- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

When Maryland’s defending national champion women’s basketball team surges into combat, athletic director Debbie Yow usually cheers on the Terrapins to the exclusion of all else. But as the third-ranked Terps tangled with No. 2 North Carolina on Sunday at Comcast Center, a piece of Yow’s heart and soul understandably might have been 250 miles south in Raleigh, N.C.

At N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum, sister Kay Yow — one of the truly towering figures in women’s college basketball — was coaching the Wolfpack in her second game since returning from her latest bout with breast cancer. It is very easy and very right for everyone in or out of sports to admire Yow’s toughness and courage — and her younger sister is leading the cheers here, too.

“We talked on the phone a week ago Friday, and she told me she was coming back,” Debbie Yow said. “She said, ‘My house is as clean as it’s ever been, I’m bored and I miss the team.’ I didn’t try to talk her out of it, because I knew this was the right thing for her to do.”

So Kay Yow is coaching the Wolfpack these days and nights while undergoing chemotherapy — a flabbergasting pair of assignments almost impossible to understand. Nowhere in sports perhaps is there a more consuming challenge than directing a high-powered college program. Nowhere in medicine perhaps is there a more debilitating challenge than enduring chemo. The next time we’re tempted to call someone a hero for making a game-winning basket, touchdown or home run, we should think of Kay Yow. At 64, she embodies and enriches the concept of pluck.

As anyone who has dealt with Debbie Yow in her highly successful 13-year reign as Maryland’s athletic boss can attest, she can be one tough cookie. Yet when it comes to beating the odds, she might rank no higher than No. 2 in her own family.

“Kay has always been a wonderful role model,” said Debbie, who is eight years younger. “She was a great athlete and terrific student herself [at East Carolina]. I remember watching her play in the [North Carolina] high-school all-star game as a senior and being so proud. And now …”

Battling breast cancer is nothing new for Yow women. Their mother died of the disease, and Kay was first diagnosed in 1987. The cancer then went into remission until 2004. Last Nov. 22, she announced she would take a leave of absence to focus on her health. The leave lasted exactly two months. The battle to regain her health goes on.

Debbie had her own scare in 1990, when a tumor was detected in her breast. A biopsy showed it to be benign but as she noted, “The doctors watch the women in our family pretty closely.”

To Kay’s credit, and undoubtedly to encourage other breast cancer survivors, she has made no secret of her health concerns — as if so public a figure could anyway. At the press conference announcing her return to the bench, her longtime oncologist, Dr. Mark Graham, told it like it is. He called the ongoing chemo “life-extending rather than curative.” That means, of course, that the cancer remains active and threatening.

Characteristically, Yow took a positive approach. “There’s no way to explain what drugs inside your body make you feel like,” she said. “[But] it will be uplifting for me to be around the staff … the girls. I don’t know how everything will go. It’s something I have to do and see.”

Actually, this isn’t something she has to do — but then she wouldn’t be Kay Yow. And if we find it inspiring, imagine how her players feel. Senior Gillian Goring described Yow’s return this way: “When I think about Coach and how she’s been fighting, all my nagging little injuries and complaints seem like nothing.”

Mine, too.

In Yow’s first game back, unranked N.C. State defeated Virginia 71-60. And on Sunday, as thousands at Reynolds cheered for Yow on “Hoops for Hope” weekend, the Wolfpack bashed Boston College 64-46, boosting their season record to 15-7 and Basketball Hall of Famer Yow’s 32-year victory total to 698.

If N.C. State vanquishes Wake Forest on Thursday, Yow could become the sixth Division I coach to collect 700 victories with a win over Florida State at home on Monday. But even reaching that exalted plateau would pale in comparison with the heights in true grit she already has scaled.

Said Debbie Yow: “I’m usually the cautious one, and [in November] I told her, ‘If you miss the entire season, it’s no big deal. There will be other seasons.’ ”

God willing.

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