From the Sidelines: Kay Yow’s plight inspiring

Published 10:56 pm Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Kay Yow walked away from her post Tuesday. It was a decision that did not come lightly for a woman as passionate and accomplished as herself.

The 66-year-old is the long-time head coach of the North Carolina State women’s basketball team.

She has won 737 games in her collegiate coaching career that spans 38 years. Her teams have earned four Atlantic Coast Conference championships. She has led the way to 20 NCAA tournament berths.

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And she has coached in one Final Four. That came in 1998.

Moreover, Yow walked where few have tread when she led the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in 1988.

That victory, among the greatest of her storied career, came after her 1987 diagnosis of breast cancer.

Undaunted, Yow underwent treatments and continued coaching. The cancer went into remission for 17 years, allowing her to continue an already remarkable career, before resurfacing during the 2004-05 season.

Now, the N.C. State coach has again decided she must step away from the program to which she has dedicated her life.

After missing four games already this season, Yow has said that she does not have the energy to continue coaching while coping with stage four breast cancer.

But, true to her personality, Yow stopped short of announcing her retirement Tuesday.

She said she hopes her health will allow her to return to her beloved Wolfpack for the 2009-10 season, but that she must focus her efforts in the interim entirely upon recovery.

Yow’s fight and persistence is nothing short of inspiring.

In a world where many of us often seek and accept seemingly any and every reason to take a day off or give less than our best, Kay Yow wants to work. She wants to be with her players and her assistants. She wants to be at the games and the practices. She wants the daily grind. But her health will not allow it.

That irony seems to hold within it a number of resounding lessons. Not the least of which is simply to appreciate the simple blessing of being able to get out of bed everyday and go to work.

The sad and sobering truth is that there will likely come a day for us all, just as Tuesday was for Kay Yow, that we must face the limitations of our mortality and become less than our personal expectations.

“Stepping away from coaching is one of the hardest decisions I have had to make, 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 said of her decision to walk away at this time.

The character with which she credits her players and assistants is merely indicative of the same character with which she has run her program for more than three decades.

And it is certainly a reflection of the character exhibited by Yow through her determination to continue performing at a high level despite a disease that has now spread to her liver and bones.

Yow’s situation is oddly reminiscent of her late contemporary, Jim Valvano, who etched his name in collegiate coaching lore while taking the N.C. State men’s basketball team to the 1983 national title.

Valvano’s encouraging plea of “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” still resonates through the sports world and ultimately was dubbed to serve as the motto of the “V” Foundation, an non-profit organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.

Valvano lost his life in 1993 to the disease, less than two months after giving an incredibly memorable speech at the ESPY Awards.

In that address, Valavano said, “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”

And regardless of whether or not Kay Yow’s cancer battle allows her to retake the floor in 2009, the fact remains that she did not give up. She never gave up.