Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ride of their lives

Two Lady Vols coaches get on Harleys to fight cancer

Nikki Caldwell's got 10 weeks to sell Pat Summitt on the sidecar.

Caldwell, a Tennessee assistant, knows the smart thing to do is to just thank her boss for the time off. Unlike when she played for Summitt, Caldwell doesn't have to hide her motorcycling these days. She understands that the Lady Vols' Hall of Fame bites her lip when she -- and fellow assistant -- Holly Warlick -- ride around on a hog. And she readily volunteers it was huge of Summitt to let the pair, Caldwell and Warlick, do a cross-country Harley ride last fall.

After years of hosting staid little charity golf tourneys, Warlick thought of her outrageous grandmother and wanted to do something equally outrageous to shine light on the breast cancer that took the woman she calls her hero. Caldwell said, "I'm in," the magnanimous Summitt let them out of two individual workout days and off they went. From Berkeley, Calif., where Tennessee's football team opened the season, to the Grand Canyon, through New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas and up to Memphis, where Summitt's old sorority sisters were out in full force.

Eleven days -- plus one to, as Caldwell said, "help the Las Vegas economy" -- later and they were back in Knoxville, where men's hoops coach Bruce Pearl and Summitt serenaded the pair with Ride, Sally, Ride.

The song was cool. The bit of media attention they got wasn't bad and the $50,000 they raised definitely rocked. But for this next ride, the one Warlick and Caldwell will kick off May 11 in Knoxville and loop through the Florida Keys and back, the Lady Vols assistants want more. More attention on cancer, more money to combat cancer, more ... Pat Summitt?

"We do need to take it another step," Caldwell said with a giggle. "I keep telling her it's not the bikes that are dangerous."

Warlick can be pretty persuasive. ("Hey, I suckered Nikki into it," she said.) Warlick's offered Summitt a pick of bikes. ("We both have more than one," she said.) Caldwell's said they'll make Summitt over. ("I've got the whole matching jacket and helmet thing," she said.) And they've even said Summitt wouldn't have to drive herself.

"We told her we'd put her in one of those scooters on the side," Caldwell said.

Caldwell giggled again, Warlick did too and even if all this is a desperate longshot and Summitt never actually gets on board with them, these last two weeks have promised these two women that women's basketball already has.

It's been 27 years since the Women's Basketball Coaches Association grew out of a who's who meeting in Syracuse. The WBCA unified coaches and has worked tirelessly to develop women's basketball as a sport and as a community. In all that time, though, the WBCA never undertook any cause outside that. Until last year, when N.C. State coach -- and original founder -- Kay Yow took on breast cancer for the third time in her Hall of Fame career.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer, in incidence and death, among women. More than a quarter of new cancer cases in America are breast cancer; every 13 minutes breast cancer takes a life and one out of seven women will be diagnosed with the disease. That's two players per team and one coach per conference.

In 1992, Estee Lauder started giving away loops of pink ribbon. Later, pink became a brand, popping up on things like Campbell's soup cans. In 2006, Delta introduced a pink plane, and in 2007, 14 years after the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the American Cancer Society first unveiled the Coaches vs. Cancer classic, women's basketball got into the game.

Last Dec. 3, during the Jimmy V Classic -- named for late N.C. State coach Jim Valvano -- Yow got her name put on a fund we can all only hope will do what the V Foundation for Cancer Research has. The Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund became the first ever initiative in WBCA history and on Feb. 8, women's basketball launched its first ever major, major drive for its new champion cause: Think Pink.

For a week, officials blew pink whistles. Georgia, N.C. State and Rutgers -- in a game at Tennessee -- wore bright pink uniforms. Washington State's mascot came out in pink, Washington's concession stand sold pink cotton candy, gyms all over the country featured pink laces and pink headbands, and fans from Austin to Knoxville have traded their usual oranges for pink-shaded T-shirts.

Marquette's Jocelyn Mellen, Kelly Lam and Courtney Weibel cut off their ponytails, giving nearly 30 inches of hair to Pantene's Beautiful Lengths program -- and then watched at halftime as a dozen fans lopped their ponytails off too for women who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy. The Chaminade men's team dyed their unis pink, the Gannon University men's team wore pink warm-ups and right now the tally stands at 1007 women's teams, 20 conferences, 57 men's teams and 31 non-basketball teams who've participated in this month's Think Pink drive.

The WBCA has has raised $418,858, and yet the best part of these past two weeks is that every time cancer's been in the game notes, someone's gotten a superstar infusion. At Texas, where new coach Gail Goestenkors is having a up-and-down first year, the Longhorns trounced 21-2 Baylor on the night their pink-clad fans "pinked-out" the Erwin Center.

For its game against Seton Hall, Marquette promised the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund money for every three-pointer it made. The Big East's worst three-point shooters then went out and nailed 11.

Even in that crazy Tennessee-Rutgers game, Essence Carson -- whose mother underwent treatment for breast cancer last season, whose coach is a breast cancer survivor and who had shot a brutal 6-for-27 in her three previous games - went 6-for-9 from the floor. And swished, with 23 seconds left, what would've been the winning jumper if the clock hadn't frozen.

That's the thing about cancer though: in real life, no one's clock ever freezes. The American Cancer Society's epidemiologists estimated last week that there will be 1,437,180 new cancer cases this year. Women will account for 692,000 of them, and some of those women will be among the 271,530 who of cancer this year. Think Pink was about breast cancer, but the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund raises money for all cancers because finding a cure for one isn't any more pressing than finding a cure for another.

The simplistic explanation for why Warlick and Caldwell are making their second ride in May is because, with six incoming freshmen, Summitt forbade them from leaving again in the fall. The more optimistic reason, though, may be because of Think Pink. There's been a buzz this month and in another, on Super Saturday at the Final Four, there'll hopefully be more buzzing, when Tampa hosts the 4Kay Run/Walk. The WBCA's trying to get the AAU and WNBA on board with initiatives of their own this summer it may have taken a while, but women's basketball is finally using its ever-growing stage, for a cause it is uniquely positioned to shine a light on.

"I don't know a woman who doesn't know someone who's had breast cancer," Warlick said. "What else could we all jump on board on?"

Yow's got 725 wins, two over breast cancer and she's gunning for a third. Virginia coach Debbie Ryan has 671 wins on the court and one over breast cancer. Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer will try to win her 800th game Wednesday, but her biggest one will always be the one she had against breast cancer. They're women, they're coaches, they're legends and Caldwell said they "are in totally a different type of competition."

It's true. Conference championships begin in a few weeks and the NCAA tournament shortly thereafter. Players and coaches will have always them to compete for. But sadly, some of them one day may have to compete for something different: their lives. Think Pink and the 4Kay Run/Walk and Warlick and Caldwell's ride, it's all the sort of thing that begs for hopping aboard.

So now, where's that sidecar?

No comments: