U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2009 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE

FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
Kay Yow did it her way to the very end
Lew Freedman, Basketball Times

Just living. That's what Kay Yow always said she was doing. Just living her life being the best basketball coach she could be.

But for the last two decades just living was a struggle, a war of survival and attrition. Just living was an achievement. Yow just living, as breast cancer sapped her and wearied her, drained her and wounded her, became an inspiration for others, and when they told her that, it made her feel better for a bit.

Yow was a strong woman whose strength did not stem from bench-pressing weights, doing push-ups or running marathons. No, what made her special was the toughness that comes from within, from the heart and mind, from the will. Woman against cancer: always a mismatch. Some people believe cancer will finish every season undefeated. Until she died at age 66 in January, on a leave of absence from her North Carolina State team, she had played to a tie for 21 years.

From the moment she became ill, Yow bargained for a larger share of life, a time extension to impart more wisdom to young basketball players, to mold young girls into women. Yow was a Hall of Fame coach. She won more than 700 games, earned 20 NCAA Tournaments berths in her 38 years of coaching at N.C. State and Elon and coached the U.S. Olympic team to the 1988 gold medal. Not bad given that Sandra Kay Yow took up coaching so that she could secure a high school teaching job.

Those were the tangibles, what the numbers read, what the record books say. Yet really they are secondary. Yow's spirit was measured by how she rose above her affliction again and again with the greatest of dignity. That intangible touched those from the players on her own squad to the casual fan thousands of miles distant barely aware that her school was located in Raleigh, N.C.

The Kay Yows of our world do not choose their circumstances. They are in the path of a hurricane. Given the seriousness of her illness and the recurring nature of the cancer, it might have been easier for Yow to retire. Instead, she persevered, to lead on, to teach. Perseverance in much lesser forms is to be admired. Perseverance in the face of an obstacle determined to slap you down, to steal your life, is worthy of applause. Perseverance is tolerating debilitating chemotherapy treatments as a deal with the devil, or the Lord.

As time passed, as relapses took on more ominous overtones, Yow became more visible in the noble fight to conquer an insidious disease that afflicts our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 182,500 breast-cancer cases were diagnosed and an estimated 40,500 breast-cancer deaths occurred in the United States in 2008.

Never has awareness of breast cancer been higher. In dozens of cities across the nation women of all ages and all speeds run or walk in the offspring of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, raising millions of dollars annually for breast-cancer research. Breast-cancer survivors in those races are often identified by the pink baseball caps they wear as they cover the miles of the course. In a very public way, they say, "Yes I Can."

So did Kay Yow, who accented the jacket of the street clothes she wore on the bench with a breast-cancer awareness ribbon. Her players added one more hue to the North Carolina State team's red and white colors and one more piece of apparel they wore pink shoelaces. Yow lent her name and energy to cancer fund-raising for research that might save members of future generations. Don't get mad, get even, was the lesson of such work.

From the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, Yow's was an odyssey of pain, fear and courage. As we know, athletic courage is regularly mislabeled. This was the real deal. It took courage for Yow to keep coming to the court named after her in 2007 in Reynolds Coliseum. It took courage to keep coming back as her body repeatedly betrayed her.

It seemed unfair that this white-haired woman was so beleaguered. But Yow did not complain and said she knew others coped with worse. "Almost everyone is dealing with something," she said simply.

That was a brave stance, though Yow was the last person who would say so. None of us know how we would act if confronted with an unthinkable threat to our own lives. We would like to believe we would behave with the same type of grace under pressure Yow displayed. But we just don't know. We can't know unless so tested.

We only know that a woman stricken with a horrible illness acted remarkably for a remarkably long time, undertaking a solitary fight in a very public way that only enhances the memory of how she lived.

At the end of her life, cancer had spread to Yow's liver and bones. Less than three days before she died, she mustered her energy for an upbeat visit with her team at WakeMed Cary Hospital. As a gift, the players brought a fuchsia teddy bear wearing a pink hat, a pink ribbon, and carrying a pink purse loaded with get-well notes. Yow laughed more than cried with her last team. One player said, "I know she wanted to cry a river, but it was more like a little pond."

Yow did it her way to the end. During the 90-minute funeral at Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, N.C., at the end of January, where many wore pink, a 25-minute video of a smiling Yow was shown. She had filmed it nine months earlier, apparently with the knowledge that this time, cancer was going to win.

It did, on Jan. 24. It was a loss for all of us. The greatest loss, however, is for the mothers and fathers of terrific high-school basketball players because they will no longer have the chance to lend their daughters to Kay Yow for four years.

Second place: Gary Parrish, cbssports.com
Third place: David Teel, Newport News Daily Press
Fourth place: Tom Archdeacon, Dayton Daily News
Fifth place: John Feinstein, Washington Post