Trena Trice-Hill was recruiting in Georgia years ago the first time she walked into a gymnasium to see two teams and a crowd draped in pink, a promotion to raise breast cancer awareness. The gravity of the moment nearly overwhelmed her.
Cancer had taken her mother when she was barely 18, and the disease repeatedly attacked Kay Yow, her former coach and longtime confidante.
“I remember calling Coach Yow and saying, ‘Coach Yow, you have to see this,’” said Trice-Hill, in her second season as an assistant coach for the VCU Women’s Basketball program. “I got so emotional and so happy to see that. And of course, she was happy.”
On Jan. 24, 2009, Yow succumbed to a third bout of breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 1987 and fought disease again when it returned in 2004 and 2007. Since 2006, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) has held Play 4Kay – renamed from the WBCA Pink Zone to honor Kay Yow – to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. Every year, college teams across the country wear pink uniforms and encourage fans to do the same to place a spotlight on fighting cancer, a fight championed by Yow.
Trice-Hill starred from 1983-87 for Yow at N.C. State, racking up four All-ACC First Team honors and four NCAA Tournament appearances. Trice-Hill would play professionally for 14 years in the WNBA and overseas, but she and Yow remained close. Whatever success Yow helped Trice-Hill achieve on the basketball court paled in comparison to the lessons she taught her off it.
“She taught me how to be a good person,” Trice-Hill said.
N.C. State wasn’t really even Trice-Hill’s choice. But her mother, Bonnie, was so impressed by Yow during the recruiting process that she steered her daughter to the Wolfpack. Trice-Hill, a Norfolk, Va. native, had considered Florida State and other schools, but heeded her mother’s advice.
“It was just a connection,” Trice-Hill said. “Like a mother’s intuition she had. She was just really impressed with the things she said.”
Maybe Bonnie knew she wouldn’t be around to see her daughter grow into a basketball star and college graduate, and later, a wife, mother and respected coach. So Bonnie Trice did the next best thing, she picked her daughter’s role model and mentor, another strong presence who could see things through. Maybe she knew.
In the spring after her freshman season at N.C. State, Trice-Hill got a phone call from her father. Her mother was sick. It was stomach cancer. A couple of weeks later, her mother was gone.
When she returned to campus after her mother’s burial, Trice-Hill struggled with grief. She and Bonnie were close, and her passing shook her to the core. Yow gave her a shoulder to lean on.
“She saw that [I was out of it] and she took me in her office, and she just had to give me a one-on-one talk. She said, ‘What would your mother want? Would you want your mom to see you go through this and not get your degree,’ because I was at a point where I felt like I couldn’t live my life without my mother.”
From that point forward, Trice-Hill says she viewed Yow as her surrogate mother.
Trice-Hill graduated in 1987, around the time of Yow’s first cancer diagnosis, and enjoyed a successful professional career. In 2004, she returned to Raleigh to join Yow’s staff, just as the cancer returned. She was still on staff when Yow’s disease emerged for a third time.
“Just to see Coach Yow go through what she went through, just the different phases of her cancer and the pain and the suffering that she went through, I don’t think I could’ve gone through that twice,” Trice-Hill said. “I never want to see anyone go through that again.”
Despite her battles with cancer, Yow always returned to coach at N.C. State, where she would amass more than 700 career victories.
“I remember asking her, ‘Why don’t you just retire?’” Trice-Hill said. “She said, ‘Why retire? People retire because they want to do what they enjoy doing. I feel like this is my retirement. I enjoy coaching.’”
On Sunday, Feb. 12, VCU will host James Madison at the Verizon Wireless Arena in a “Pink Out” game. The Rams will wear pink uniforms, as they have the last several seasons, and distribute pink shirts to about 100 fans. Proceeds from the game will benefit VCU’s Massey Cancer Center.
Trice-Hill says it will be hard not to think of her mother and Yow during the game, as it is every year. It’s hard not to have them here. It’s hard not to be able to share the experience with Yow, who inspired so many with her courage and kindness. But when it gets tough, Trice-Hill can always rely on the lessons she learned from her former coach.
“She taught me how to give,” Trice-Hill said. “Not just how to give when I needed to give, but to give when I didn’t need to give.”
Sunday is an opportunity for everybody to give. Think of it as Kay’s way.