enthusiasm. From the bench. As a freshman.

Yow said, "But it was against North Carolina," and that explained everything.

And the best part was that Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell -- who was elsewhere on the course -- would have laughed at all this, too. Such is the goodwill Yow has fostered even with NC State's archrival.

However, if she had been on the same hole, Hatchell just might have searched around for the little ram's head and perhaps tried to swipe the remaining body from Yow to glue them together. As it was, Yow chuckled and said of the headless tee, "I think I'll take this back to my office."

College coaching is an ultracompetitive business, and people usually make allies and enemies. Few could spend nearly four decades doing this and come away with nothing but friends. But Yow has.

"Some coaches just have the ability to transcend party lines," Auriemma said. "She's been able to be a part of all the constituencies that make up women's basketball and try to bridge the gaps between them.

"One thing that's kept women's basketball from being a little better, a little more unified, is too many subgroups. Kay is pretty good at navigating that. And everyone feels a connection with Kay. She's a competitor, but she's a great human being, first and foremost. And coaches aren't usually talked about in those terms: great human beings."

Perhaps, but with this event, the coaches had an opportunity to contribute to this cause and also, hopefully, look around at the professional "greatness" that so many of them and their colleagues have achieved.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair's team won the tournament. He has been playing golf since he was a teenager growing up in Texas, and earlier this summer he got his first hole-in-one. He joked that if only the Oklahoma City Regional final against Tennessee in March had ended after about 34 minutes instead of 40, this would have been one of his all-time best years. As it is, it has still been pretty awesome.

At the luncheon after golf on Monday, Blair looked around and said, "This is the history of our game, here in this room. I'm amazed. I wanted to go around and get autographs and take pictures."

The 4Kay Classic tapped into the greatness that is in all of them and can be in every one of us, too. No, most folks don't have $5,000 to donate to play golf to fight cancer. But you might have $5. And you might reach out to 10 buddies who also have that much. And they might reach out to … just keep imagining. That's what Yow hopes you do.

"You lift me up," Yow told the luncheon audience. "You energize me. People ask me, 'Will you write this person or call this person, they've just been diagnosed with cancer.' And I'm honored to. I want them to know they are not in this alone. None of us are."

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