Kay Yow was seven years old when she got her first basketball.
She actually wanted a bicycle – which she also got that Christmas – but basketball was already an integral part of her family. Both her parents, who worked in the hosiery mills in Burlington, N.C., played in adult leagues around town.
“Their love for basketball is the reason that I got my first basketball,” Yow once told an interviewer with UNC’s Oral History of the South program.
“However, there was never any pressure for me to actually use it or work at any kind of skills. It was just for fun and something they enjoyed, so I'm sure they thought I might enjoy it as well.”
Yow’s parents were right. Not only did she enjoy the game, Yow embarked on a career in basketball that spanned four decades.
One of her crowning achievements came on Sept. 29, 1988, when she coached the United States women’s team to Olympic gold with a 77-70 victory over Yugoslavia in South Korea.
After the victory, the heavily favored Americans donned t-shirts that read: Sole Goal – Seoul Gold. The undefeated U.S. team twice topped 100 points during that Olympics, including in a semifinal victory over the USSR, a team the Americans had never beaten in Olympic competition.
In recognition of that accomplishment, Yow, who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, has been named the organization’s September Member of the Month.
Yow started her career as an English teacher and basketball coach at Allen Jay High School in High Point, N.C. After earning her master’s degree in physical education from UNC Greensboro, Yow went to work at Elon College in 1970, where she coached for the next four years.
The rest of Yow’s career was spent at her beloved N.C. State, where she coached the Wolfpack to five Atlantic Coast Conference regular season titles, four ACC tournament championships and 20 NCAA appearances.
Yow, who became a tireless advocate for women’s athletics, crusading for increased funding and media coverage, compiled a record of 737-344 as a head coach. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and became just the fifth female coach to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Even so, Yow never thought of herself as a pioneer.
“I think I was just trying to survive, trying to get better,” Yow said in the Oral History of the South interview. “I'm big on people not just getting by, but getting better. Trying to improve, because it's through improvement that one has a chance for success and a team has a chance to win. You have to continually improve. So I was always focused on learning. I know learning is a lifetime process.”
The 1988 Olympics marked Yow’s fourth stint as the head coach of United States in international competition. It also came less than a year after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease she battled with the same fervor by which she campaigned for equal opportunities for female athletes.
In July of 2007, six months before she died at the age of 66, Yow received the first Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance, named after her friend and fellow Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano. Yow, who planned her own funeral which was attended by more than 1,400 people, had recorded a 25-minute video to be played during the service. She felt strongly about going public with her diagnosis and worked tirelessly to promote and fund research into the disease.
“At that time people weren't talking about breast cancer as much,” Yow explained in the Oral History of the South interview.. “I think some people felt uncomfortable, but I really insisted on this.
“So we did the release, and the most interesting thing is because we did the release and it went on the AP wire across the country, from that point on I received so many letters from churches, from Sunday school classes, from individuals, from Bible study groups, people praying for me, and that was a result of releasing the truth about it.”
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month so the decision to honor Yow as the NCSHOF Member of the Month is even more timely. For more information on the legendary coach, visit https://www.ncshof.org/kayyow.
Tag(s): Member of the Month