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Baylor coach Kim Mulkey battling Bell's palsy condition with plenty of attitude

Graham Watson
Yahoo Sports

DENVER – Kim Mulkey sat at the podium Saturday afternoon, answering questions, making jokes and showing a little competitive attitude – all while using her hand to shield her eyes from the bright lights of the media room of the Pepsi Center.

It was the same old Mulkey. Only it wasn't.

Mulkey, Baylor's coach for the past 12 seasons, announced last Thursday that she had been diagnosed with Bell's palsy, a treatable disorder of nerves that affect the muscles in the face. Its effects already were affecting her Final Four.

The bright lights and the ear-piercing sound of the band playing while the Lady Bears went through their open practice caused her discomfort, but Mulkey tried to stay true to the personality that has made her one of the most colorful coaches in women's basketball.

"Don't ask me to smile," Mulkey said, trying not to smile.

She then turned serious.

"I think the distortion of the face is mild compared to cases I've seen before," she said. "The biggest problem I'm having is my eyes. The light bothers me. The tears and the dryness and itchiness they say is all part of it. And my ears, I feel like one ear is blown out and I can't tell if the other one is hearing or if it's just off balance.

"As far as the distortion – or whatever you want to call it – of the face, hell, I'm just another ugly coach. It is what it is. I'm not vain, so it doesn't matter."

Mulkey is dealing with her condition the same way legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt did when she was diagnosed with early onset dementia last summer &ndash it's just another opponent she needs to defeat.

She has not allowed her condition, which she currently takes medicine to control, to affect her team or coaching. In fact, Mulkey has been adamant about telling her players not to worry about her and not to let what she's going through distract them from the task at hand.

Baylor, after all, is the favorite to win the national championship and become the first team to finish a 40-0 season. So instead of feeling bad for their coach, Baylor's players have turned their coach's attitude into their own.

"It was sad, but we're happy that it wasn't anything worse," forward Destiny Williams said. "We were upset. But coach Mulkey didn't show it. Coach Mulkey is like, don't worry about her, go out and finish these last two games.

"It just shows how strong she really is as an individual, and things like that pushes us. Something like that, that's hurting her; every time she talks or the light bothers her eyes, anything, she doesn't let it show. And it's how we need to come out as a basketball team to play for her with something like that and not let it get to us mentally."

While Mulkey tried to downplay her symptoms, it was clear that her condition already was starting to take its toll. Her left eye blinked rapidly while her right remained open. The left side of her mouth drooped slightly. And, as she said, she couldn't smile no matter how many quips she made about her condition.

But she said it's not going to change her.

During Sunday night's national semifinal against Stanford, Mulkey's jacket might be thrown into the bench, her watch might be tossed and she's still going to let the referees know that nothing has changed. She's still the same impassioned coach that helped get her team to a 38-0 record and within a stone's throw of a national title.

"Bell's palsy is fixable," she said. "Bell's palsy with time will get better. This is just – I guess you call it a little bump in the road. I can assure you the spit that will fly out of my face in a timeout won't faze (the Lady Bears). They'll understand what I'm saying.

"It's really nothing. It hasn't affected them. It hasn't affected me. It aggravates me, but there are worse things in life. And you just deal with it."