Pizzotti Reflects on Kay Yow's Inspirational Story
Feb. 6, 2014
CHICAGO - Take a look around Jill Pizzotti's office at the Sullivan Athletic Center and you'll notice a pair of gym shoes with pink shoelaces sitting on a shelf. Nearby is a framed poster, an autographed basketball, cherished photos and other mementos from one of the most inspiring persons in her life.
Emotions came flooding back to the DePaul women's basketball assistant coach as she recalled her days as Nike's Manager of Women's College Basketball and the bond she formed with legendary North Carolina State coach Kay Yow during her courageous and uplifting battle against breast cancer that came to an end on Jan. 24, 2009.
Pizzotti and DePaul head coach Doug Bruno will have Yow in their thoughts when the Blue Demons take on BIG EAST Conference opponent Creighton at noon on Sunday in the annual Play 4Kay game, a nationwide initiative to raise breast cancer awareness and funds for cancer research. The game is being televised by FOX Sports 1.
Fans attending Sunday's game will receive a pink wristband and also have an opportunity to register for the Avon Walk For Breast Cancer. Cancer survivors can receive two complimentary tickets with online registration and are invited to join the halftime ribbon rally.
"I got to know coach Yow while working with Nike and would visit with her on my trips to North Carolina State," said Pizzotti who worked at Nike from 2005-2010. "It became a mission for Yow to find a cure for cancer. Nike made the first set of pink uniforms for North Carolina State symbolizing breast cancer awareness.
"Her vision was to find a cure for cancer, and she advocated the use of clinical trials that extended life with quality for cancer patients. She was the driving force that unified women's basketball coaches to fight together against this insidious disease. The best way of bringing awareness to breast cancer was telling the Kay Yow story.
"Nike designed the pink uniforms for NC State and we put Yow on the back of every uniform. I was in the gym when Kay walked in just after practice and saw those special uniforms with her name on the back.
"It was a pretty emotional moment and tears were shed. Coach Yow was so appreciative of the support from her players and from Nike. It was a really touching scene that ended with a big group hug."
The original breast cancer diagnosis in 1987 did nothing to slow down an extraordinary career that saw Yow lead the Wolfpack to 20 NCAA tournament appearances including eight Sweet 16 berths and the Final Four in 1998.
She guided the USA women's basketball team to the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and to the gold medal at the 1986 World Championships. She had a career record of 737-344 in 38 years and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
"Her everlasting faith was an amazing thing," said Pizzotti, a member of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund Board of Directors who serves as the Board's secretary. "She truly believed this was the mission God had given her and to do everything she could to make a difference.
"I spent time with her while she was enduring some of her biggest struggles. I watched as she summoned up the fight and energy to continue making a difference. It was so inspiring to see. It had an impact on my life that has stayed with me as I watched her literally fight for her life.
"She somehow found the energy to go to practice and work with the team. Despite what she was going through, she continued to put others ahead of herself. It's one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed."
Yow embraced her role as a symbol to fight breast cancer and would be stopped by complete strangers who told her she was their inspiration.
In a 2007 interview, Yow said: "When they say that, it really gives me a lift because it is at that time I know for sure that I'm not going through it for nothing. That means a lot to me.
"I have to go through it. I accept that, and I'm not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. It would just be so saddening if I had to go through it and I couldn't help people.
"But then I see I'm helping others in a greater way than I ever have. That's the amazing thing, you know?"
The cancer went into remission until 2004 when the courageous coach again fought it off. The cancer returned during the 2006-07 season, forcing Yow to take a leave of absence. She was back coaching by late January and her inspired players went on to win 12 of their final 15 games, upset undefeated No. 1 Duke in the ACC tournament and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16. It was a time when fans everywhere wore pink in support of Yow and breast cancer awareness.
Yow remained at the helm to start the 2009-09 season, but her condition became worse in December and she did not return to the gym after Christmas break. Columbia coach Stephanie Glance was on Yow's coaching staff for 15 years and shared this memory with wbca.org.
"The team had experienced her absences before, so there was always hope that she would be coming back," Glance said. "The coaching staff kept the team going as normally as possible, but there came a time when we knew she probably wasn't going to be able to make it through. She was becoming weaker every day.
"We brought the team to the hospital to visit her, telling them she may not be strong enough to really interact with them. When we walked in, coach Yow was sitting up in a chair and she had a conversation with every single person.
"She gave that last gift to those players and they left the hospital encouraged and inspired. She passed away just three days after that."
Doug and Patty Bruno and Pizzotti were among the hundreds of mourners who paid their respects at Yow's public viewing and funeral in Cary, North Carolina. She died at the age of 66.
"I attended the funeral, and 15 of us went to her house afterwards and tried to console each other as we went through the grieving process," said Pizzotti who has a pink jersey autographed by Yow hanging up at home. "We remembered coach Yow's favorite saying that when life kicks you, let it kick you forward. She never let her battle get in the way of the team, and she never felt sorry for herself.
"Yow put together a video that was played at the funeral. She said some things to make people laugh and to make them feel better about her passing."
Since 2007, Play 4Kay has raised $2 million. The Kay Yow Cancer Fund has raised a total of $8 million. Yow hoped to raise money to further cutting-edge research conducted by the nation's top doctors and medical experts and to allow more and more cancer patients to have access to experimental drugs and clinical trials.
With a majority of such research projects funded privately, these researchers desperately need support to make strides in finding a cure for cancer.
"Kay Yow was one of those special, special human beings that happened to be a coach," Bruno said. "People don't realize she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1980s. She had been handling it with such a positive attitude for a long time.
"She was an amazing human being who lived her life in the service of others. And she was someone who did so much to promote breast cancer awareness and to raise funds to find a cure.
"What Kay Yow espoused was always putting others ahead of her. She was on the board of directors of the V Foundation for Cancer Research and will forever be linked with North Carolina State men's basketball coach Jimmy Valvano who died of cancer in April of 1993.
"Jimmy V fought against cancer with his charismatic style and Yow waged a 22-year fight and never gave up hope. I admired and looked up to her for all the grace and courage she displayed as Kay continued to coach and lead throughout her fight. That's what makes everything she did so meaningful."
And it has motivated Pizzotti to continue the mission on behalf of her friend.
"The Kay Yow Cancer Fund purchased a coach bus and put her photos on it," Pizzotti said. "It serves the underprivileged areas in the Raleigh-Durham area and does free mammograms.
"We meet people along the way who impact our lives. Witnessing the rough part of her life and how coach Yow handled it had such a tremendous impact on me."