By STEPHEN HAWKINS, Associated Press
WACO, Texas (AP) — Kim Mulkey is enjoying another trip to the Final Four and the pursuit of her second championship at Baylor, even if she doesn't want to smile.
"Don't let anybody tell you I'm not happy because I'm not smiling," the coach said Thursday after revealing she has been diagnosed with Bell's palsy, a usually temporary form of facial paralysis. "I'm not smiling because I don't want people to see my crooked smile."
The ailment also affects Mulkey's hearing, especially when she raises her voice. And it makes her left eye droop, something she tried to alleviate by using her left index finger to prop open her eyelid while sitting at a podium.
That won't keep her from coaching the undefeated Lady Bears, or alter how she is on the bench.
"It's not going to keep me from hollering," she said. "This isn't going to change how I coach, it isn't going to change anything. I'll just be another ugly coach with a crooked face."
Mulkey disclosed her diagnosis before the Lady Bears held their last on-campus practice and then left for Denver, where they play Stanford on Sunday night.
When on the court for practice in the Ferrell Center, the coach's voice echoed loud and clear while she shouted instructions and encouragement to her players.
Baylor is two wins from its second national title and the NCAA's first 40-win season.
The other national semifinal Sunday also features a pair of No. 1 seeds, Connecticut and Notre Dame. The Lady Bears beat both of those teams at home earlier this season, and the victory over the Irish came in the preseason WNIT championship game.
The 49-year-old Mulkey, now being treated with medication, first noticed a strange feeling in her tongue while in Des Moines for the NCAA regional last weekend. She initially thought that was caused by some outdated toothpaste she had used.
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 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."
Baylor advanced to its second NCAA Final Four 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, resulting 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," Mulkey said. "Because I've seen the worst. I've seen people who have it where their face is totally drooping."
Mulkey is being treated with anti-viral medication and oral steroids to reduce the inflammation of the facial nerve that causes the problem. But it can take weeks or months for symptoms to subside.
Olson said most people taking steroid medication will begin to see some improvement within about 10 days. The trainer said Mulkey is being monitored to make sure there aren't any adverse effects from the medicine.
"You sure?" Mulkey yelled while turning toward Olson, 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.
The public disclosure of her diagnosis came after players Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and Destiny Williams — with Mulkey also sitting at the podium — talked about the Final Four, then left the room to get ready for practice. The players already had been told about the coach's ailment but they didn't address it.
Mulkey missed Baylor's NCAA tournament opener in 2009 after surgery to remove a kidney stone, though she returned to the bench 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."
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