N.C. State women's basketball coach Kay Yow, who died last week of breast cancer, has been rightly heralded not only for what she meant to women's basketball, but also for what basketball means for women. For the best female players, the sport gives them a crack at earning college scholarships; others, including me, don't attain sports greatness, but as important, may find consolation in basketball like nowhere else.
In 1974, the same year that Yow began coaching at N.C. State, I entered the fourth grade. My grandfather, a former basketball coach, bought me a ball and taught me the finer points of shooting by instructing me to aim at dirt spots on the gutters. My parents soon installed a sturdy goal overlooking a wide swath of concrete.
At recess, we kids played in a classic, airy former high school gymnasium built in the 1920s. While the boys zoomed by on the perfectly waxed regulation court with its clear backboards and tight rims, the girls were exiled to the sidelines on half courts, where the wooden backboards were screwed into a stone wall. A full-throttle layup ensured a head-on collision with solid rock. I petitioned our teacher, a woman, who agreed girls would have equal time on the "boys'" court. It was exhilarating even though the boys, aghast at being dethroned, ridiculed us from the sidelines.
I went on to play varsity basketball, back when a slower-than-average, 5-foot-2 wing guard could secure a starting position by virtue of having a hot hand from 20 feet. I was a good, yet troubled student: rebellious, tightly wound, with a chip on my shoulder. My father later told me, only half-joking, that he sometimes wondered if I would kill him in his sleep. I often fantasized about running away, or in moments of great self-pity and despair, dying. But I couldn't miss basketball practice on Monday. Or the big game against conference rivals Blue River on Tuesday. And in the summer I practiced at home, often under the glare of floodlights, until 9 or 10 o'clock. Basketball lifted me when little else could.
My high school basketball coach, Dale Green, also died earlier this month. I respected him because he demanded from us the same effort, and placed the same expectations on us, as the standards set for the boys.
Thanks to the indefatigable spirit of Yow, many women coaches—and men like Dale Green and my granddad—basketball is no longer a uniquely male experience.
In small towns in Indiana, North Carolina and across America, lost girls are finding themselves in the act of shooting baskets well after dark.