It was very difficult, that December day in 2001 when Ivy Gardner knew she needed to tell coach Kay Yow that she was stepping away from the N.C. State basketball program. But Yow, as was her way, didn’t make it more difficult.
Gardner was a junior guard, a defensive whiz who had battled through injuries her first two seasons in Raleigh. Yow and assistant coach Stephanie Glance had recruited her out of her home state of Virginia even though she didn’t play AAU ball and wasn’t considered a top prospect.
“They were taking a chance,” Gardner says now. “I was a nobody.”
Of course, nobody was ever a nobody to Kay Yow. She cared about Gardner when she had yet to prove she could play Division I basketball. She cared when Gardner competed for her program for two seasons. And when Gardner left the team with still a season and a half of eligibility left, Yow didn’t stop caring.
“I had some external things going on, and it was a personal decision that I had to make that had no reflection on N.C. State or the program,” Gardner said. “I left the team abruptly; it was a sad moment for all of us involved.
“But when I sat down with Coach Yow, she understood. She asked me some questions; she was wanting to see if she could help me stay. But she supported my decision. I mean, I wasn’t afraid to have that conversation with her _ and that should say a lot.”
Yes, it does. That was a tough season for Yow, one of the few she had with a losing record (14-15). She could have been angry about Gardner’s decision. But she never was. Every few months, Gardner would call to check in, still needing to hear her former coach’s voice. And every time …
“We would have great conversations,” Gardner said. “She’d ask me what I was up to, and always asked me about my parents and my little brother. That was Coach Yow. We continued that for years … all the way up until she got very ill.”
You’ve heard/read a lot of Kay Yow stories in the last few months after her death. But as you read this one, keep in mind Gardner’s situation. Many coaches maintain good or at least decent relationships with players who excelled for them for four seasons. However, Yow cared for and remembered everyone who ever went through her program.
“Think of it, 34 years _ that’s a long span of time and a lot of young women whom she impacted,” Gardner said. “She was a mother to all of us, even those of us who had mothers and had good relationships with them. We still felt like we were Coach Yow’s kids, too.”
So many of them came to the funeral service in January. It didn’t matter how far away they were or how busy. They needed to be there. Not just to say goodbye to their coach. But to say hello to each other. To share stories and laugh and cry together.
After the service, Gardner was catching up and taking pictures … and noticed a group gathered around Umeki Webb, who had played for the Wolfpack from 1992-96. Webb had a new tattoo, with the words, “Kay Phi Yow,” and a pink ribbon for breast-cancer awareness.
Everyone got to talking about it. Tattoos, of course, are not for everybody. Gardner, for example, didn’t have any and had never really considered getting one. But this was different. This was something she thought she really DID want to see on her body for the rest of her life.
She came up with her own design for a tattoo. It would even include a replication of Yow’s own handwriting. Gardner found an autograph she’d gotten from Yow years ago, in which Yow signed with her favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
Gardner acknowledged that not everyone who played for Yow had the same faith as the coach did. Some believed in other religions, some didn’t believe in much of anything at all. Gardner felt the verse didn’t have to be taken literally by everyone.
“It wasn’t really about believing in Coach Yow’s religion specifically,” Gardner said. “It was about believing in something. Something bigger. For Coach Yow, that was Jesus Christ. It didn’t have to resonate like that for everybody.
“She was always pushing through hard times, no matter what happened, because of her faith. It just showed us what faith could do, no matter where your faith lies.”
Gardner got the tattoo on her right calf.
“It was either there or my shoulder,” she said, “and the reason I picked my leg was I wanted it to be visible whenever I did anything athletic. If I was working out, if I was playing basketball, I wanted to see it.”
Many of the former players who’d been at Yow’s funeral then returned to Raleigh a few weeks later for the “Hoops for Hope” game. By then, there were several new tattoos honoring Yow, along with those who’d already gotten them before her death.
“Coach Yow was special in so many ways, but she just stays in my mind and heart because she treated everyone the same,” said WNBA player Chasity Melvin, an N.C. State grad and friend of Gardner’s. “She taught me everything about the game and how to be a professional on and off the court. Besides my parents, Coach Yow is the only other person I looked up to.
“I got my first tattoo in memory of everything she taught me. I put my basketball number in, because she helped make No. 44 and she hung my jersey in the rafters. I also put in her favorite scripture because it means just as much to me.”
As for the “Phi” part on several former players’ tattoos, Gardner explained that with a laugh. It seems one of Yow’s players in the 1980s, Lori Phillips, was joking with the coach one day about both her first and last names having three letters and thus sounding like a sorority or fraternity.
(In fact, Yow’s “real” first name was Sandra, but her mom didn’t care for the nickname Sandy and opted for Kay. And Kay it stayed.)
Phillips decided to add one more “Greek letter” to Kay Yow. Thus, Phillips pronounced that playing for N.C. State’s women’s hoops team made you a member of “Phi Kay Yow.”
Then a player named Teri Whyte, who competed for the Wolfpack in the early 1990s, decided to flip it and make it, “Kay Phi Yow.” And that’s how that stayed.
“When we would come back together, we’d talk about having that sisterhood,” Gardner said. “We strongly hold onto that.”
It’s understandable then, that the “sisterhood” has struggled with the recent decision not to give Glance the head-coaching position. It was what Yow wanted, but the university opted not to do it. Instead, former Tennessee player Kellie Jolly Harper was hired.
Gardner has spoken with several former players and said there was a great deal of angst. Not directed against Harper, but because Glance was so dear to them.
“It hurt; I’m not going to talk around it,” Gardner said. “For the program to lose Coach Yow in late January and then, in April, really to lose Coach Glance, too … they were the heart of what we loved to go back for. Why we enjoyed coming back to games. They made it ‘home.’ I don’t mean to say it won’t be home anymore, but it’s going to be different.”
When asked if Harper should make it a priority to reach out to former players, Gardner showed she really did learn well the lessons Yow taught.
“Really, her plate is so full already – she’s got quite a bit of things to handle,” Gardner said of Harper. “I wouldn’t say to add that to her task list. Instead, I’d say of former players and staff, the onus is on us to really present ourselves to be there and be supportive.
“It’s about the young women who are now wearing the jerseys we used to wear. It’s not about, ‘Oh, we don’t know Coach Harper yet.’ It’s difficult for her – she’s got a huge group of former players to meet and get to know, and it’s our responsibility to show ourselves as supporters of her players and her. We should go there. And then let her know, ‘We need you to understand what we’ve been a part of that lasted for 34 years.’ ”
Considering Harper herself is part of a “sisterhood” of players that goes back even one season further – Pat Summitt started coaching at Tennessee in 1974 – one can expect that she really will understand.
Gardner now has her own firm that does life coaching, motivational speaking and business development. She is also a licensed minister. Her time at N.C. State didn’t go exactly as planned, yet Yow remained an important part of her life.
“It wasn’t about whether she ever saw me on the court again,” Gardner said. “She knew that the path that was laid out for me might be different than for everybody else, and she encouraged me to pursue it. And I appreciate that so much.”
Enough to have a permanent reminder to see every day.