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Full Court Press To Fight Cancer

College coaches focus their game on a personal opponent

You've seen the headlines over the years: COLLEGE BASKETBALL COACH CHEATS TO GET HIGH SCHOOL STAR, LIES TO NCAA; COACH RUNS OFF PLAYERS TO BRING IN OWN RECRUITS; COACH EMBARRASSES SCHOOL WITH SCANDAL. A fan can be forgiven for thinking, Jeez, these guys will do anything to win.

But if you watched any men's college hoops this past weekend, you saw the flip side of that drive. All across the country coaches swapped their Gucci loafers and Florsheim wing tips for white Nikes and Adidas on Suits and Sneakers Weekend, the marquee event of the Coaches vs. Cancer initiative (a collaboration between the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the American Cancer Society). That event has raised $65 million since 1993, when Missouri coach and cancer survivor Norm Stewart launched the idea. In December you might also have caught part of the Jimmy V Classic, a two-day event featuring men's and women's games played in memory of former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. The V Foundation, which Valvano and a few ESPN colleagues started in '93, shortly before Valvano succumbed to metastatic adenocarcinoma, has raised $100 million for cancer research. And, from Feb. 11 through Feb. 20, women's teams will wear pink in support of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Begun in 2007 by N. C. State coach Kay Yow, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2009, the fund has raised $3.5 million for cancer research.

No other major sport is as publicly committed to a cause. "We aren't all cheating in recruiting or taking advantage of kids," says Penn State coach Ed DeChellis. "I believe 95 percent of us are trying to do things the right way and help people."

Awareness-raising games are just part of what so many coaches do in the fight against the disease. Notre Dame's Mike Brey has lobbied on Capitol Hill for more federal funding for cancer research, and he is one of 100 or so D-I coaches who host local fund-raising events for Coaches vs. Cancer. He and his coaching brethren approach these events in much the same way they develop an offense: They bring their own emphasis to it, and they crib strategy from each other. Before he and his wife started hosting a gala called Night of the Stars, Brey, whose father is a cancer survivor, held a BasketBall (men in tuxes and sneakers; women in gowns and flip-flops), an idea he admits he stole from Gonzaga's Mark Few. "It's a relief for all of us to be on the same team and to share ideas on how to beat something and not each other," says Brey.

In Philadelphia the coaches at Temple, Villanova, Drexel, Penn, St. Joe's and La Salle jointly host a fund-raising breakfast the morning after Selection Sunday as well as a spring gala. For the past few years they have dedicated a portion of the proceeds to the Hope Lodge, a local ACS facility that houses cancer patients free of charge during treatment. "They not only raised a million dollars for the lodge, they went out and spoke with great passion about it, helping open doors with several corporations and wealthy individuals," says Garry Pincock, CEO of ACS's East Central Division.

When it comes to speaking with passion about cancer, many coaches cite Valvano—whose stirring speech at the 1993 ESPYs made him a symbol of courage—as a continuing driving force. "We all watch that speech every year," says Brey. "All of us could probably recite it."

There are reasons college basketball coaches make great messengers in the cancer battle. They are born motivators. They have smart phones full of contacts and most of them are prominent in their communities. "College basketball lends itself directly to our philosophy of keeping this fight personal," says Nick Valvano, brother of Jim and CEO of the V Foundation. "Who is more personal to the community than the basketball coach, whether people want to hang him or put him on a pedestal?"

For many coaches the fight is personal. When DeChellis was 21, his father died of stomach cancer, forcing his mother to sell their house. Though DeChellis, now 52, was financially better off when he went through his own bout with bladder cancer, in 2004, the disease's collateral damage has stuck with him. In '05 he helped establish a cancer assistance fund in memory of a Penn State colleague who died of melanoma. Local cancer patients can apply for money to pay bills or expenses during treatment. On Jan. 19 DeChellis arrived home after a crushing 63--62 loss at Purdue and moodily read through applications. "This person had colon cancer, that one had a brain tumor, this one needed $500 to pay his mortgage," he says. "And there I was feeling sorry for myself because we lost a stupid basketball game."

Consider the experience of Maryland women's coach Brenda Frese. In November one of her two-year-old twin sons, Tyler, was diagnosed with leukemia. Four of the starters on her 2006 NCAA title team started a foundation, Team Tyler, to raise awareness and money for leukemia research. Since then Frese has been swamped by calls, e-mails and letters from coaches she competes against. "This battle isn't about coaching," says Frese. "It's about real life."

That's a battle these coaches will do anything to win.

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"It's a relief to share ideas on HOW TO BEAT SOMETHING and not each other," says Brey.