Yow’s legacy lives on in Play4Kay game

NC State’s annual event honoring the longtime women’s basketball coach has helped the Kay Yow Cancer Fund raise $7.7 million since 2009

Georgia Tech associate head coach Tasha Butts speaks at halftime about her battle with breast cancer during the annual Play4Kay game Monday at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — It’s the most meaningful halftime show on the sports calendar. And no, it doesn’t involve any spectacular light shows, fireworks displays or musical performances by A-list celebrities.

Rather, it’s simply a procession of normal people, women dressed in pink, walking onto a basketball court to celebrate and be celebrated for their courageous battle against breast cancer.

It’s an annual ritual that takes place at women’s college games all across the country during February as part of “Play4Kay,” a program designed to raise awareness and funds for cancer research and related programs.

But it’s always more special when it takes place at NC State, as it did Monday night during the Wolfpack’s game against Georgia Tech on a court named for the program’s founder, Kay Yow, in an arena named for another famous sports cancer crusader, Jim Valvano.

“I’ve been coaching a long time and have played in a lot of these Play 4 Kay games,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore, an assistant under Yow from 1993-95, said after his fifth-ranked team’s 59-48 victory. “It’s special wherever you go and you stop to think and reflect. But it’s a whole another level here.

Breast cancer survivors who have been cancer-free for fewer than two years are honored during halftime of NC State’s annual Play4Kay game Monday at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

“You’re looking at Kay Yow Court. You’re looking up at her banner in the rafters. Heck, you look across there and see Jim Valvano Arena. The two biggest advocates for fighting cancer are from NC State. You think of the millions and billions of dollars they’ve raised for research and helping people through tough times like this.”

The Kay Yow Cancer Fund has raised $7.7 million since it was founded by its namesake before her death from stage 4 breast cancer in 2009.

Monday’s game added another $324,087 in donations to the cause.

As uplifting a moment as the check presentation at center court might have been, it was nothing compared to the emotional celebration that preceded it.

It started with the entrance of cancer survivors, grouped according to how long it’s been since they were diagnosed with the disease.

Then came the testimonials, including a tearful speech given by Wolfpack fan Ann Rollins, who quoted Yow by telling the sellout crowd that “when life kicks you, make sure it kicks you forward,” while imploring those still dealing with cancer to never give up.

NC State guard Raina Perez lays the ball up against Georgia Tech center Nerea Hermosa amid a sea of pink at the annual Play4Kay game Monday at Reynolds Coliseum. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The highlight of Monday’s event came when Georgia Tech assistant coach Tasha Butts was honored for her courage while fighting her ongoing battle.

“You guys give me so much hope,” Butts said. “This game right now is between two teams, but at the end of the day, there is something more important that we’re all fighting and there’s so much more that we’re playing this game for.

“Coach Kay Yow fought, but at the same time she was battling, she wanted to make sure she continued to use her voice and give back. That’s something I always hold dear to my heart.”

Monday’s celebration was the 17th held at State, although as noted on the T-shirts handed out to all in attendance, it’s only the 15th that has carried the title “Play4Kay.”

Yow’s sister Debbie, who retired as State’s athletic director two years ago, said that Kay would be happy to see how much her passion project has grown and how well it has been accepted.

But she couldn’t bring herself to stay on the court to see the halftime festivities.

“I usually just go get something to eat or drink,” Debbie Yow said. “It’s too much. One day it won’t be, but it still is.”

Like Yow, State’s players weren’t around to see the procession of survivors and hear their stories. But they seemed to be inspired, nonetheless.

The Wolfpack came out of the locker room and scored the first 10 points of the third quarter to turn a competitive game into a blowout.

“It was special to play on that court with the pink and everybody who came out to support us,” State’s leading scorer in the game, Diamond Johnson, said while adding that she and her teammates are well aware of Kay Yow’s story.

“We know what she did,” Johnson said. “Coach Moore preaches it all the time. She left a legacy here, so it’s hard to forget what she did. She will always be a part of NC State.”

Looking around at the players and coaches from both teams, along with all the fans in the stands decked out in pink as a show of support, former State assistant coach and current Kay Yow Cancer Fund CEO Stephanie Glance couldn’t help but smile, knowing that the scene was exactly what Yow had envisioned when she came up with the Play4Kay concept.

“When Coach Yow started this, the thing she wanted most was for survivors to be honored, lifted up, encouraged and given hope,” Glance said. “She believed that if the entire sport of women’s basketball united together, we could do amazing things together.”

“She would be so grateful and humbled by this. But at the same time, she’d encourage us and tell all of us ‘We’ve still got to do more.’”

The NC State student section waves pink balloons during the Wolfpack’s annual Play4Kay game Monday at Reynolds Coliseum. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)