Legendary women’s basketball coach Kay Yow died a year ago yesterday at age 66, after a decades-long battle with cancer. We talked at length with Coach Yow in early 2007, just after she returned to the sidelines following a leave of absence for cancer treatments. I especially liked what she told us about giving to the community:
Besides just coaching at NC State, I hope I have made a difference somewhere along the way giving to the community and being part of the community. I once read that the first third of your life is about learning, the second third is about earning, and the last third is about returning. These things can overlap here and there, but basically that is what you do. There are some people who dig wells so [they] can drink from them. But there comes a time when you’ve got to dig the wells so others can drink from them.
Below, we’ve excerpted a portion of our interview, where she reflected on the challenges of that season and looked forward. You can read the entire Q&A here. This year’s Hoops for Hope game is Sunday, Feb. 14 at 5:30, when the Wolfpack takes on the Miami Hurricanes.
Why was it so important for you to return this season, even as you continue your treatment?
Basketball — my players and my staff — is one of the loves of my life. It is one of the things that I enjoy; it lifts me up. I felt like it would be an encouragement to me and to my players and staff if I could return. That’s the goal that I’ve worked toward since we started treatment. Fortunately, after the 16 games that I missed, my doctor said, “I think maybe we can try it.” I was very happy, and I wanted to get back. If total rest would cure what I have, then that is what I would do. But it is not like I have a cold or even pneumonia. I have a late stage of cancer, and rest alone doesn’t cure it. I have to be careful and take care of myself, but being with the team and the staff gives me a lift. I hope it gives them one, too.
This round of treatment has been very public. How does this attention affect your treatment and outlook?
I hope any attention I might be getting because of this disease inspires and motivates other people battling cancer. We can’t change the circumstance we’re in, but how we respond to it is everything. I would want people to see that I’m going on with life and dealing with it in the best way that I can. And I would hope that the same thing could be true for each of them.
This is your third bout with cancer. How are you approaching these treatments?
This is completely different from being in stage I. There is no comparison. The chemo treatments are powerful [and] strong. I have a lot of side issues. My life is really changed. You do what you have to do. You don’t just slip away. You don’t know how much life is ahead for you. Obviously, none of us knows that, but it becomes really clear when you are in a situation like I am. Don’t put life on hold. Go on and live. There are a lot of things I still want do.
There are things I want to do each and every day. I’d like to find a way to give even more to other people who are battling cancer. I would like to coach a team to a national championship. I would like to continue to grow myself and my faith. I would like to continue to be a part of Bible study groups. I would like to be available to help in the area of basketball — anything that could help to make our game better. I’d like to be able to spend more time with my family — to see my youngest nephew play basketball more and my oldest nephew play football more. There are a lot of things.
What have you learned from your battles with cancer?
Don’t let the urgent get in the way of important. Urgent is “I have to get all this mail off my desk, I have to answer this, I have to do this and that.” The important is faith, family and friends. And don’t forget to smell the roses along the way. Yes, it is a tough time, but roses are still out there. And don’t wallow in self-pity. If you wallow in self-pity you are going to drown. I tell my players, “Just swish your feet a little.” It is OK if you have a little pity for yourself. That is human. But just swish your feet and then get out. And, of course, depend on the Lord. You don’t have control of that situation, but you know who does have control. You don’t know what the future holds, but you know who holds the future. Just run the race strong and press on.
(Photograph courtesy of Special Collections, NCSU Libraries)