Emotional journey for Maryland AD Yow

March 28, 2009|By RICK MAESE

RALEIGH, N.C. -All week it seemed, Debbie Yow had been thinking about her trip here. It wasn't really dread. It wasn't fear. But there was an anxiety - an uncertainty even - as Yow packed her bags and returned to Raleigh.

She'll never forget her previous two trips to town, and truth be told, she doesn't really want to.

The first was in early January. Then just as now, she didn't really think of it as a goodbye.

"I wouldn't let myself go there," says Yow, Maryland's athletic director. "I think she knew, though. When she hugged me, she wouldn't let me go."

Yow returned again three weeks later to bury her older sister. Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame women's basketball coach of North Carolina State, had died of breast cancer.

Since that time, Debbie Yow has been busy traveling, working, running one of the largest athletic departments in the country. She has thought about her sister often, but it wasn't until the NCAA women's tournament brackets were announced 1 1/2 weeks ago that she realized she might be returning to Raleigh so soon.

The top-seeded Terps play here this afternoon against Vanderbilt, just three wins away from the national championship game.

Raleigh is a place where everyone knows Yow's sister, where they all want to talk about Kay, where Yow can fondly remember her sister's life and, with mixed emotions, reflect on her death.

"I was not prepared for the emotion of the loss," Yow says. "I had handled my dad's death and that of my mom reasonably well, so I thought I would also handle this fairly well. Didn't happen. Not sure why. Maybe because I lost my older sister, my college coach and former coaching colleague. Maybe because it was a premature death. I'm not sure."

Kay was originally diagnosed in 1987. Her cancer returned in 2004, and her courageous battle - her decision to continue coaching as long as possible - transcended the sports pages. More than once, Debbie Yow had urged her sister to retire and to focus on her health, but basketball had always been important - to Kay, to Debbie and to their younger sister, Susan, all three of whom coached the college game.

In early January, as Kay's condition deteriorated rapidly, Yow drove from College Park to North Carolina. For three days, they shared old stories. Yow cut her sister's food, fetched custard, poured grape juice.

"You keep saying to yourself, 'Whatever I can do to help, I'm going to do it,' " Yow says. "But then you realize that what you can do is very little."

The cancer had spread from Kay's breast to her liver, to her spine and into her bones. There was a fracture in her hip that made walking excruciatingly painful, but she refused painkillers.

On the morning of Jan. 24, Kay died. She was 66.

Yow was at an Atlantic Coast Conference meeting in Florida when she received the call and started asking questions, her mind racing a mile a minute.

"I wanted to know exactly when she died, exactly when it started to go bad; I just wanted to know everything," Yow recalled yesterday.

"I just needed to ... " her voice trailed off, and Yow excused herself. She found a bottle of water and caught her breath.

"I would have liked to have been there. But you just don't know when it's going to happen."

That night in Durham, N.C., the Maryland men lost by 41 points to Duke, the Terps' biggest loss in 65 years. Yow didn't see a single play of the game. She was 25 miles down the road, sitting at a kitchen table with a minister and planning her sister's funeral.

The next few days were a blur for Yow. In College Park, hell was breaking loose. Men's basketball coach Gary Williams was trading public barbs with one of Yow's top administrators, Kathy Worthington, and Maryland's top-grossing program seemed to be spiraling out of control.

Yow meanwhile was traveling from Raleigh to College Park and back to Raleigh. A funeral service was held Jan. 30. About 2,000 people showed up. There was barely a dry eye in the place when a video Kay had recorded a couple of years earlier played.

"I don't want you to fret over the fact that I'm not here or question why I'm not here because God knows what he is doing," Kay said.

At some point, regardless of whether the Terps win or lose here, Yow will have to leave Raleigh. But she's not leaving Kay.

No matter where Yow is, she has a link saved on her computer. It takes her to the video that Kay made, the one that played at her service.

"When I miss her, I turn the video on," Yow says. "It's easy. If I'm at my desk and thinking about her, I just click on it and there she is.

"Her voice. Her face. It's her. She's there whenever I need her."

NCAA REGIONAL SEMIFINALS

MARYLAND WOMEN (30-4) VS. VANDERBILT (26-8)

Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

Raleigh, N.C.

TV: ESPN

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