Carrying on Yow's fight against cancer

A year ago in Dallas, Kay Yow started to speak … and everyone else got quiet. The occasion was a gathering the night before the inaugural 4Kay Golf Classic. Yow wasn't really saying "goodbye" … not directly, anyway. But in retrospect, it was a farewell to some of her colleagues who would not have the chance to see her again.

In January, Yow passed away after a battle with cancer that first began in 1987. Now it's time for the golf classic again, and this time it's in her home state of North Carolina.

"People will be coming together to honor her memory and her legacy," said Stephanie Glance, Yow's close friend and former assistant coach at NC State. "There will be a lot of talk about Kay, a lot of stories. Because, you know, she really was a funny person and a great storyteller. It will be a celebration of her life. Also, a celebration of the gifts she gave us."

But it needs to be something else, too -- an opportunity for everyone there to pledge that the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund will maintain as much vitality without its namesake as it had with her.

While that might seem obvious, it's worth hammering home: The true measure of this fund will be its growth and longevity even though Yow is not there to promote it. One of the things the coaches said at last year's golf event was that Yow was that rare individual who was universally loved and respected in her profession. So when she asked for something, nobody would turn her down.

But she can't ask anymore. She can't pick up the phone and call, or send a card or an e-mail.

"It's going to be a much harder route without Kay," said Marsha Sharp, the longtime Texas Tech coach who is now executive director of the Yow Fund. "She was in the media telling her own story, drawing people in. We have to find ways to keep people as passionate about it as they were when she was still with us.

"That's our biggest challenge: to keep that fire from going out. To keep the 'Pink Zone' going strong. One of the things Kay always said was, 'This isn't about me, it's about the fight against cancer.' That's how she wanted us to go forward: It has to be about the cause."

Sharp is right; it's a necessarily pragmatic way to look at things. However, Sharp would also say that it can still be about both: the legacy of Yow intrinsically linked to the crusade against cancer.

Think of it this way: There are college-aged players now who have no memory of watching live as former NC State men's hoops coach Jim Valvano gave his unforgettable speech at the inaugural ESPYs in 1993, shortly before his death from cancer. But they're well aware of who Valvano is. They've seen the speech replayed; they know he's the guy who said, "Don't ever give up."

The V Foundation is about the fight against cancer … and it's also about the legacy of Valvano. Enough people vowed to not let his memory fade and thus, even 16 years after his death, he remains a powerfully effective fund-raiser.

Like Valvano, Yow had a moving address at the ESPYs -- when, in 2007, she received the Perseverance Award named for him. Also like him, she transcended sports in many ways, and the messages about life that she conveyed during her struggle against cancer would have been the same even if she'd never been ill.

"The way she lived and examples that she gave to people from all walks of life -- in sport and out of sport – provided such a positive, optimistic way to live," Glance said. "She was like that even in the midst of pretty gloomy circumstances. It's neat to me to hear about people who never knew her, but they are finding out even now. And they are just as inspired as those of us who did know her."

Here's one such person: Roy Dixon, an artist in Iowa. He began to paint as a child, and soon was working in stone. He never went to art school or received any formal training.

You know what Yow would think about that. She would smile and say he was blessed.

Dixon isn't a big sports fan. While he heard the name "Kay Yow," he really did not know much of her story. Then this spring, he got a call from Kay's brother, Ronnie, looking for someone to design a memorial stone for Yow's family to purchase.

"And he'd come across my Web site," Dixon said. "I've come to realize how prominent Coach Yow was, so for a small-town Iowa guy this is a really big thing."

Dixon's etching and engraving on memorial stones is a deeply personal art form. His work is a type of emotional alchemy: He takes grief and, with an artist's touch, tries to turn it into a kind of peace.

He knows that, at first, the design of the stone might be only a small distraction from pain for the bereaved. What he hopes is that as time passes, the stone becomes less an object of sadness and more one of comfort. That when people visit a loved one's grave, they see images that remind them of what made the person special.

Dixon strives to learn everything he can about his subject. He listens to family and friends, then works closely with them on what the stone needs to represent. To do that, he must feel their love and loss, at least to some degree, as his own. What is in others' hearts becomes channeled through his hands.

"I've had calls from a lot of Coach Yow's former players and people who have coached with her," Dixon said. "And I got a distinct feeling that none of them consider her to really be gone. She had made such an impact on them, they still spoke of her in the present tense. A lot of the players thought of her as like a mother or grandmother. It was profound.

"When I first saw some film clips of her, like at the ESPY awards, I began to understand how special she was to a lot of people, and I started to read everything I could on her. It just reinforced how important it was to get this right."

Dixon takes the same detailed approach to every stone. But in this case, what he means by getting it "right" was to not be overly influenced by Yow's basketball accomplishments or her celebrity through sports.

"I'd say after nearly 100 calls -- with family members, players, friends, colleagues -- we decided this was more a monument to who she was as a person," said Dixon, who will finish his work on Yow's stone -- engravings on both sides -- sometime this fall. "Of course, you can't separate her from her accomplishments; they speak for themselves. But they weren't what made her 'Coach Yow.' It was about who she was other than only basketball."

Dixon grew up and still lives in Iowa, which has a history with girls' basketball unlike any other state. Iowa has had a continuous state championship for girls' hoops since 1920. (Up until the 1984-85 school year, that was exclusively for six-on-six -- with three players on each team playing half-court offense and three playing half-court defense -- but a handful made the switch to five-on-five then and also had a state tournament. By 1993-94, all schools had to make the mandatory change to five-on-five.)

Dixon said he has learned a lot, in researching Yow, about the growth of the sport for women and girls. And he thinks it's a neat coincidence that Yow's memorial stone will come from a state where the grassroots love of girls' basketball goes back so many decades.

That provides an unexpected symmetry in this way, too: Sharp sees the increased involvement of high school and junior high girls' programs as being critical to the Yow Fund. Sharp says that Yow's vision was to get 5,000 teams/organizations under the fund umbrella. And if the average of all their donations was $1,000, that would be $5 million a year raised.

"To reach that number 5,000, we have to get the younger players at the high school and junior high level involved, along with their parents," Sharp said. "There, it really is at the grassroots level, and that's what we really believe in.

"I think this fund will grow similar to how women's basketball has grown: with a lot of blue-collar workers making it happen. That's how we had to build the sport, and that's where I've always been comfortable working."

The 4Kay Classic, which is Sept. 14 in Greensboro, N.C., is one of the fundraisers. Right now, it involves only coaches and athletic department personnel, but Sharp is open to the possibility that others might get involved in it.

There is a 4Kay walk/run in conjunction with both the Women's Final Four wherever it is held (San Antonio in 2010) and the annual Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Knoxville, Tenn.

And the "Pink Zone" is held in February, as college programs across the country wear pink and raise money for the fund.

The WNBA had its own "Pink Zone" the last week of August and made donations to the Yow Fund. Sharp said her hope is for the fund to increase its relationship with the WNBA and all its teams.

Nike, GlaxoSmithKline and The Hartford were all founding partners in the Yow Fund, which began in December 2007.

"Nike has tripled the amount of merchandise it's offering for the Yow Fund," Sharp said. "There's some great stuff that they have added to their apparel list that I think people will be interested in. There are other initiatives we're working on, too."

Sharp spent 24 seasons at the helm for Texas Tech, then stepped away from coaching in 2006. She still stayed involved in fundraising for the school, and her position in directing the Yow Fund taps longtime relationships she has had in women's basketball.

"It allows me to stay engaged in a real meaningful way with all my friends and colleagues in coaching, plus Nike, ESPN and other entities that I've worked closely with," Sharp said. "It's been really special for me. It's a great cause. I knew when I quit coaching that I wasn't through working."

Meanwhile, Glance has no desire to quit coaching, although she's away from it now. After finishing the 2008-09 season as interim coach, Glance was not retained by NC State. It was painful for her, but she kept her emotions about it private and didn't criticize the school.

Glance is president of the board of directors for the Yow Fund, but that is a voluntary, unpaid position. She is a North Carolina native, but is very open to moving anywhere in the country for the right fit in her return to coaching.

"That's where my passion lies," she said. "I have a heart for it."

And, of course, her passion remains for combating cancer. But Glance also stresses it's about more than the search for a cure. Yow did not live to see a cure, but thanks to improved research and treatment, she gained precious years.

"One of Kay's messages was that, yes, we all would like to find a cure for cancer, that is the ultimate goal," Glance said. "But in the process, when you are a person with cancer -- or if it's your family member or close friend -- you want a very good quality of life and extension of life.

"So let's keep giving the money for that, too. Yes, let's find a cure. But in the meantime, there are a lot of people living with cancer. To me, it's another reason why raising funds is so important."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.