Commentary

Despite illness, Mulkey keeps it light

Baylor's coach has visible symptoms, but takes comical approach Saturday

Originally Published: March 31, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

DENVER -- Earlier this week, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey had to let her players know that something was going on … but that they didn't need to worry about it.

Mulkey had been diagnosed with Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis caused by dysfunction of the facial nerve. The players -- even Mulkey's own daughter -- had not realized the coach was feeling so poorly.

"When all this started the other day at practice, I didn't know about it," said Makenzie Robertson, a sophomore guard who said her mom tends to always say that she's "fine."

"She just came into the locker room to tell us. So it kind of freaked me out. I was just like, 'Oh, goodness.' On the court, she's just tough, and she's not going to let anyone know what's affecting her. Off the court, she's also somewhat the same way."

[+] EnlargeMakenzie Robertson
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonKim Mulkey's daughter, sophomore guard Makenzie Robertson, didn't find out about her mom's diagnosis until the rest of the team did.

However, if anyone can always get Mulkey to melt a bit, it's Makenzie and her brother, Kramer.

"We will ask, 'How are you?'" Robertson said. "I texted her the other day and said, 'Mom, are you really OK?' She'll tell us, 'I'm all right; it's going to be fine.' But if we ask, she lets us help her."

Knowing Mulkey, the only help she really wants now is for the team to stay focused on what it needs to do against Stanford in the national semifinals Sunday. To that end, Mulkey made light of her physical condition, joking both with her players and the media Saturday even though she clearly was in some discomfort.

During Saturday's news conferences, the bright lights shining on the interview podium hurt Mulkey's eyes, and she sometimes shaded her face a bit. But she said on court during the team's open practice session, the lights weren't a problem. However, the Baylor band was.

"My ears felt like they were about to explode," Mulkey said. "I'm sure some referees feel that way when I get in their ear."

Asked if she might ask the band to play a little less on Sunday, Mulkey was as competitive as ever: "Are you kidding me? I'm going to let that band rip it. Go for it."

Mulkey missed a first-round NCAA tournament game in March 2009 after she had complications following surgery to remove kidney stones. She was hospitalized during Baylor's overtime victory against UT-San Antonio, and former Baylor assistant Leon Barmore -- Mulkey's mentor at Louisiana Tech -- filled in for her. Mulkey returned for Baylor's second-round victory over South Dakota State.

She has absolutely no intention of missing any part of this Final Four. She downplayed her illness and said her players would not be bothered by it.

"Listen, the alternatives are worse," Mulkey said. "Bell's palsy is fixable. With time, it will get better. I think the distortion of the face is mild, compared to cases I've seen before.

"I can assure you the spit that will fly out of my face in a timeout won't faze them; they'll understand what I'm saying. It aggravates me, but there are worse things in life. You just deal with it. Having a baby didn't hurt near as bad as a kidney stone. Every male in here needs to have a kidney stone; it's the closest thing to childbirth for y'all."

Yes, that was Mulkey at her comic best. And Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims said nothing will be different for Sunday's game.

"She is coaching the same, doing everything just like she always does," Sims said. "We're going to just go out and play as hard as we can for her."

Besides, Mulkey said, at this point in a season, "It's beyond coaches now. The coaches have gotten each of their teams here. It's now in the players' hands."

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