Kay Yow’s legacy still holds strong

Sylvia Hatchell was 23 years old and had just been named the head women’s basketball coach at Francis Marion University in 1975 when she immediately realized a big problem.

Her team had no basketball shoes.

Francis Marion was a small-time program in South Carolina and Hatchell had no shoe deal, so she called a new friend in the coaching profession seeking information about getting discounted shoes. Kay Yow, the coach at North Carolina State, requested foot sizes of the players, and a few days later, Hatchell received shoes for her entire team.

Yow, who had a personal deal with Pro Keds, which was very rare at the time, given there were only a handful of full-time women’s basketball coaches in the country, took shoes from her own team’s stash for that season and sent them to Hatchell. They were red and white — NC State’s colors — which was good enough for the red, white and blue Patriots.

“That was just Kay,” said Hatchell, the head women’s coach at rival North Carolina since 1986.

The coaches’ relationship grew much closer over the next 34 years until Yow succumbed to breast cancer in 2009. And that vignette from Hatchell about Yow is one of many such stories.

Yow is appropriately memorialized as a great basketball coach and ambassador of the game by her inclusion in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Hall of Fame, but Yow’s growing legacy promotes the spirit of life and a need to continue fighting for funding and research to one day defeat cancer. And that’s why once again this season, from Feb. 8-18, major women’s college basketball programs will honor Yow and her courageous efforts generating awareness in fighting breast cancer with the annual Play 4Kay series.

A number of teams dedicate a game in which pink dominates the arena and uniforms, a form of raising awareness. Referees will even use pink whistles. Donations will be collected at those games, as well.

Sponsored by the Kay Yow Cancer Fund in partnership with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and The V Foundation, Play 4Kay has raised $1.7 million since its inception in 2007, according to the foundation.

“Its success has been truly remarkable,” said Debbie Yow, Kay’s younger sister and the current director of athletics at NC State. “And it’s only going to grow more successful.”

From 1975-2009, Kay Yow led the Lady Wolfpack to nine Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championships, a Final Four and 12 Sweet 16s. She also was the head coach of the 1988 US Olympic gold medal team. Also the head coach at Elon for four seasons before getting the NC State job, Yow had a career record of 737-344, and, when she passed away, more than 1,400 people attended her funeral in Raleigh.  

Yow’s uniqueness wasn’t limited to her on-court achievements.

She was a master at building relationships and was invigorated more by those associations and character building than just winning games. Perhaps her handling of her own funeral offers true insight into what drove her. First, Yow taped a 25-minute video of herself two years before her death addressing the attendees, and she chose to be buried the following day so her players that attended could stay and have a get-together she paid for ($5,000) in advance.

“We went, we did everything just like she said,” said Debbie Yow, who played for Kay at Elon. “Sweet Tomatoes had already been paid, they catered the meal. We took pictures left and right. . . . There were stories told over and over. It was a great two to three hours — a lot of laughter, a lot of tears. It was 38 years of her players in one place at one time. She was so wise to have planned it that way.”

Debbie said her sister was always one step ahead, just like with her funeral. And she was always thinking of others.

Hatchell, who will become just the third women’s coach in history to reach 900 victories the next time her Tar Heels win a game, gladly shares her many memories of Kay. One involves them waking very early in the morning in Moscow at the Goodwill Games in 1986 so they could watch the changing of the guard at the Kremlin. There was an historical attraction to it, but also an opportunity to laugh, which they rarely passed up.

Like the goofy friends they were, the pair proceeded to mock the soldiers’ slow, high-step marching while moving their arms in swift gyrations. Remembering the moment brought a large smile to the 60-year-old Hatchell’s face.

“We loved to laugh,” she said, “and we sure laughed that day.”

In 1988, as one of Yow’s assistants at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, they had a field day buying goods because “of the amazing prices,” Hatchell said. So one day, Yow spent nearly all afternoon searching for the right gifts for the other coaches in the ACC.

“I wouldn’t be here coaching the Olympic team if it wasn’t for all of the other coaches in the ACC,” Hatchell said Yow told her.

“That was Kay,” Hatchell said, looking away and wearing a soft, approving smile.

Born Sandra Kay Yow in Gibsonville, NC, in 1942, Kay was the daughter of a mill worker. She had a brother, Ronnie, who played football at Clemson and two sisters, Debbie and Susan, who is the head women’s basketball coach at Belmont Abbey after stints at Providence and Kansas State, among others.

Competitive from her early ages, Kay loved playing basketball, and even though she once scored 52 points in a high school game, she chose not to pursue sports at East Carolina, instead focusing on academics.

But upon graduation, she was hired to teach and also serve as librarian at Allen Jay High School near High Point, but only if she also coached the girls basketball team. Kay was hooked, and by 1971 was named the head coach at Elon. By 1975, she was hired at NC State.

Eleven years later, the news that would eventually shape her remaining life and legacy came.

“I’ll never forget it,” Hatchell said.

Hatchell was swimming at legendary Tennessee coach and all-time wins leader Pat Summitt’s pool in August 1987 when the phone rang. A moment later, a stone-faced Summitt walked outside and delivered the news. Kay Yow had breast cancer.

But Yow wasn’t going to let it deter her. She wasn’t going to miss a beat.

She coached the Olympic team to the gold medal a year later after having a full mastectomy and didn’t lose one bit of herself in the process. She remained ultra-competitive up to her last days.

In 2009, with Kay extremely ill and nearing her final days, Debbie visited her in the hospital the night NC State and No. 2 North Carolina played. Kay wanted to watch the game but had to nap that afternoon just to have the strength to stay awake long enough to take in the game.

“She tried real hard to comply, so we got her propped up for the game,” Debbie recalled. “State led the entire game, but as we got closer and closer to the end, they (UNC) started pulling it together. And I remember thinking, ‘God, could we let this woman, who is going to die, could we let her have this moment? Could we let her have this moment to see her team beat Carolina?’”

North Carolina won the game in overtime, angering Debbie and saddening Kay. So to lift her sister’s sagging spirits, Debbie, who was the athletics director at Maryland at the time, promised Kay the Terrapins would take care of the Tar Heels when they played in College Park less than two weeks later.

That was the last time Debbie saw her sister alive.

Maryland did knock off the Tar Heels, but sadly, Kay died the morning before. Debbie was busy arranging family details for the funeral and her own workload and was unable to watch the game, so she didn’t find out until afterward when text message informed her of the upset.

“I thought that was the neatest thing, and I think Kay knows,” Debbie said, wiping tears from her reddening eyes. “It was the day after she died and everything, but I think she knows.” 

If so, Yow also knows her legacy as a pioneer and spokesperson for her sport and the disease that ultimately claimed her were and are a responsibility for the chosen. And Kay Yow embraced that reality like it was meant to be.

Debbie says Kay was the “right” person at the right time.

“She was just the right person to be the representative,” Debbie said. “Because here’s the question: Do we not know of other women who have died of breast cancer? On my goodness, so why not one of them? How is that, not sure. She had a unique platform and she fought the fight from 1987-2009 back and forth back and forth.”

Kay Yow’s fight was public, was courageous and captured the attention of so many people. It wasn’t something Kay set out to do, but when she realized her platform included more than basketball, she didn’t push back. She embraced it for the greater good.

And that has become Kay’s legacy, and it will live on in perpetuity.