My Sportsman: Kay Yow
A public fight against breast cancer
Posted: Wednesday November 28, 2007 6:58PM; Updated: Thursday November 29, 2007 3:28PM
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
North Carolina State women's basketball coach Kay Yow didn't have to wage her battle against stage-four breast cancer in public. After taking a two-month leave at the beginning of last season to focus on a disease she had been fighting, on and off, since 1987, she could have continued to endure the daily indignities of aggressive chemotherapy in the comfort of her home and left the coaching to her assistants.
Really, how much more could she give to the sport? In her 35 previous years as a head coach, including 31 at NC State, Yow had made 19 appearances in the NCAA tournament, including 10 Sweet 16s and a Final Four, in 1998. She had won four ACC tournament championships, coached the United States to the Olympic gold medal in 1988 and been inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002. Her place in the annals of the sport was secure.
But Yow didn't stay home. On January 25, she returned to the court, providing inspiration to her team and to legions of cancer patients. She gave her players every ounce of energy she could muster, and they paid her back with a string of wins that she would say, "lifted my adrenaline so much that I didn't feel anything that was happening outside the court." Yow had always told her players "Attitude is everything," and every day of the past year she has lived by those words. For her grace and courage in doing so, for her example and inspiration, for her impact beyond the game, Yow is my Sportsman of the Year.
Here is what the Wolfpack did when Yow came back. It won 12 of its next 14 games, defeating Florida State to give Yow her 700th career win. It beat second-ranked North Carolina the night NC State named the floor of Reynolds Coliseum after Yow. It knocked off top-ranked and undefeated Duke in the ACC tournament. The last two wins, over NCAA foes Robert Morris and Baylor, landed the Wolfpack in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.
It wasn't easy for Yow, who turned 65 last March. The ongoing chemotherapy robbed her of her energy, her appetite, her hair, her eyelashes, her eyebrows, her fingernails, the feeling in her feet, her breath. Most days she couldn't get through a practice without sitting down, and one time she was carried out on a stretcher after nearly fainting.
Yow kept chemo's worst horrors from her players, though she seemed to discover a new one every day. When she arrived in Fresno for the Sweet 16 after a five-hour flight spent with an IV in her arm, she removed the bandage she had worn since her blood test that morning and saw skin come off her arm. Yet no matter how much she suffered, she remained upbeat for her team.
Yow isn't finished inspiring others. Shortly after she walked off the court in Fresno to an uncertain future after Connecticut brought the Wolfpack's emotional run to an abrupt end in the NCAA tournament, she went off chemo and back on hormone treatments. In that five-month hiatus, she rediscovered her energy, got her fingernails back and watched her now-silver hair grow again. Though she went back on chemo in September, she hasn't missed a practice.
The 2007-08 Wolfpack, which includes 11 freshmen and sophomores and just two upperclassmen, is the greenest team Yow has had in 37 years. It will need every ounce of energy she can give them.