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Jim Boeheim's personal crusade - fighting cancer

May 4, 2007

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -Jim Boeheim spun slowly in his office chair and reached for the phone as a heavy, wet snow blanketed the ground outside on a blustery mid-April morning.

That snub by the NCAA tournament selection committee, which deprived his Syracuse Orange from taking part in all that March madness, still gnawed at his psyche. But there was something much more important on his mind this day, as is often the case when he's not coaching basketball.

"He called last night, somebody with prostate cancer, and I have to call him back," Boeheim said.

The callers are searching for some sign of reassurance from Boeheim, wondering about the disease and if they might become one of the ones to beat it, as he did nearly six years ago.

"I don't think anybody realizes how many phone calls he gets from people who have just been diagnosed," said Jim Satalin, national program director for Coaches vs. Cancer. "He talks to people from all over, people he doesn't even know. He gives his time, anytime you ask him. He might have to move it, but he always does it."

For Boeheim, now 62, the fight against cancer is practically a grudge match. His mom died of leukemia at age 56 and his dad, a ferocious competitor who hated to lose and passed that quality on to his son, succumbed to prostate cancer nearly two decades ago.

He's also lost friends and colleagues.

His closest friend died on Halloween two years ago of esophageal cancer at age 65, and Boeheim still can't mention Bill Rapp Jr.'s name without tears welling in his eyes. Jack Bruen, who coached at nearby Colgate University, died of pancreatic cancer in 1997 at age 48, two months after being diagnosed; and former North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano, a good friend, died of the disease in 1993.

So it's no wonder that since he decided more than a decade ago to support Coaches vs. Cancer, Boeheim and his wife, Juli, have become fundraising trailblazers, raising nearly $4 million for the nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC).

"It was just something he decided he wanted to do," Satalin said. "It's not like he doesn't do anything for any other charities. This just kind of hit home with him.They don't even call it the Coaches vs. Cancer program. They call it Boeheim's program. He's always got ideas."

Among those ideas is regularly arranging for cancer-stricken kids to watch Syracuse practices and attend games in the Carrier Dome.

"That means a lot because we have an effect on those kids," Boeheim said. "It's not just about raising money. Anybody can raise money. It's touching people that come to you and say, 'We're glad you're working. This is something that affects our family.'

"When you see kids come in, they're just happy they can come to a game. That's a huge thing to me," said Boeheim, who has three young children and an older daughter from his first marriage. "That's really more important than the money."

Gayle Froio can identify with that sentiment. Her 6-year-old daughter Shannon met the Hall of Fame coach and the team at a luncheon benefit in October for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Shannon, who at age 2 was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia, was in remission after a second bone-marrow transplant and beaming broadly.

"That day we spent with the Orange was one of the highlights of her life," Froio said. "They just made a huge impact on her."

The family received tickets to two games, including against Georgetown in the final home game of the season, but Shannon relapsed and died two weeks before the game. At her wake was a flower arrangement from the team.

"It was as tall as me, three feet wide and all red roses," Froio said. "Whoever sent it must have known red was Shannon's favorite color. That helped me get through that weekend."

The Boeheims' signature fundraising event is the Basket Ball, an annual black-tie affair that began in 2000 and has grown each year. This year's gala, which featured Grammy Award-winning recording artist Roberta Flack, was held Saturday night at nearby Turning Stone Casino and netted around $465,000.

"It's catching on," said Juli Boeheim, whose mother survived a bout with breast cancer when Juli was in seventh grade. "I feel like people are going to start avoiding me because it's such a big part of my life now."

The Boeheims' remarkable success with the gala has prompted them to reach out to other coaches to offer guidance. Among those who now host galas are: Mike and Tish Brey at Notre Dame; Geno and Kathy Auriemma at Connecticut; Mark and Marci Few at Gonzaga; and Fran and Ree Dunphy at Temple; and Phil and Judy Martelli at St. Joseph's, who combine their fundraising efforts with four other Philadelphia-area schools - Drexel, Pennsylvania, La Salle, and Villanova. An inaugural gala involving Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Drake was to be held Saturday, with Jim Boeheim as keynote speaker.

Black-tie affairs aren't for everybody. Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose mom died of cancer, and North Carolina's Roy Williams, whose late parents also fought the disease (his mom died of cardiac arrest while undergoing chemotherapy and his father died of cancer and emphysema), host a tip-off breakfast at their respective schools each fall to raise money.

"We're trying to get people to realize that you don't have to do a gala. There are dozens of ways to raise money," Tish Brey said. "I think everybody could be doing it. I'm not saying everybody could be raising massive amounts of money. But this is a disease that covers the United States, so why can't you cover the United States with fundraising. There's basketball everywhere."

More than 500 college coaches from the NCAA's three divisions and more than 100 high school coaches participate in Coaches vs. Cancer, which evolved from a concept championed by former Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart after he was stricken with colon cancer in 1989. Since its inception in 1993, Coaches vs. Cancer has raised more than $30 million,

"We'd like to see every program do something," Juli Boeheim said. "We would like nothing better than to see it spread across the country and to the NBA. They could really do great things. We've got big dreams, big goals."

Tish Brey may have struck the mother lode at the Final Four. She organized a breakfast for wives and was stunned at the response, drawing nearly 150 women, nearly twice what she expected.

"When you look at it, the wives are the ones who have to get on board," Tish Brey said. "They're in the community, using their husbands' name to get things done. You need to be talking to the wives."

Boeheim has just begun his one-year term as president of the NABC board of directors and hopes to use that position to further the fight.

"I think the momentum is coming with more and more coaches, and I think Jim Boeheim is the beacon," Phil Martelli said. "If we all got involved the way he and Juli have, the awareness and funds and a cure would be a lot closer."