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A tribute to coaching legend Kay Yow

January 24, 2009 |  6:15 pm

Kayyow_300I wake up every morning to an email from the WNBA summarizing the media coverage of women’s basketball for the day. I woke up this morning to the news that North Carolina State Coach Kay Yow had at last succumbed in her long battle with cancer. It was news that everyone in women’s basketball knew was coming, but never wanted to hear.

Coach Yow began her coaching career at NC State in 1974. To understand how inextricably entwined she is with women’s basketball, consider the following: she began coaching at NC State a year before the first nationally televised women’s basketball game. Two years before women’s basketball was an Olympic sport. Seven years before the first NCAA basketball tournament for women. Ten years before the U.S. women won their first Olympic gold medal in basketball. Twenty-three years before the inaugural season of the WNBA. Thirty-three years before Candace Parker became a household name.

Kay Yow and women’s basketball are interchangeable.

But Coach Yow was not merely a witness to these events; she helped shape them. She coached collegiate athletes and Olympians. By her example, she inspired those on her team, and those who watched her team, to dig deeper and push harder to achieve things that may have seemed unachievable. She was passionate about basketball, but she knew that it had to be about more than just winning and losing. Her grace, her professionalism, her drive and perseverance were constant reminders of what sports are supposed to be about -- not just about the wins or the losses, but how to win or lose.

When Carla Christofferson and I bought the Sparks, we were, of course, fans of the sport, but more than that, we were inspired by the struggles that women involved in athletics faced in order to be able to play the game they loved.  We saw these women as role models for those who dared to become as good as they could be, who pushed past expectations to achieve what no one was asking of them, to constantly strive for excellence in the face of indifference.  Anyone who watched Coach Yow sitting on the bench during NC State’s emotional run to the NCAA Tournament in the 2006-2007 season, weakened by her disease and its treatment, sometimes being helped to her feet by her assistant coach to join the team huddle, saw the best in women’s sports -- someone who expected the most from life and sport and inspired those around her to achieve it.

I met Coach Yow once.  She came to a Sparks game during our 2007 season -  the first season we owned the team.  I saw her sitting behind our bench and hesitated about talking to her. We were not playing our best basketball that day and we were getting killed on the court.  I finally summoned up the courage and approached her. I introduced myself and told her I wished she had come when we were playing better.  She smiled at me and said, "You have a good young team here. Don’t worry. They’ll be fine. I just like watching basketball." It seemed so simple.

I would say Coach Yow would be missed, but the legacy she has left us is so expansive, so pervasive, she will always be a part of women’s basketball.

-- Kathy Goodman

Photo: North Carolina State Coach Kay Yow sings the school song along with Gillian Goring after they defeated Florida State, 68-51, on Feb. 5, 2007, for her 700th career win. Credit: Karl B. DeBlaker / Associated Press