We knew it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier when we found out that Kay Yow passed away Saturday after a long battle with breast cancer. What has struck me as most amazing in recent days is that people are breezing over Yow’s phenomenal record of more than 700 NCAA wins, 20 NCAA tournament bids, an Olympic gold medal and a Hall of Fame induction to talk about their personal encounters with the legendary North Carolina State coach.
Everyone has a Kay Yow story. I have two.
In 1990, before the WNBA and before collegiate administrators were even sure Title IX was going to stick, my dad drove me to North Carolina to watch Yow’s team play the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. The game was epic: NC State defeated Tennessee on the back of Andrea Stinson’s 28 points. Afterward, I waited by the locker rooms to have a basketball autographed by the NC State players. A few of them signed the ball, but most of them breezed past me in celebration. When Yow saw what had happened, she burst into the locker room and frog-marched her players back out to give me autographs and apologies.
It was one of the biggest wins in Wolfpack history and only Yow’s third win over Summitt, but some things are more important than victory; Yow was raising a new generation of athletes.
Many years later, when I was in high school, I attended the University of Tennessee’s basketball camp. Summitt’s camp is half fundamentals, half team play, and a whole lot of recruiting. Coaches from around the country fly in to assist with the camp and scout players. One golden day, Kay Yow happened to be in the gym where my team was playing. I played the best, luckiest game of my life, and afterward Yow came over to congratulate me. I was so stunned by her presence that I blurted out that the whole thing had been a fluke, that I didn’t ever play as well as I had that day.
My actual words to Coach Yow were, “I am not Division I material!”
She smiled and said, “You were today.”
(I never was D-1 material again, by the way.)
Letters about Yow’s life and legacy have been pouring into newspapers across the country: High school coaches telling of writing to Yow for advice and receiving back handwritten letters full of tips and encouragement; sports columnists telling how Yow always had time for every question because she pushed so hard for greater coverage for women’s athletics; former players from colleges across the country speaking about how Yow taught them to never give up.
This is, after all, a woman who got all those wins and medals 20 years after she was first diagnosed with cancer. She knew a thing or two about fighting.
This weekend, teams throughout the NCAA honored Yow in their own way. North Carolina wore pink uniforms on Sunday night. Sylvia Hatchell wore a pink shirt under her black suit. Even the referees used pink whistles. Maryland wore pink T-shirts to warm up. Players from Duke and Georgia Tech wore pink shoelaces, and some of Tech’s players penned handwritten messages to Yow on their shoes.
In 2002, when she was named The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year, Yow said, “I need to make a difference in the lives of other people. If I’m not doing that, I’ve missed the whole point of my gift of life.”
That’s why we’re not talking stats; we’re telling stories. Kay Yow never judged her life by the Ws and Ls; she just used her gift to change the life of every person who dribbled past her.