RALEIGH -- Charles Hursey attended grades one through 12 with Kay Yow in the mill town of Gibsonville near Burlington. He knew she was a straight-A student and a great athlete who once scored 52 points in a high school basketball game. But Hursey, who now owns Hursey's Bar-B-Q & Catering in Burlington, remembers one thing about his classmate that puzzled him. It was something the coach of Gibsonville's boys and girls basketball teams, the late Paul Pryor, said when they were in the 11th grade.
"He said Kay Yow is going to make history in basketball," Hursey said. "I remember him saying that because I was thinking, 'How can a girl do anything in basketball?' "
In 1959, it was a good question. Kay Yow's life provides an extraordinary answer.
In 32 seasons as a women's college basketball coach, the last 28 at N.C. State University, Yow has been at the forefront of a vast expansion of women's athletics and a broadening acceptance of women as athletes.
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Yow coached her first college basketball team at Elon College in 1971-72, a year before the passage of Title IX, the federal law requiring equal opportunity for athletes of both sexes. Since then, the number of girls playing high school sports has risen from 290,000 to 2.8 million. Of today's 315 Division I women's basketball programs, only 82 existed when Yow started.
Title IX set off a revolution and found in Yow an unlikely revolutionary.
Yow has won more than 600 games, taught basketball to thousands of girls in clinics and camps, coached 12 All-America players, guided women to professional leagues, taken N.C. State to the 1998 Final Four, been named a national coach of the year by various groups and publications and led the first U.S. women's victory over the Soviet Union at the 1986 Goodwill Games. She coached the U.S. women to gold medals at the 1986 World Basketball Championship and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the only women's coach to win both.
This year, Yow, 60, reached the pinnacle of a basketball career. On Sept. 27, she was inducted into the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Enshrined there are 246 individuals and five teams. Only 17 are women.
Just five are female coaches.
In coaching more than 900 college games, Yow has paced at courtside for thousands of hours, but her work elsewhere exhibits equal energy, dedication and leadership. She has served for 12 years with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, including a year as its president. As a coach for USA Basketball, the sport's governing body, she has guided the nation's elite players to a record of 21-1 in international play.
Years of playing and coaching also prepared Yow for a struggle against what she called her toughest foe, breast cancer. Diagnosed in August 1987, she underwent a partial radical mastectomy and had lymph nodes removed from her right side. She recovered in time to coach the 1988 Olympic women's basketball team.
As a breast cancer survivor, Yow has used her fame to raise money for cancer research. She was honorary chairwoman of an effort that raised more than $1 million for the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a board member of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization founded in memory of N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano.
In November, Yow helped launch a women's version of the V Foundation's popular men's tournament, the Jimmy V Classic. The nationally televised event at Raleigh's RBC Center featured three of the nation's best women's teams --Duke, Connecticut and Tennessee -- and raised close to $100,000 for the V Foundation.
For Yow, the goal in life isn't what she can gain, but what she can give.
"That's what I'm thinking it's completely about. Life was a gift to me -- what have I given to life?" Yow said in her campus office, surrounded by the mementos of past seasons and the photos of her players and their children.
"I need to make a difference in the lives of other people," she said. "If I'm not doing that, I've missed the whole point of my gift of life."
Born to play hoops
Yow's journey from Gibsonville to Springfield is a measure of how much opportunity has expanded for women in athletics. But her accomplishments grew out of the athleticism in her past.
Kay's mother, Elizabeth, known as Lib, and two of her sisters played basketball at Gibsonville High School, and Lib went on to play in the Piedmont textile mill leagues. Kay's father, Hilton Yow, a former machinist with Lorillard, the Greensboro tobacco company, also played mill basketball and had two brothers who played semipro baseball. His cousin, Virgil, was basketball coach at High Point College and led the Hanes Hosiery women's basketball and softball teams to three national titles.
Kay Yow enjoyed sports with her family's full enthusiasm, but when she graduated from Gibsonville in 1960 as a basketball star, she surrendered her playing career without complaint. She went on to East Carolina University, studied English and library science and planned to be a teacher or librarian.
Like most colleges at the time, ECU didn't have a women's basketball team. Yow saw nothing unfair in that.
"It's just something I accepted when I was growing up, that the opportunity to play wasn't there past high school," she said. "I didn't think anything about it. I grew up at time when you answered questions, you didn't question answers."
But others were questioning. In nearby Greensboro, young black men sat down at a lunch counter in 1960 to demand service. Attitudes toward women's rights were changing, too. A movement was being born that would push back the barriers of social custom and athletic funding that blocked the athletic careers of Yow and thousands of other girls whose gifts went unnoticed or, once developed, could not be put to use.
"The potential was there," Yow said, "but it just went to the grave."
Yow unknowingly entered the movement to tap that potential when she sought a job teaching at Allen Jay High School in High Point in 1964. The principal, A. Doyle Early, had seen Yow's high school basketball prowess and wanted a successful girls team. He told Yow he would hire her if she would also coach basketball. Yow said she didn't know how to coach. He said he would get her help and advice. She accepted.
That was Yow's last tentative step as a coach. She read books on coaching and talked to other coaches, and in her first season, the Blue Jays went 22-3 and won the conference title.
Yow was 92-27 in four years at Allen Jay and one year at Gibsonville. In 1970, she went on to Elon College, where she coached both her sisters, Debbie and Susan, and built a record of 57-19.
In 1975, Willis Casey, N.C. State's athletics director, wanted to get a head start on the requirements of Title IX. He told his assistant, Frank Weedon, to find a woman to oversee women's sports, especially the basketball team, which had played only one season.
Weedon called Smith Barrier, sports editor of the Greensboro Daily News. Barrier gave him the name of a woman with whom he had appeared on panel discussions about women in sports --the women's basketball coach at Elon. Yow came in and spoke with Casey. He interviewed no one else.
Yow doesn't remember what the job paid. She thinks it was less than $10,000, but for the first time she didn't have to teach, and the job included a car. She gave her aging VW Bug to her mother, who later said she was liberated by the first car of her own.
Today, Yow earns $175,000 in base salary -- the same as NCSU men's basketball coach Herb Sendek. Her overall compensation, including use of a new Ford Explorer and a Nike shoe contract, is worth about $275,000.
Yow didn't get to this level by her own design. Principal Early had persuaded her to coach. Teachers at UNC-Greensboro, where she earned a master's in physical education, pushed her to take the job at Elon. Barrier got her name to Casey.
The way Yow moved up reveals the way she is. She's ambitious for her teams, not herself.
"All my life has been like that," Yow said. "I never sought to go anywhere. It's always been somebody else's idea."
Consumed by coaching
When not coaching basketball, Yow watches it. She has floor seats for the WNBA's Charlotte Sting games. Some weekends, she said, she has watched parts of as many as 17 games on TV, sometimes watching two at once using a split screen. If she had more free time, Yow would indulge her enjoyment of water-skiing and bowling. The only other sport she plays, mostly in charity events, is golf, though she has picked up the tab to take her staff to Pinehurst to play the famed No. 2 course.
Yow, still the English major, has filled her condominium in the Prestonwood development in Cary with classics collected though a book club. Her favorite author is John Maxwell, and she enjoys going to plays at Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium and the Raleigh Little Theatre. These days she reads mostly Christian-related and motivational books, including those by the coach she admires most, former UCLA coach John Wooden.
"If you're going to motivate others, you have to stay rekindled and refueled yourself," Yow said.
The coach needs plenty of fuel. She does a lot of motivating, not only in talks to her teams, but in speaking before church and secular groups.
Yow's speech is peppered with motivational aphorisms, such as, "If life kicks you, let it kick you forward" or "Successful people don't go through life, they grow through life."
In Gibsonville, the high school gym stands across the street from Gibsonville United Methodist Church, which Yow attended through childhood. She said her life always revolved around two things -- sports and church.
That relationship grew deeper when she arrived at N.C. State and decided, at age 32, to rededicate her life to her Christian faith. Yow attends Cary Alliance Church and is active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a Bible study group.
A woman with dark, expressive eyes, Yow speaks with a Piedmont drawl and country-girl inflection, her words a little halting, folksy and soft-spoken. But in the manner of Gibsonville, where neighbors dropped by unannounced just to catch up, she loves to talk. A reporter's question can bring a five-minute response that meanders as if she's chatting over a backyard fence.
Yet when she's asked about her achievements and her place in the women's game, she struggles for words. "I'm still in the middle if it," she said. "It's very difficult for me to look at it from the outside."
For her induction to the Hall, she was told to write a speech limited to five minutes because television would carry her remarks along with those of her fellow inductees, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Brown, Lute Olson, the late Drazen Petrovic and the Harlem Globetrotters team. Yow's first draft, filled with the names of those who have helped her, was 15 minutes long. She cut most of the names and the speech shrank by two-thirds, but gratitude was still her theme.
"My career," she said in the speech, "has been made possible by many people who have dug wells from which I have drunk and by many who have built fires by which I have been warmed."
Humility can be an overlooked virtue, but Yow exercises it with such persistence, it's her prominent trait. It's more than an attitude. It's a strategy. She believes teams and people succeed by deferring glory and sharing honors.
Trudi Lacey, a 1981 All-America at N.C. State and now an assistant coach with the Sting, decided to come to State after hearing Yow speak at a clinic about the neglected art of passing.
"She made a very good first impression because the subject of her talk was passing, and anybody who can make passing interesting must be good at what they do," Lacey said. "But that is the way her life is, giving the ball to someone else and giving them the opportunity to score."
Susan Yow, who followed her coach from Elon to N.C. State and won Kodak All-America honors at both schools, saw her sister get the most out of talent when she was Kay's assistant coach with the 1988 Olympic team.
Now head women's coach at Providence College, Susan Yow said of that team, "It wasn't a matter of whether we could win -- yes, we were the best team in the world -- but could we keep it together, could we make people happy, could we make sure people understood their roles and accepted their roles?
"[Kay] understood that. She's very good at that. You give Kay a team of equal ability to someone else's team and she will out-coach them nine out of 10 times."
Last season, with key players injured, Yow's team had a rare losing season, 14-15, and her team is off to a shaky start this year, opening 5-5. But a strong recruiting class is coming, drawn largely by the chance to play for Yow.
Stephanie Glance, her associate head coach and lead recruiter, said Yow's reputation is what sells N.C. State to prospects. "To come play for Coach Yow -- hands down -- that is the draw," she said.
Yow consistently builds strong teams that finish ranked in the nation's top 25, but she is still waiting for the mix of great players and freedom from injuries that will get the Pack to the top.
A coach for life
She believes she can find a way there with the approach she has always used: recruit diligently, stress fundamentals, be open to new ideas. She started playing women's basketball when it was six girls to a side, only three could shoot and no player could dribble more than twice. Now she directs a fast-paced, men's-style game that stresses defense and scoring points off turnovers.
"I think one of the reasons I'm still coaching after 38 years is because of my flexibility," Yow said. "I'm just not like, 'This is the only way to do it.' I think there are many ways to do it. "Yet I'd have to say that fundamentals are key to all the ways, and I think team play is fundamental to all the ways."
Players leave N.C. State, but few leave Kay Yow. She remembers their birthdays, sends notes, goes to their weddings. They stop by when in town and call for advice when they're not. Yow's office holds an avalanche of photos of her former players' children. Her players and their children are an extended family for the workaholic coach who never married.
"I swear, if I picked up my phone right now and called her number -- which I know by heart -- she'd answer the phone and say, 'Hey, T, what do you need?' " said Tynesha Lewis, a 2001 graduate now with the WNBA's Houston Comets.
Chasity Melvin, a Kodak All-American at State who plays for the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers, said, "Whenever something happens and it's on TV, she'll call and leave a message on my cell phone. When I was an [WNBA] All-Star, she sent flowers and cookies just to let me know she's still following me."
Former players say Yow never berates anyone in practice. She makes them feel she is as concerned about them as people, not just athletes. The approach is rewarded by loyalty and effort.
Claudia Kreicker Dozier, who played for Yow from 1981 to 1984, said players "want to go through brick walls for her."
Yow is equally attentive to her family. The oldest of four children, she still plays the role of big sister. Her mother died of cancer in 1993. Yow was a constant presence during her illness. In March, Yow's 82-year-old father suffered a stroke. Yow oversees his care.
As an aunt, she dotes on her brother Ronnie's three boys: Jason, 24; Zack, 16; and Dylan, 12, a budding AAU basketball player. She often buys her nephews birthday and Christmas presents and then ends up giving them early and shopping for more.
A few years ago, Jason suffered a head injury in a car accident. When he grew depressed about his condition, Yow called her brother and asked to take Jason to a coaches' meeting in Hawaii.
"[Jason] was not in good shape then," Ronnie Yow said. "He really needed that kind of a boost. That's pretty much how Kay is."
Even a rare occasion when Yow's actions were called into question had a benevolent element. In the summer of 1986 while in Moscow for the Goodwill Games, she was approached by members of an underground Christian group who said they needed Bibles, vitamins and other material to help friends hurt by the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl.
"I don't think anybody who has any compassion, any empathy at all could have met people like that who had such real needs and say, 'No, I'm sorry. I can't help,' " Yow said.
With her U.S. team due back in Moscow in a few weeks for the World Championship games, Yow returned home and collected 100 Bibles and other supplies. After a game in Finland, the team prepared to fly to Moscow. Yow didn't want to bring the Bibles in with the team's luggage because they would be considered contraband.
In what she calls "a kind of a miracle," two men approached her in Finland and volunteered to take the Bibles. Yow later met the pair in the Soviet capital and distributed the books to the Christian group.
A lot like Mayberry
To understand who Yow is, it helps to visit Gibsonville, where her second cousin R. Deleno Flynn is the town manager and Yow returns for the high school reunions every five years.
After her success in the 1988 Olympics, signs went up on roads into town declaring Gibsonville the "Home of Kay Yow." In recent years, a second sign has gone up -- "Home of Torry Holt," honoring the former NCSU football star who plays for the St. Louis Rams.
The local pride reflects a neighborly warmth that's fading as the town of 4,400 grows into a bedroom community for people who work in Greensboro or Burlington. But the town of about 1,500 where Yow was born on March 14, 1942, and grew up during the Eisenhower years was as close to a real Mayberry as North Carolina has.
The shops on Main Street closed at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays so merchants could go to church. Nothing was open on Sundays. Most adults worked at the two textile mills. There was a movie theater and a corner pharmacy with a soda fountain. White children attended grades 1 through 12 in classes of about 50 on a small campus that included the grade school and Gibsonville High.
Sandra Kay Yow -- her mother turned to calling her Kay after hearing her called Sandy and disliking the nickname -- was the first in an athletic line of Yow children.
Yow's brother Ronnie played football at Clemson. Debbie is a former college coach and now, at Maryland, is the first female athletics director in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Susan was a WNBA assistant coach before going to Providence. She still holds the N.C. State record for rebounds in a game, 27.
Kay Yow took her first steps into basketball history behind her modest white-frame home at 607 Dick St., a few blocks from Gibsonville High School. In the back yard stands a homemade, white, wooden basketball goal. It replaced the back yard goal on a telephone pole where young Kay first took aim at a 10-foot-high rim that seemed halfway to the sky.
"My mother said I would play for hours by myself," Yow said. "I was content. You could just put me out there and I would find something to do." She got her own basketball for Christmas when she was 7. By the time she was 8, she needed another.
When the other girls lost interest, she played with the boys. "I realized by the time I was in junior high school that not many girls liked it as much as I did," Yow said. "They liked to play it sometimes. I liked to play all the time."
The Yow sisters, joined by friends and cousins up the street, played in the back yard next to a small house in which Lib Yow ran a beauty shop.
One time when the kids were short a player, Lib Yow, then 48, joined a game, fell backward and broke both wrists. Her daughters had to help her eat and brush her teeth while she recuperated.
With Kay Yow's talent came an intense competitive streak. She wanted to win at everything.
"Somewhere along the line I got some gene for competitiveness, even when I played the piano. I was in a recital and I won a statue of Bach, and I still have it," she said. "I battled right down to the wire to be valedictorian and I lost by a hundredth of a point and was salutatorian. I was always, for whatever reason, driven to be the best I could be."
Dr. Claude Greeson, 59, a retired dentist who edged Yow out for the Class of 1960's valedictorian honors, said of her, "She was that type of individual who would beat you in pingpong or whatever she took a notion to. She'd take the boys on and beat them in about any sport it was."
Yow gets involved in games with such intensity it's sometimes comical. Her aunt Annie Yow remembers how young Kay -- who grew up a Tar Heel fan --watched a UNC championship game.
"She started out sitting in the chair," Annie Yow said. "Then she got up on the arm of the chair, and when the game was over she was sitting up on the back of the chair."
During N.C. State games and practices, Yow still gyrates. Former State player Jennifer Howard said the coach sometimes got so close to the action she would get knocked over in practice.
"I have never seen anybody quite so into what is happening on the court," Howard said. "Sometimes, people may have to pull her back because she doesn't realize that she's on the court."
A few years ago, when teaching her 6-foot-6 center Summer Erb a power move, the 5-7 coach was bumped backward and, like her mother, broke her left wrist. Erb cried at her coach's injury, but Yow finished practice before going for X-rays.
But for all her intensity, Yow said, she's never bitter about a loss.
"I learned at an early age to compete with people -- not against people," she said. "I've never had a [losing] feeling to a point that I couldn't be happy for somebody else. I feel God has blessed me with that ability.
"I do not feel that comes from myself. I'm really grateful to him that I can have that kind of feeling because I feel if you didn't, it could just gnaw at you when you don't do well."
But she still dwells on a loss, reviews it, learns from it.
Debbie Yow said her sister's desire to win has kept her sharp. "Kay doesn't like to lose," Debbie Yow said. "So, generally, if she loses, she's about the business of finding out how she can keep that from happening again. So many coaches as they roll through the years lose that focus and energy. I don't see that in Kay."
For all her success, Yow has yet to win the national title that would crown her career. For many of her players, it's a gift they regret they couldn't give.
Dozier named her first daughter Lydia Kay after her coach. She hopes her daughter will have the same passion for her life's work.
Dozier recalled a glimpse of what sustains her coach during a gloomy bus ride in 1984 after the Wolfpack was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by an overtime loss to Old Dominion. Dozier found Yow reading a complicated-looking book on coaching and thought, "Oh, give it a blow," but she knew the coach never tired of the game.
Then she spoke to Yow about the loss. As she recalled the scene, Dozier's voice cracked. "Even 20 years later, there's still a lot of emotion," she said. "I told her I was so sorry that during our four years we hadn't gotten her a national title. She just looked at me and said, 'Claudia, you gave me so much more than that.'
"That just melted me."
And, in a way no championship could, it answered what the years, the players and pioneering coaches such as Yow have rendered no longer a question -- how a girl can do anything in basketball.