Kim Mulkey's voice echoed loudly from the court as the fiery Baylor coach shouted instructions and encouragement to her players during their final on-campus practice before leaving for the NCAA Final Four.
Mulkey had promised to make no changes in how she will coach the undefeated Lady Bears this week, even after learning that she has Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis. And she showed it on Thursday, with her voice clearly audible from practice nearby as the team prepares for Sunday night's semifinal showdown with Stanford.
"When I smile it's crooked and when I talk, and talk loud, the hollowness in my hearing is weird," Mulkey said. "But it's not going to keep me from hollering."
Mulkey disclosed the diagnosis before practice, unveiling and then discussing a potential distraction for the team. She said she first noticed a strange feeling in her tongue while in Des Moines for the NCAA regional last weekend. Things got worse Wednesday when the coach had what she described as a weird feeling in her mouth while eating, then saw in a mirror on her way to practice that her left eye was drooping and her smile was crooked.
Concerned that the symptoms could be the onset of a stroke, Mulkey checked with team trainer Alex Olson, and he advised her to get immediate attention. The diagnosis of Bell's palsy came after she saw two doctors and had an MRI that ruled out a tumor or a stroke.
"I know that I will recover," Mulkey said. "It will take some time to recover and it may get worse before it gets better."
Olson said Mulkey is being treated with anti-viral medication and oral steroids to reduce the inflammation of the facial nerve that causes the problem. It can take weeks or months for symptoms to subside.
The Lady Bears are two wins away from their second national championship under Mulkey and the NCAA's first 40-win season. In the other semifinal Sunday, also featuring No. 1 seeds, Connecticut plays Notre Dame. The Lady Bears left for Denver after practice Thursday.
Baylor advanced to the Final Four, its second in three years, with a 77-58 win over Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt on Monday night. Summitt announced in August she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. It is unclear if the 59-year-old Summitt, whose 1,098 career victories are the most by any coach in NCAA basketball history, will return for a 39th season.
Baylor officials said Bell's palsy is caused by a dysfunction of the facial nerve that results in the inability to control facial muscles on the affected side. It usually has a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight. Many doctors believe the inflammatory condition is caused by a virus.
"I don't obviously have a severe case of it," the 49-year-old Mulkey said. "Because I've seen the worst. I've seen people who have it where their face is totally drooping."
Mulkey said don't think she's not happy because she's not smiling.
"I'm not smiling because I don't want people to see my crooked smile," she said.
Olson said most people taking steroid medication like Mulkey will begin to see improvement within about 10 days. He said the coach will be monitored to make sure there aren't any adverse effects from the medicine, which he doesn't expect.
"You sure?" Mulkey yelled while turning toward him, inducing some humor into the explanation. "And y'all (reporters) need to look out because they tell me these steroids make me irritable."
Mulkey said she is concerned about possible inner ear problems because of the mile-high elevation in Denver, and that doctors will have medicine for her if that becomes an issue.
Mulkey publicly disclosed the ailment after players Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and Destiny Williams — with Mulkey sitting at the podium with them — talked about the Final Four, then left the room to get ready for practice. Later, Mulkey could be heard loud and clear in a nearby work room as she communicated with her players on the court; they had already been told about her ailment.
Mulkey missed Baylor's NCAA tournament opener in 2009 after surgery to remove a kidney stone, though she returned to the court two days later.
"I learned then your health keeps you in the game or it doesn't, and we have really no control over health issues a lot of times," she said. "I learned then this game can be taken away from you in a heartbeat. I'm pretty tough and I can hang through a lot of things, but I know when something's not right. I knew the kidney stone wasn't right, I knew this wasn't right."
Still, Mulkey isn't going to let the latest ailment take away from the Final Four experience and the pursuit of another championship. She said she can't get enough tickets for all her family coming to the game from Louisiana.
"It's intense, it's pressure-backed, but it's fun," she said. "We're going to enjoy the scene at the Final Four and we're going to do things because the older I get the more I realize you may never get back to another one. Go enjoy your family and go do some fun things with your family. We can focus at the right time."