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ISU's Kristen Gillespie now 'Coaching 4 Kay'

When Illinois State University women’s basketball coach Kristen Gillespie paces the sideline Sunday afternoon at Redbird Arena, her former college coach will be alongside during the Play4Kay game to benefit the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

“You know … I always have these little talks with her before each game and find myself saying a lot of the same things or telling the same stories and analogies to our team. I want to make sure our players know who she was and what she was about,” said ISU's first-year coach. "If I can help carry on her legacy in just a small way, I know I’ll make her proud.”

"She was one of those coaches you never wanted to disappoint"

Yow is the multiple Hall of Fame coach who tallied over 700 wins in her 34 years at the helm of North Carolina State University. That included multiple NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and a Final 4 run in 1998, Gillespie’s junior year. She also coached the U.S. women's basketball team to an Olympic gold medal in 1988.

To hear the reverence Gillespie expresses for Yow is to understand the approval the former point guard sought from her former coach. Even 11 years after Yow died of breast cancer at age 66.  

“She was one of those coaches you never wanted to disappoint,” said Gillespie. “She never raised her voice, I never heard her curse, but she had this look. And you didn’t want to have that look sent your way, because you would say, ‘Oh, I just disappointed coach Yow.’ And you would play so hard and try to do everything just right, because you wanted to play incredibly hard for her.”  

Yow initiated the Kay Yow Cancer Fund near the end of her battle with the disease in an effort to fund research for especially women’s cancers. It emphasizes a number of fundraising initiatives, including kindergarten through college basketball teams designating a Play4Kay game, with admission donated to the cancer fund. ISU's Feb. 18 game against Evansville will be its 8th annual Play4Kay game.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but coach Yow battled cancer three different times over 20 years,” said Gillespie.

The first bout came in the late 1980s, when Yow decided to keep the diagnosis quiet. It was during another bout in the mid-2000s when she decided to go public and created the foundation in her name.

“She handled it with such grace and humility. The Kay Yow Foundation and Play4Kay is a great opportunity to not only raise money and awareness for breast cancer, but also to remember her legacy and what she was all about,” said Gillespie.

Coaching How To Coach

Gillespie last summer talked with GLTabout her own extended family coaching tree, including legendary football, baseball and basketball coach Gordie Gillespie, her grandfather. But it’s obvious she also learned quite a bit from Yow, including how to deal with players away from the court.

“Yow always made time for her girls,” said Gillespie. “'How’s class going, how’s mom and dad,' how she knew everything about her player’s family. She made it real personal. It wasn’t scratching the surface. I try to do that on a daily basis. I want our players to know our staff cares about them as people first. It’s not just about the numbers you put up or are you playing. That meant so much to me and made my college experience what it was.”

Quite a tribute to a coach she feels will be guiding her Sunday in the annual Play4Kay game at Redbird Arena. Admission to the 2 p.m. game is just $1, with all proceeds benefiting the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

Full segment from the GLT story.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.