Commentary

For Oklahoma, Play 4Kay personal

Originally Published: February 14, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

We don't want to get all "Steel Magnolias" on you here, but you can probably imagine this. Your best friend has recently found out she has cancer. You're both reeling. But you're also the fiercely optimistic "let's figure out what to do next" kind of people.

Oklahoma women's basketball assistant coach Jan Ross was diagnosed with breast cancer this past April. After an initial meeting with a surgeon, her boss, best pal and former college teammate -- Sooners coach Sherri Coale -- came by her house.

"Our conversation for about two-and-a-half hours would shift between going through these pamphlets with diagrams of what's going on in your body and trying to understand all the medical lingo," Coale said, "while there was some Tom Hanks movie on in the background.

[+] EnlargeJan Ross
Ty Russell/University of Oklahoma AthleticsJan Ross is in her 17th season as an assistant at Oklahoma and was a part of all three Sooners trips to the Final Four (2002, '09 and '10).

"And a couple of times, we'd look up and say, 'That was a great line,' and she rewound it, and we'd watch a scene and laugh until we were crying. Then go back to this medical jargon. For us, it was just our friendship as usual & with this curveball thrown in."

Like other women's hoops teams nationwide, Oklahoma is partaking in the Play 4Kay initiative to benefit the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. The Sooners have their "Pack the Place Pink" game Thursday against Iowa State in Norman, Okla. And folks from all over Oklahoma have flooded Ross with get-well wishes since her diagnosis.

"I didn't realize how many people even knew who I was," Ross said. "Because I'm pretty much in the background. But the program is so visible with what Sherri has done. It means everything in the world to have so much support."

For the past 10 months, Coale has helped Ross navigate the path of best resistance to cancer by keeping things as "normal" as possible. With an early assist from Tom Hanks in &

Uh, what was the movie?

"It wasn't one of the really famous ones, like 'Sleepless in Seattle,'" Coale said. "And it wasn't the FedEx movie with the volleyball. Give me a minute, I'll think of it. Or Jan will know."

Ross almost always knows the answers to any question Coale has -- often even before Coale asks it. They've known each other for 30 years, since their time playing basketball at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. Both are natives of the state and have never left.

My job is what keeps me going and motivates me to get healthy. I'm fortunate enough that I love my co-workers, and they'll step in when I need anything. They've taken care of me.

-- Oklahoma assistant coach Jan Ross on surviving breast cancer

Coale was girls' hoops coach at Norman High School and Ross an assistant coach at Oklahoma Christian in March 1990. That's when Oklahoma made the outlandish announcement that it was getting rid of women's basketball -- a decision reversed after eight days.

Ross then went into the high school coaching ranks, and she got a call from Coale in 1996 when Oklahoma had tapped her to try to rejuvenate the program. They've been co-workers ever since, guiding the Sooners to three Final Four appearances and four Big 12 tournament titles.

Ross was maid of honor at Coale's wedding, is like an aunt to Coale's two children and is generally the calm in the eye of any storm. Asked whether they've had many squabbles in three decades, Ross laughed.

"It's hard to make me mad or hurt my feelings," she said. "I don't know if I'm just naive or not smart enough to figure out when people are mad at me. So there's been a few times -- rarely. But it's a friendship where, even if you have an argument, you know it's going to be OK."

But that isn't something people can ever be sure of when they find out they have cancer.

Ross lost her mother to liver cancer and her father to colon/pancreatic cancer. Coale's mother also battled cancer, and she is one of the survivors Oklahoma has honored in its "pink" games in recent years. So both Ross and Coale already had a familiarity with the disease. But still &

[+] EnlargeJan Ross
Ty Russell/University of Oklahoma AthleticsJan Ross, third from left, battled breast cancer with best friend Sherri Coale at her side.

"It was a bit surreal -- like, 'Not her,'" Coale said when Ross was diagnosed. "I felt like my job was to be the keeper of normal. Ever since I first met Jan when I was a freshman at Oklahoma Christian, she was the caretaker. She was like the fire-drill chief of our dorm hall. She was the protector.

"I knew immediately it was going to be really hard for her to be the one that everyone is worried about and wanting to care for -- that wouldn't be comfortable for her."

So Coale didn't check in daily with a plaintive, "How are you doing?" To the contrary, they interacted about the same as always, which Ross preferred.

"You're looking for some sense of normalcy because a lot of things do change," Ross said. "You want those people around you who don't seem any different and can laugh with you when you don't have any hair.

"My sister would always come visit on what she knew would be my worst days. She and Sherri know when you need things and when to leave you alone. Those are the people you can allow to help you."

Oklahoma players -- past and present -- helped, too. Coale wrote in a blog entry in June that she had bought a large pink ladder and planned to use it as a motivational symbol for her team. She wanted each player to write a six-word saying on the ladder that summarized the player's journey as an athlete. (She is a former English teacher.)

Soon after, Ross was diagnosed. So along with their individual slogans, the players had a new, collective mission statement to write on the ladder: "Playing for our rock, Coach Ross."

"We knew she was going to be a fighter," Oklahoma junior center Nicole Griffin said.

Ross has undergone surgery and chemotherapy treatments; her hair is growing back, and she was cancer-free on her most recent checkup. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has been through a rash of serious injuries, including a heartbreaking, season-ending ACL tear for senior leader Whitney Hand.

Yet the Sooners, who now wear pink-ladder T-shirts, are second in the Big 12 and ranked No. 22 in the country.

Ross acknowledges her illness sapped some of her normal energy but said it has not dented her positive outlook.

"My job is what keeps me going and motivates me to get healthy," Ross said. "I'm fortunate enough that I love my co-workers, and they'll step in when I need anything. They've taken care of me."

Coale recalls one scary day in July when she returned from recruiting and went straight to the emergency room to see Ross.

"She was as sick as I've ever seen a person be," Coale said. "She had neutropenic fever, which happens when your white blood cell count gets too low. But as sick as she was, there was nothing she needed in terms of her perspective or disposition or mood. She just needed to get through the thing that was happening to her.

"I never, ever have thought about her as a person who needs cheering up. That's because she has a tremendous faith and a great outlook on life. And that hasn't wavered, not one time."

Ross and Coale have been there for each other, kind of like Hanks' character and his volleyball "pal" Wilson in "Cast Away." Of course, that friendship was a lot more one-sided.

"You morph into what the other person has to have at any given time," Coale said of the relationship between coaches who are close friends. "Whether it's after a really big win or a really big loss or a devastating injury. For them to know you well enough to be what you need allows you to be your best. And that's irreplaceable."

A little later, Coale did remember the Hanks movie she and Ross were watching when they were trying to digest the cancer attack plan. It was "Larry Crowne," co-starring Julia Roberts and a scooter.

Not really Hanks' best film. But still good for a few needed laughs with a great friend.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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