Her resume had almost everything a coach could want, from conference titles and NCAA tournament trips to an Olympic gold medal and more than 700 career victories.
Yet Kay Yow was about so much more than basketball.
The North Carolina State coach was a symbol of hope and courage even as she faced the cancer that ultimately took her life Saturday morning after a two-decade fight. She inspired people who never met her or cared about the sport, even the fans at rival schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In the end, all that coaching success almost became an afterthought.
“Kay showed us how to handle one of the most difficult things — cancer — in the most dignified and courageous manner,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said in a statement. “She taught us what it is to have real passion for the sport, any sport. She continued to fight and went about doing what she loved best: coaching.
“She used every ounce of energy she had left to give to those young ladies. She was and will always be an inspiration to so many people.”
Yow, first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, died at WakeMed Cary Hospital after being admitted last week, university spokeswoman Annabelle Myers said. Yow was 66.
A public viewing is scheduled for Friday morning in Cary, followed by the funeral that afternoon. Yow will be buried the next day in her hometown of Gibsonville, located about 70 miles west of Raleigh.
The Wolfpack’s game at Wake Forest on Monday was postponed to Feb. 10. Its next game will be Thursday at home against Boston College.
“Everyone who had the privilege of knowing Kay Yow has a heavy heart today,” N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler said in a statement.
By Saturday evening, a makeshift memorial had been set up near the campus’ bell tower with about 20 bouquets of flowers and a poster for mourning fans to leave messages. In addition, someone left a framed photo of Yow with a poem, “When Life Kicks You, Let It Kick You Forward” — a reference to one of Yow’s mottos.
Yow was 737-344 in 38 seasons as coach — 34 with the Wolfpack. She coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1988, won four ACC tournament championships, earned 20 NCAA tournament bids and reached the Final Four in 1998.
She also was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002, while the school dedicated “Kay Yow Court” in Reynolds Coliseum in 2007.
But for many fans, Yow was best defined by her unwavering resolve while fighting cancer, from raising awareness and money for research to staying with her team through the debilitating effects of the disease and chemotherapy treatments.
She served on the board of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, which was founded by ESPN and her friend and colleague, former N.C. State men’s coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993.
“Kay taught us all to live life with passion and to never give up,” said fellow board member George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. He said the network would remain committed to a research fund established in Yow’s name.
“Kay was passionate about life and coaching. She was a giver and she gave so much to every life she touched,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said in a statement. “She made a difference in the lives of so many people, not just the life lessons she shared with her student-athletes at Elon or North Carolina State.”
There were moments of silence to honor Yow before several basketball games Saturday, including before the N.C. State-Boston College men’s game in Boston. Duke — one of N.C. State’s closest ACC rivals — also honored Yow before the men’s game against Maryland.
“God bless Kay,” Blue Devils men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski said to end his postgame news conference. “A fighter until the end.”
In her final months, Yow was on hormonal therapy as the cancer spread to her liver and bone. But she never flinched or complained, relying on her faith as the disease progressed. She commonly noted there were other patients with “harder battles than I’m fighting” and said it was inspiring for her to stay with her team.
“We’re all faced with a lot of tough issues that we’re dealing with,” she said in a 2006 interview. “You can’t bring it on the court with you, but we can all just think of basketball as an escape for a few hours.”
Yow announced earlier this month that she would not return to the team this season after she missed four games because of what was described as an extremely low energy level.
The team visited Yow in the hospital before leaving Wednesday for a game at Miami. Associate head coach Stephanie Glance — who led the team in Yow’s absences — met with the team Saturday morning to tell them Yow had died, Myers said.
Dr. Mark Graham, Yow’s longtime oncologist, remembered how Yow always took time to talk to other patients when she came in for treatments.
“She could have tried to come into the clinic and be completely anonymous,” he said. “She just wanted to be another patient. She was very open to sharing her experiences with others and being encouraging to others.”
Yow’s fight was never more public than when she took a 16-game leave to focus on her treatments during the 2006-07 season. After her return, her inspired Wolfpack won 12 of its final 15 games with wins against highly ranked rivals Duke and North Carolina. The run attracted plenty of fans wearing pink — the color of breast-cancer awareness. Her players also wore pink shoelaces.
Yow always found ways to keep coaching even as she fought the disease. She spent most of games during that emotional 2007 run sitting on the bench while Glance stood to shout instructions at players or help a weakened Yow to her feet.
“She’s the Iron Woman, with the Lord’s help,” Glance said.
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Jan. 24: North Carolina State’s Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame coach who waged a decades-long fight against breast cancer, died at the age of 66. NBC’s Ron Mott reports.
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