Kay Yow: She's still Coach, and more, to her sisters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sandra Kay Yow is the name her mother, Elizabeth, and her father, Hilton, gave her 62 years ago. There's another name by which the world knows her: Coach.

North Carolina State women's basketball coach. Olympic gold-medal-winning coach. Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach.

Coach.

"I think, like a lot of people who coach, the thing you think of first is being a coach. It's not Sandra Kay Yow, it's Coach Yow. Once a coach, you're always referred to as Coach by so many people. It's really hard to separate that part of your identity."

It's especially true when your own sisters called you Coach.

Long before Debbie Yow became the director of athletics at the University of Maryland and before Susan Yow became head coach at Providence College, the two sisters played for their older sister, Kay, at Elon College and N.C. State, respectively.

"She used to pull me out of a game and I'd walk past her on the bench and mutter: 'Mistake!' " Debbie Yow said last week, a sheepish grin across her face.

A pure jump shooter, Debbie Yow never did believe her coach/sister's game-time decision to lift her for a substitute was a good move. And, being ultra-competitive and unafraid to voice her opinion, Debbie Yow told Kay Yow exactly as much.

"Afterward, she'd told me, 'When we're playing a game, I am not your sister. I am the coach,' " Debbie Yow recalled. "A few years ago, I apologized to her. She apologized to me for not being a better coach."

It's the kind of dialogue the sisters can still easily share, traveling in the same circles. They have stayed in the game together: the game of basketball, of athletics, of shaping young student-athletes through lessons about sportsmanship, strategy, competition, education, the will to succeed.

"I know Maryland comes first with her, but I know that any other game, I know that I come first," Kay Yow said last week about Debbie.

"As for her competitiveness, you know, I never think of her as a pain, but she's just people you like to have. When they have that drive, you can help them tone it down. But when they don't have that drive, you can't put it in them. You can never put it in there."

The drive and the love of basketball that the three Yow sisters share comes from the same source, their mother, who died in 1993. Too poor to go to college, Elizabeth Yow played for the McEwen Mills team back in North Carolina.

Watch the Yow sisters drop their eyes and shake their heads when they tell the story about the afternoon they begged their mother to play with them.

"We were in the back yard, shooting, and we wanted to play a game of two-on-two," Debbie Yow said.

Elizabeth Yow, 49 at the time, stepped out of the house, rolled up her sleeves and did what any hoops junkie would do: try to play with the same skill and intensity of her youth, as if a game of pickup ball against her three basketball star daughters wasn't going to get serious.

"She fell and broke both her wrists," Debbie said.

"It was a very bad day," Kay said.

"We were in trouble for a long time," Debbie said.

Back on the bench last week after missing her first game in 33 years at N.C. State, Kay Yow beat Miami, then rolled into College Park and beat No. 16 Maryland, too.

It was personal, this win, in so many ways, not the least of which was that Kay Yow had just had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her breast. Then, in a long-considered move to improve her immune system, Yow spent eight days in a dietary detoxification center, prompting her absence from the bench.

Everyone in the basketball world, from Raleigh and way beyond, heard the news and noticed. You don't easily miss the presence of such a pioneer in women's basketball and a veteran teacher of the game.

Yow was resolute, carefully planning how to keep the news quiet until the diagnosis was complete. She didn't want the attention and, most important, wanted to spare her 85-year-old father, Hilton Yow, the worry.

It was a recurrence of the cancer that first appeared in 1987, just months before Yow was to coach the 1988 U.S. women's Olympic basketball team in Seoul. It was cancer, too, that took the life of Elizabeth Yow, who lost her fight to stomach cancer 11 years ago, just months before Debbie Yow took the job at Maryland.

"That was the tough part. He's had a stroke. He's in an assisted-living facility. That was a tough decision. And the tough part [about the cancer diagnosis] was I didn't want to tell him about it," Kay Yow said.

"I'm the power of attorney. I'm the one that cares for him, who does all his checks, everything. I didn't want to put that worry on him."

Only after the medical information was all in and her surgical and post-operative plans made did Yow then share her personal news, first with her father, choosing to deal with it in such a way as to minimize the publicity and the impact on her team.

After surgery last month, Yow's oncologist said she is now cancer-free. Still, there was talk of post-operative treatment with chemotherapy and/or radiation, to keep Yow cancer-free. But Yow had a different idea.

The organic diet is a new, holistic approach that Yow has decided to adopt, giving up sugar, caffeine, chocolate and all the other good stuff that a Southern girl from Gibsonville, N.C., would indeed love to eat.

Sympathy, concern, love: All that has since poured out from all corners for Kay Yow, especially from her younger sisters. However, even the stark reality of cancer, of recovery, of life's bigger picture outside the basketball court couldn't completely eclipse the competitive fire that burns.

"How's my sister, besides happy?" Debbie Yow asked last week after N.C. State's win over Maryland.

Debbie Yow was only slightly amused that the Wolfpack (15-4) had made thorough work of exposing the Terps' youthfulness and injury-depleted ranks. The Terps, hurt by the season-ending Achilles' injury to standout freshman Laura Harper, would slide to No. 20 by the time Monday's poll was released. Meanwhile, surging N.C. State broke into the Associated Press' Top 25 poll - at No. 25 - for the first time in three years.

"It feels great, because to not start out in the poll and not even have a vote, then to just work your way up, it takes a great effort," Kay Yow said. "I think you have to do some special things, and I said at the beginning of the season, this is a special team."

There isn't a basketball fan in the country - except maybe in College Park - who could deny that this is a wonderful way for Kay Yow to be rewarded this season.

"When I took this job, I told Kay she could win every one of her games except the two each season against us. She could still be ranked and go the NCAAs and I would root for her, but not to beat us," Debbie Yow said.

Too late. Maryland is one of the three ranked teams that N.C. State has beaten since Jan. 6, helping put Kay Yow's Wolfpack back among the ranked teams in the country.

"I guess that's the way life can be, sometimes. When you have maybe some of the toughest of times, you also can have some of the best of times," Kay Yow said last week from Raleigh.

She said she hopes she has the discipline to stick with the organic diet she has undertaken, the one that forsakes meat and dairy products and requires Yow to eat 80 percent of her vegetables and fruit raw and 20 percent cooked.

"None of these things has drained me or my enthusiasm. I have a lot of energy. I feel better. It's an overhaul of my lifestyle. Eat, rest and take better care of myself," she said.

"I know that [my sisters] really support what I'm doing, that they believe I'm doing a really good thing, how hard it is to do it. There's a lot of compassion and empathy," she said.

"I love coaching. I have no plans for retirement, although you never completely shut the door on something, if it came my way and I had a great desire to do."

Debbie Yow said there was talk once about her older sister, her former coach, serving as special ambassador for the state of North Carolina. It's an honor the coach deserves.

Her sister, Debbie, thinks so. And not only because it would eliminate that small but annual problem of split loyalty of whom to root for when the Wolfpack plays the Terrapins women.

Terps? Sister? Terps? Sister?

Sister.

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