Yow, Valvano Overcame Cancer to Inspire

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Yow, Valvano Overcame Cancer to Inspire
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I wrote this magazine-style feature in February 2009, speaking with three people who were close with Kay Yow and Jim Valvano. 

 

Walking was no longer an option for Everett Case, so his players raised him from his courtside wheelchair and carried him onto the Reynolds Coliseum floor in Raleigh, N.C. The disease had forced him to give up his coaching position early in the season, though he made it to games when he was able. 

He was there, sitting on press row, failing in health. The NC State squad he had been in charge of was taking on a top-five team in Duke. Case’s Wolfpack entered the 1965 ACC tournament after a so-so regular season, and Duke was the heavy favorite to win the conference. 

But March 6, 1965, was one of those able days for Case.  

The Wolfpack ripped the nets that day. Behind a 30-point performance from tournament MVP Larry Worsley, NC State took down almighty Duke, 91-85. When the final buzzer echoed through the gymnasium, Case found himself floating in the hoop’s direction. He was physically lifted by his players, just as he had lifted them emotionally with his battle. The last strand of twine hanging from that faded orange rim was his to cut, to keep. 

“He’s the guy who brought cutting down the nets to college basketball,” says GoPack.com managing editor Tim Peeler, who has covered NC State basketball since the early 1980s. “That was a high school basketball thing. Nobody really did it, but every time his team had a special win, he would let them cut down the nets.” 

A year later, Case was dead. Family, players and faculty were devastated, not just because Case was an exceptional human being. He had brought basketball to the coast of the Carolinas, an agricultural region dominated by football. He had been good at it, too, winning 12 championships in 16 years. “People tend to forget some of the things that he did,” Peeler says. 

The reason people tend to forget is because of Kay Yow and Jim Valvano, two of the most recognizable figures in the history of basketball in the Old North State. 

Yow inherited not only women’s basketball upon arrival at NC State in 1975, but volleyball and softball as well. She had so much preparing to do, and so little time to do it. So, she improvised. “She made all of her basketball players, most of whom had never played volleyball in their lives, play on the volleyball team,” Peeler says. “Taught them how to play the game. They ended up with a winning record.” 

Like Case, Yow was instrumental in pioneering roundball in North Carolina. After the passing of Title IX just three years prior to Yow getting the job, she immediately got to work. Her teams won an average of 25 games per season in her first five years, winning the ACC title in 1980. Winning early and often launched the women’s program to the nation’s elite. 

The year the Wolfpack women claimed the ACC title was the year Valvano, a witty, 34- year-old New Yorker, assumed the men’s head coaching role in Raleigh. 

Like Yow, Valvano had to exhaustively watch game film in the darkness of his office for hours at a time, but it was worth it. His 1982-83 team was not living up to expectations during the regular season, even losing six of eight games at one point. To salvage the season was to make the NCAA tournament, and that could only be done by winning the ACC tournament in early March.

Valvano’s squad did just that. Nail-biting wins over Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia punched NC State’s ticket to the Big Dance, keeping the ultimate goal in sight. April 4, 1983, was the day the gift was delivered. 

The clock ticked to below five seconds, and with NC State and Houston knotted up at 52, senior Dereck Whittenburg hoisted a desperate 30-footer. The air was vacuumed from the building in anticipation, but Lorenzo Charles saw the ball was clearly tracking right of the basket. The 6-foot-7 forward met it on its descent and carefully dunked it just before the horn sounded. 

Anyone who closely follows college basketball knows what happened next. Valvano was so shocked and excited at once that he ran aimlessly around halfcourt before finding his players under the winning basket. 

“I wrote a book about the 1983 championship team,” Peeler says. “We put a lot of memories and interviews from that team into that book.” 

Over the next four years, Yow would lead her team to three Sweet 16 appearances while Valvano’s squad won one ACC title. Winning consistently had become as ordinary as the native oak trees. However, there would soon be bumps along Tobacco Road. 

Valvano was really close with Maryland standout forward Len Bias, who was selected by the Boston Celtics with the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft. If not for the uneasiness of Bias’ mom over how far away her son would be from home, he would have played for Valvano.

Two days after the draft, Bias died unexpectedly, taken by a cocaine overdose. Valvano was knee-deep in summer basketball camps, leaving him oblivious to what happened. Peeler got the tragic news over the AP ticker and knew what he had to do. He made the panicky drive to campus, where he would inform Valvano of Bias’ passing. 

“He really broke down after that,” Peeler says. “It was a real hard thing to do because he was so close. He felt that way with so many of his players, not just his players, but other players he had a connection with. I’ll never forget that day I had to go tell him that.” 

Just a year later, Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she suffered, so did her team, compiling a career-worst 10-17 record. Yow was a private person, but because of her coaching success and personal battle she was forced to live a public life. 

“It was never her intention to talk about herself and her situation,” says Sarah Reese, a graduate assistant who coached with Yow. “If she needed to talk about cancer in order to raise support for the cause, or in terms of encouraging other survivors, she would talk about cancer for those reasons.” 

Two years after Yow’s cancer discovery, the NC State men’s basketball program found itself in deep trouble. With graduation rates already flagging, NCAA investigators found that NC State players had been improperly selling game tickets and shoes, and placed the program on probation. Valvano, acting as athletic director in addition to coach, was cleared of wrongdoing, but was ultimately forced to resign in 1989. 

He rebounded with a gig as a short-term broadcast analyst for a while, and in June of 1992, he was informed he had more in common with Yow than just being a basketball coach at the same university. He had cancer, too. 

“I had heard about it through some players,” says Ernie Myers, who played for Valvano in the mid-1980s. “It was just kind of devastating and not wanting him to have to go through that.” 

Like Yow’s worst season, Valvano’s firing had become trivial. He knew the difficulties of everyday life for Yow, so raising money for the cause was his new mission. 

On March 4, 1993, just short of a year after being diagnosed, Valvano delivered a rousing speech upon winning the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the ESPYs. His battle with cancer was clear at this point, a final game where there would be no upset, except in the hearts of North Carolinians. His health, like Case’s, was failing rapidly, and he had to be gingerly assisted to the stage by two honored friends. 

“I saw him on the ESPN awards and having to be helped onto the stage by coach Mike Krzyzewski and Dick Vitale,” Myers says. “I knew it was really bad.” 

Once at the podium, an enthusiastic Valvano acted as a lector. He preached to the Madison Square Garden audience to laugh, think and cry every day. ESPN college football analyst Lou Holtz, then head coach at Notre Dame, was seen laughing at Valvano’s story about pregame pep talks. 

ESPN’s Chris Berman was shown grinning, then, no more than a couple seconds later, he was fighting the tears. He was thinking, deeply. The camera caught former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann openly crying as Valvano received roars of applause upon beginning his sermon. In just under 10 minutes, Valvano had already accomplished his goal for the day. He had made coaches, broadcasters and players laugh, think and cry.

Not only was the speech inspiring, but it was groundbreaking, as Valvano announced the creation of the V Foundation, an organization that is widely successful today in raising money for cancer research. 

Less than two months later, Valvano died. Remembered were his encouraging words, his smile despite the inevitability of death and his aimless gallop on that Albuquerque hardwood in 1983. Not forgotten, but pushed to the backs of people’s minds, were the mishaps while he led the basketball program. 

“She (Yow) could never have imagined they would be battling the same thing one day and have the opportunity to work together even after his death toward the same cause,” Reese says. 

Over the next 14 years, Yow remained as the women’s coach, winning more and more games and earning a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2001. 

In May 2006, something more romantic than individual accolades happened because of Yow’s benevolence. Myers was in attendance for Sidney Lowe’s introduction as men’s head coach, where he sat with Yow on the front row of the media room. She introduced him to the woman sitting in the opposite seat, Annabelle Vaughan, the assistant athletic director. Myers and Vaughan hit it off, wasting no time furthering the relationship. 

“We had a lot in common and through those conversations we wound up getting married five months later,” Myers says. 

Yow continued her bout with cancer, and in 2007 established the Kay Yow Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Cancer Fund, a partner with the V Foundation. 

Yow had hired Reese to handle day-to-day basketball operations in August 2008. Though she only knew Yow six months, her impact was life-changing. Most of their time spent together was off the court, Yow crippled by a lack of energy. Reese’s top memory of Yow came during Bible studies. 

Yow was not able to attend very often because of the public life she lived, but she always found time to get caught up on the day’s lessons. She would ask Reese what verses were read and how the discussion went. “I know that her heart was there even though her schedule wouldn’t allow it,” Reese says. 

By January 2009, Yow could not do much of anything. She was in the hospital most of the month, losing energy by the minute. The coaching staff got to see her, Reese says, and that the prognosis was bleak. When the players finally got to see her, she was awake and alert, actually sitting up in a chair wearing fresh pajamas. She spoke to her team about recent games, practices and everything else going on in their lives for nearly half an hour. 

“I’m sure at that time she knew it was the last time she would speak to the team,” Reese says. “I don’t think any of them really knew that. She certainly did, and it was just amazing to see her in such a turnaround in order to be there for them one last time.” 

Just a few days later, Yow was gone. The next five games went how most have gone for the Wolfpack, beating the teams they should and losing to the superior ones. 

A Feb. 15 home game against No. 15 Virginia was thought to follow suit. But it was “Hoops 4 Hope” day at Reynolds Coliseum, an event honoring Yow to raise money for breast cancer. 

Dressed in glossy pink uniforms, NC State beat its first nationally-ranked opponent of the season, 60-54, in front of the lone sold-out crowd for a women’s game. “To have all those people here in support of something was really Coach Yow’s dream,” Reese says. “I think if you’re not inspired by that, then I don’t know what can inspire you.” 

Case’s 1965 team was not supposed to take down Duke in the ACC tournament. Valvano’s 1983 squad was not even thought of as an NCAA tournament participant, much less as a champion. Yow’s 2009 group was not supposed to beat a far superior team, even if the game was at home in front of a sold-out crowd.

For each, the bigger battle would be fought outside the white lines. The players were fiercely competing for their leader, the coach who had given them an opportunity, advice and an education, all for free. “It all sort of interconnects,” Peeler says. “It’s hard to believe.” 

With his closing words at the ESPYs, Valvano said cancer could take away all his physical abilities. He said it could not touch his mind, heart or soul. His inspiration, as well as Yow’s, unquestionably touched the minds, hearts and souls of all those who had the privilege of knowing them. 

“Both of them are greatly missed around here for sure,” Reese says. 

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