Leader of the Pack keeps faith in God
For more than 30 years, women’s basketball coaches have stood on the shoulders of Kay Yow. An undeniable legend in the sport, her bio reads like an excerpt from “College Basketball’s Most Desirable Accomplishments.” But when thumbing through the pages of that biography, note that Yow’s fiercest competitor hasn’t been on the court.
Three times the North Carolina State head coach has been diagnosed with breast cancer, most recently stage IV in November 2006. But likened to any other rival, she has shown up for cancer’s game, determined to fight.
STV’s Susie Magill: You have been through a lot these past two years with a cancer relapse and extensive chemotherapy. What has God taught you through this battle?
Kay Yow: He is definitely working on my character to a deeper degree. There is no question about that. You have a chance to become a stronger person—a more Christ-like person—while you are going through it. And on top of that, you turn around and you are being blessed in so many ways.
On road games there are still people who applaud when I come on the court. There are still people who come to get my autograph, to get pictures, and I sometimes feel like I need to be focused on what I am doing. But recently, a gentleman came down right in front of the bench on the floor and wanted to have a picture taken, so we did. He thanked me for doing it, just for taking the time. And I thought that if it meant that much to him, I’m glad I did it.
SM: You also were presented with the inaugural Jimmy V ESPY for Perseverance. Tell me about the night of the ESPYs.
KY: It was an unbelievable evening. It is remarkable, sort of like a phenomenon, that out of battling stage IV cancer, I received that blessing. There are so many blessings that have come as a result of this battle. I saw it when I was up there receiving that award. [I wouldn’t have been there] had it not been for battling cancer. So, your heart overflows with joy and praise to God that He could take something like cancer, while you are battling it, and use it.
SM: You’ve also teamed up with the Jimmy V Foundation to form the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. What is your goal for that?
KY: We will be working with women’s initiatives with cancer. And it’s a way for coaches all around the country to unite and do events to raise money for cancer research. As coaches, we always compete against each other, and now we have the opportunity to do something together for a cause that we all believe in.
SM: You worked with Jim Valvano at N.C. State for 10 years. What did you learn from watching him and his battle with cancer that has helped you with your own?
KY: Jim had passion, and he was funny. He was creative and a strategist. He was flexible. He showed that in so many ways in how he worked with his team. And for me, I know God is very creative. And I know that with Him, nothing is impossible. When I was watching Jim’s team play and the changes he made, I felt like anything could happen. And that was with man. But it is so above and beyond with God, because with Him everything is possible.
SM: Have you ever wondered why cancer happened to you?
KY: I’ve never questioned why I have cancer. I have an idea, but I know that God has a plan for me, and I just try to trust His plan and what it is that He wants me to do. That is the main thing.
I do know that He loves me, and that it is a love that is deep. I know He wants the best for me. I feel sort of fortunate to even get a little bit of an answer. I wouldn’t expect one, but I don’t want to miss what He wants me to get out of all of this.
SM: What do you think that is? What do you think He wants you to get out of this?
KY: I think it’s a lot about developing character and becoming more Christ-like through it all. I know that it is about Him giving me much encouragement through His Word, and I know that He would have me give encouragement to others, which I try to do often.
I wrote a letter to a guy who was diagnosed with cancer in July who just passed away in December. His people wanted me to write to him because they wanted him to be saved. I wrote to him and sent him a booklet on four spiritual laws, and I was told that at his viewing, my letter was there in a frame. So, I have had many opportunities to help people as a result of this battle.
SM: Are you ever scared?
KY: I think the first year you have cancer, it is a shock. But the main thing is, if I let myself focus on the negative aspect of it, the fear would be there. To me, my whole thing is to never let my mind focus that way. If something negative enters my mind, I push it out. I focus on God because then God becomes big and the problem becomes small. But, if I focus on the problem, the problem becomes big and God becomes small. So, I know what I need to focus on anytime I start to doubt.
I have to tell you this. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, even the second time and at the beginning of the third time, I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted them to send me anything: everything on the Internet, articles–anything, just send it to me. But one day, I heard a statistic of people who had metastatic cancer, that the average length of time they live after being diagnosed is three years. At that point, I didn’t want to know anything else.
Now, I don’t read anything about it. Most of all I just focus on the Lord, my job here and my treatments. Because if that is an average, then somebody had to be way up there and someone way over there to get it to that average.
SM: What do you do to keep your joy?
KY: I talk with other people, and I encourage them to be positive. I try to share my faith with them. And if you have faith in God, He is so powerful and so strong. He can give you strength; He can give you peace; He can give you joy. And that’s where it’s coming from for me. You can try to get it from other places, and you can get it to a certain extent, but it’s nothing like what you can get from Him.
SM: You have been active within FCA for quite some time. When did you first get involved?
KY: It was here at N.C. State. When I first arrived here, they had a pretty powerful FCA group and were very active. So, I would just go over to the meetings. It was a great place because it was a strong organization.
SM: And you have worked at FCA Camps as well?
KY: Yes, my first was at Black Mountain (FCA Camp in North Carolina), and I loved working at that camp. It was a beautiful setting. You could feel God’s presence more so because you were focused on Him totally all day. There were great speakers and so many great activities. It was very special.
I also have worked an Estes Park (Colo.) camp for one week and several in Marshall, Ind. I worked there a number of years and would get people together and drive a van from North Carolina to Marshall so other people could go who couldn’t afford a flight. We had many great times working with the young people and coaches. I enjoyed every experience, and I gained so much from each one.
It’s like a mountain-top experience. It’s hard to hold it, but it is great to go there and get filled. Then when you leave, you know there are certain things that you have to continue to do, like being in God’s Word and praying to maintain what you have attained while you were there.
SM: How has FCA helped you be a better coach?
KY: With all the materials they put out. With all the camps, the conferences–everything. You just pick up the materials, like Sharing the Victory, and you read the articles. You can always read it and get an idea or two that you try to put in place for yourself, for your team or for your coaching.
And at the Women’s Final Four, they have an FCA Breakfast and times where coaches have the option of meeting with each other to discuss topics and encourage each other. You can meet other coaches who are strong in the faith or who are seeking, and you have an opportunity to talk and share.
SM: How do you live out your faith in front of your players?
KY: Well, I think it has to be with the words I use, my actions, my response to things that happen. I have to really be concerned about being even-keeled. I am working on not getting too high with the highs and too low with the lows—being consistent for them. And just to treat them the way I would want to be treated.
I also try to see them for who they can become, not just for who they are now. You have to have that vision and believe in them so that you can help them believe in themselves. Many people have done above and beyond because somebody else believed in them.
SM: What goals do you have for your team?
KY: Obviously, I would like to win another Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. We haven’t won one in quite some time. We would love to go back to another Final Four. And we would like to have a shot at a national championship. That will always be a goal of ours.
You can never count any team out. If there is a doubt there, then they are not as free, not as loose, and they don’t play the same. But, if you have players who believe—they are truly confident, and they really believe—then they can do it.
SM: Is that what happened in 2007 with your team beating both North Carolina and Duke?
KY: Yes. They just decided they were going to give everything they had. They were going for the win against North Carolina here and against Duke in the ACC tournament. Those teams were ranked No. 2 and No. 1 in the country. Duke was undefeated. Nobody would have said we would have won that game. But it was just something about the team. They believed that if they tried really hard, it might happen. And it did.
When a whole team is acting as one, it is incredible what they can do. It is above and beyond anything that we can imagine. And it happens so seldom. I wish I knew how to get it. I could probably make a lot of money if I knew that. I could bottle it.
SM: Did their determination on the court inspire you?
KY: I just saw it like that was what they could give to me. They didn’t know if it was going to end in wins, but they could put everything they had on the court. They had nagging injuries, they had things they were dealing with, but they put them aside. They were like, “Coach Yow is battling stage IV cancer; I can play on with this. This is nothing.”
That is the attitude they had: to go out and give every ounce of what was in their bodies. It lifted me up greatly. I could see they knew what my battle was all about. They could see I was really persevering with God’s help and giving my best effort. And with God’s help, they were giving everything they had.
I enjoyed watching them from the bench. I had a joy within me when I watched them play because they had a purpose. They were so motivated. It was a desire within their hearts to be the best they could be, and it was so genuine and so real. It is another praise that I had the opportunity to be a part of that kind of team.