Kay Yow started the “Hoops 4 Hope” game to raise money for cancer research in 2006.
The concept has grown into “Play 4Kay,” which has helped raise millions of dollars for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. “Play 4Kay” has spread from annual women’s college basketball games to Oregon football to rec league soccer.
At its essence, the initiative conceived by the late N.C. State women’s basketball coach is still about hope and the people who will attend Sunday’s 10th annual Hoops 4 Hope game between N.C. State and Duke.
Wolfpack fan and breast cancer survivor Jane Pope will be at Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday, just as she was the first nine Hoops 4 Hope games.
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When Pope was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, her first thought was about the survivors march at halftime of every Hoops 4 Hope game. Every year, dozens of women, organized by the number of years they have survived with breast cancer, come out onto the court.
“It’s very inspirational,” said Pope, 64, who lives in Cary. “ It just makes you feel like it’s going to be OK.”
Pope and her sister, Judy Gilbert, will take part in the march at halftime Sunday. It’s the kind of support and inspiration Yow envisioned when she was trying to come up with a way to help raise awareness for breast cancer and money for cancer research.
As Yow said in an interview with the News & Observer in 2002: “Life was a gift to me – what have I given to life?
“I need to make a difference in the lives of other people. If I’m not doing that, I’ve missed the whole point of my gift of life.”
Yow won 680 games at N.C. State and Elon and led the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1988. She has a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for her basketball accomplishments.
Her long fight against breast cancer exceeded her coaching accomplishments. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and had three different bouts with the disease in the last 22 years of her life. She died on Jan. 24, 2009.
The Kay Yow Cancer Fund, with the help of the popularity of the “Play 4Kay” concept, has raised more than $3.9 million for cancer research since 2007, according to Sue Donohoe, the executive director of the fund.
Donohoe left her longtime job with the NCAA in 2011 to work full-time with the fund, whose office is in Raleigh, near PNC Arena. She has helped the “Play 4Kay” concept grow exponentially, with thousands of different events, at almost every level in several sports, to help raise money.
“You name it, we have folks who will play to benefit Kay,” Donohoe said.
For the past two years, Oregon’s football program has had the highest-profile event for the fund. The Ducks, known for their sartorial diversity, wear special pink and black helmets and then auction the helmets for the fund. The Oregon auction raised more than $225,000 this year, Donohoe said.
It is rewarding, Donohoe said, to see how the “Play 4Kay” movement has spread to so many corners of the sports world.
“It was never about Kay,” Donohoe said. “She wanted the fund to help others. She was so genuine and authentic in her care for other folks. This is their chance to return the gift.”
That the “Play 4Kay” initiative started at N.C. State with “Hoops 4 Hope” does make Sunday’s game more special, Wolfpack women’s coach Wes Moore said.
Moore spent two seasons as an assistant to Yow in the 1990s. His teams at Chattanooga participated in “Play 4Kay” games, but last year was his first “Hoops 4 Hope” game.
“They’re all meaningful,” Moore said of the Play 4Kay games, “but none of them are quite as special as this because of coach Yow.
“She always fought the battle with dignity and grace, and she wanted to leave a legacy of trying to find a cure and raising awareness.”
Pope and her sister, both breast cancer survivors, are the embodiment of that legacy. Pope and her husband, Pat, still regularly attend N.C. State women’s games.
The Hoops 4 Hope game, though, is Pope’s own way of paying it forward. The pregame silent auction goes to help the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, as does a portion of the ticket sales. But the halftime ceremony is the reason Pope will be back on Sunday.
“I always think that there’s somebody in the stands like me – in the next week or next month – will learn they have cancer,” Pope said. “This will inspire them, like it did me.”