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The Nutshell
Kay Yow: Personal Reflections
By Rob Clough
January 24, 2009



Kay Yow may have had competitive rivals, but no enemies.

Her relationship with her fellow coaches was beyond congenial. Her generosity of time and experience that she shared with them showed that she was someone who loved her sport and wanted to help everyone around her grow that sport. Beyond that, Yow possessed a munificence for anyone in need. To her, there was no contradiction in aiding those whom she would compete against. There was no reason to be anything but unfailingly supportive to those who called on her wisdom. Yow is one of the few modern pioneers of the sport who never became embittered when others surpassed her, who never burned out on nurturing her players, who never ceased inspiring others and whose competitive fires never dimmed. She commanded the respect of her peers, not just because of her experience but because of how hard her teams played. She earned the love of every player she nurtured, every coach she competed against, every writer who had the privilege of listening to her talk straight about her team (a rarity), every fan who spoke to her for even a moment, and every survivor of breast cancer, or for that matter any cancer, to whom she gave hope.

I remember over a decade ago when Kay had just achieved some sort of career milestone (there are so many, it's hard to keep track of them). Gail Goestenkors made the unprecedented (and unrepeated) move of presenting her with a plaque before the Duke-State game in Cameron--the only time I've ever seen an opponent so honored. Yow responded with her usual even-keeled gratitude, humbly waving to the opposing crowd that was applauding her and genuinely moved by the gesture. Remember--this is when her teams still regularly went to the NCAA tournament and gave Duke some of their toughest games. It spoke to the respect she commanded that this moment even occurred.

Yow had a very particular way of coaching and developing players, a system that was not exactly glamorous. Indeed, it required a level of discipline that was stifling to many players. It was not unusual to see players transfer out of State because while Kay was loving and supportive, she was also demanding and exacting. Recruiting obviously became more and more difficult for her as her disease progressed, yet anyone who came to play for her knew that she would do anything to be on the floor with them and work with them.


What her recent teams lacked in talent, they made up for in grit. The kind of physical defense she taught demanded absolute cohesiveness to become effective. It often took her teams until February to really gel. However, once they did, no one wanted to play them. Her best teams took on her own personality: relentless, scrappy, tough-minded and filled with the joy of making decisions under pressure. Those teams could be beaten, but they wouldn't lose on their own. You had to make plays down til the very end against them.


When Kay Yow succeeded, everyone in college basketball was overjoyed for her. She led the Olympic women's basketball team to a gold medal in 1988, an era when such medals weren't a fait accompli for the US. That career milestone helped make up for years of postseason frustration. Despite having a number of great players, she didn't break through to the Final Four until 1998, upsetting the #1 and #2 seeds in her regional along the way. While the Pack would go no further, I was amazed at how genuinely happy Duke's players were at this development, a year before their own Final Four odyssey.

As a fan, I was always excited to see the Duke-State game. I dreaded the arrival of such foes as Chasity Melvin and Jennifer Howard, yet respected the way Yow taught them to play the game. Gail Goestenkors and Yow saw their teams battling in a number of classic games. The best was the 1997 tilt in Cameron, when Kira Orr pulled off one of her greatest one-woman miracles to bring Duke back from behind in overtime. You always knew you were in for a battle with the Wolfpack, a physical affair, but Yow's teams were never dirty. She brooked no unsportsmanlike conduct from her players.

Adversity always seemed to bring out the best in Kay. She coached that Olympic team shortly after being treated for her first round of breast cancer. When it metastasized in 2004, she seemed to sense that she was now living on borrowed time and helped lay out all sorts of grand plans. The Kay Yow WBCA cancer fund, assorted charity events and much more have been established as her way of taking one last shot at the disease that consumed her. How she had the energy to organize these events and still coach her team was remarkable. What's even more remarkable was the way she led her 2006 team to a postseason for the ages.

Her teams had not been playing all that well since Tynesha Lewis graduated in 2001. Even when they made it to the NCAA tournament, they had had consecutive first-round flameouts. She was forced back into chemo and had to leave her team to trusted assistant Stephanie Glance for the first part of the season. At this point, having a focus like coaching became a very good thing for her, and she returned to wreak havoc in the ACC. She knocked off top-10 UNC in Reynolds on the night that its floor was named for her. She upset #1 and undefeated Duke in the ACC tournament. Her team made it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in nearly a decade, and gave #1 seed UConn all it wanted in the next round before falling.

The press conferences for these games were moving events. Listening to players like Gillian Goring talk about how she had to grow up and win for her coach, the way that every player looked to her as a symbol of iron resolve and compassion...it was a miraculous moment of hope.

What she accomplished last season was still pretty remarkable. Returning only two seasoned veterans in warrior forward Khadijah Whittington and ironwoman guard Shayla Fields, the Wolfpack made it to the fourth round of the WNIT. Her team had been on the NCAA tournament cusp but was upset by Clemson in the first round of the ACC tournament. Always forthright, when I asked her if her team deserved an NCAA tournament berth, she flatly said no. Every other coach I've ever asked that of went on to extol their team's virtues and why they were deserving, whether or not it was true. With Kay Yow, she could only tell the truth.

I never heard Kay Yow blame her players for her team's losses. She found ways to bring out the best in them, even players with serious limitations. That said, she hated losing and wanted her players to hate losing as well. She wanted the Wolfpack to compete at the highest of levels, even when it was clear they didn't have the raw talent to do that year-in and year-out anymore. Her rivals matched her competitiveness but there was never any bitterness when you lost to her Wolfpack.

To a degree, the respect accorded to Yow by her peers was partly due to her experience in the modern sport's birth. She helped build the sport's popularity traveling in vans and washing uniforms, working with the most threadbare of budgets. Her battle against cancer certainly also made her a sympathetic figure, earning her the instant support of so many. I would advance the idea, however, that even if Yow had started coaching twenty years later or if she had never developed cancer, the level of respect and affection would have been exactly the same. Her ability to separate competition from bitterness, playing games from helping to develop young women, the personal from from professional has made her the standard to which all other coaches in all other sports should aspire. Sports was simply the platform from which Yow was able to, in ways small and large, make the world a better place. Her legacy will be providing a model for others to follow.

DWHoops Kay Yow Retrospective Gallery



Preview: Georgia Tech at Duke
 
Duke D Dominates Jackets, 60-34
The Nutshell

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