The head women’s basketball coach at North Carolina University, Kay Yow, died on January 24 after a long 21-year battle with breast cancer.
The air in Raleigh, North Carolina was unusually still the morning of January 24, when people awakened to learn the news that Kay Yow had passed away in the early hours of the morning. Yow had battled breast cancer since 1987, a battle that offered hope and strength to breast cancer survivors all around the country. The disease eventually took her life, but it never took away her resolve to be an inspiration to her team. In between radiation, chemotherapy, and hospital stays over the past 21 years, Yow managed to win 737 NCAA games, four Atlantic Coast Conference championships, and an Olympic gold medal.
Coach Yow was a blessing and an inspiration to every player who was ever fortunate enough to play basketball for her. She was also a powerful force among those who worked with her, who are now struggling to come to grips with the reality that Yow is gone. Stephanie Glance, who served as assistant coach for Yow for 15 years, took over as head coach in the interim on January 6, when Yow had to step down for a temporary leave of absence because of a recurrence of her cancer. Yow never returned.
Even students on other teams who played against the Wolfpack women’s team were impressed and inspired by Yow. “Coach Yow is a pioneer of women’s basketball,” said a forward on the Duke University team. “She’s done so much for the women’s game. She had so much love for us, even as opponents, just women who play basketball.”
Sandra Kay Yow, was born on March 14, 1942. She first started coaching basketball in order to get a job at Allen Jay High School, teaching high school English in High Point in the 1960s. Her boss worked with her and the coach of the boys’ team to help her outline practices, and he sat on the bench with her while games were being played to give her advice and tips on coaching. After just a half a season, her boss left her on her own to coach the team. Yow worked for four years in High Point before moving to a coaching position at Gibsonville High, in her hometown of Gibsonville. From there, she went on to Elon University, where she compiled a 57-19 record in four seasons with the team. She was hired by North Carolina State in 1975.
Yow was originally diagnosed with cancer in 1987, just a year before she coached the US team to the gold medal in the Seoul Olypmics. As part of her treatment, she underwent a mastectomy, and her cancer went into remission for more than five years. In November 2004, another lump was discovered close to where the original cancer was first spotted. The following month, she had another surgery, and began treatment with hormone therapy and radiation treatments. Even so, the cancer kept returning, in 2004, 2006, and 2007. But despite these setbacks, Yow never stopped working with her team. She missed a few games here and there, but she always returned to coach her team.
Her local celebrity and high profile in the world of women’s basketball inspired her to raise money for cancer research. She worked for the Jimmy V Classic tournament, crated by ESPN and former N.C. State men’s basketball coach, Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993. She also launched the Hoops for Hope game and the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, which was the women’s fundraising effort began by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
For her fans who admired her coaching prowess, Yow was just as much an inspiration because of her courageous fight against cancer. In addition to her tireless work to raise money and awareness about the disease, she remained tireless in supporting her team, despite being slammed by the disease and the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy treatment. Her battle was particularly evident during the 2006 season, when she was forced to take a leave for 16 games to focus on her treatment. Afterward, when she returned, her team was so inspired by Yow, that they won 12 of their final 15 games of the season. The stands were full of fans wearing pink, the color worn in support of breast cancer awareness. Her team’s players even wore pink shoelaces.
Through it all, Yow never shied away from telling her story, working to raise money for research, and encouraging cancer survivors to offer them a shining example of hope for the future. Even though her battle with cancer invaded every piece of her life, she never dwelt on it, and her easygoing manner was always apparent. In 2007 in an interview, Yow said, If you start to dwell on the wrong things, it’ll take you down fast. Every morning, I wake up, and the first thing I think of is I’m thankful. I’m thankful for another day.”
The world of women’s basketball will never see another coach as inspirational and courageous as Kay Yow. Rest in peace coach Yow.