By Adam Lucas
As he walked the halls of the Smith Center two weeks ago, Roy Williams was busily planning the start of the 2012-13 basketball season.
Not his wing rotation or his starting point guard situation. The Tar Heel head coach was occupied making plans for the Fast Break Against Cancer breakfast, which he started in October of 2005 as a way to benefit cancer research.
The event has had a series of powerful speakers-Stuart Scott and Brad Daugherty among them, usually with few dry eyes left by the time they've finished-and Williams was considering inviting Denver Nuggets coach George Karl for this year's breakfast. It was pointed out to Williams that Karl might be otherwise engaged, considering that the Oct. 12 breakfast date is in the middle of NBA training camp.
"We can get him here," Williams said.
That's been his attitude since he started the breakfast with the help of the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center and Mary Brooks Seagroves seven years ago. Williams is a past member of the Coaches Against Cancer board, and while at Kansas he'd raised money by fans pledging for every three-pointer made by the Jayhawks. He wanted to find a similar way to benefit the community in Chapel Hill.
He's made a habit of fighting cancer behind the scenes since he came back to Carolina. It's not unusual for him to stop and share a few minutes after a game with a kid fighting cancer, or write a letter to someone newly diagnosed and struggling with their outlook. Those small actions have a priceless impact on the ones they touch. But in addition to those, the coach wanted something more tangible.
The Fast Break Breakfast was born. At an initial meeting, Williams asked his fellow organizers, "Do you think we can raise $25,000?" Remember, this is the same man who was once auctioned off to benefit the Reece Holbrook Golf Classic. The winning bidder got to play 18 holes of golf with the coach. When he was told he was an auction item, Williams's face grew serious. "Do you think anyone is going to pay for that?" he asked.
They did, of course. And his breakfast event cruised past $25,000 in the very first year. Now, after seven years, the event has raised over $1.2 million for cancer research, prevention and awareness.
He takes the success of the event very seriously. As befits someone who competes at all times, even down to flipping to see who pays the lunch bill, he doesn't just want to do a cancer fundraiser. He wants to do the very best cancer fundraiser. The breakfast also includes an auction, and Williams takes a personal interest in making sure the auction items are appealing. He's auctioned shoes that he's worn to coach in games and tickets to a basketball game on an aircraft carrier.
But perhaps the best measure of how much the event means to him is that on multiple occasions, he's auctioned the right to sit on the Carolina bench and even listen to a pregame locker room talk. Understand this: no one listens to the pregame locker room talk. Not family, not friends, not recruits, and certainly not random bidders from a charity auction. When videographers were working on the introductory video for the Carolina Basketball Museum, one of their very first requests was to get their cameras into the locker room during pregame and halftime.
They were turned down-too intrusive. But once a year, Williams opens the door to a winning bidder, because the best way to raise money for a cause that matters is to auction something unique that everyone wants.
"Cancer has or will touched every one of us," Williams said when he began the event.
And now, he's dealing with his own medical issues. The head coach had surgery today to remove a tumor from his kidney. Read the news stories carefully-it's not accurate at this time to say Williams has cancer. The distinction between cancer and tumor is one most of us don't think about regularly, but millions of Americans--including some who have been helped in some way by Williams's breakfast--agonize over it daily. What is it? What does it mean? What did the doctor say? What Williams knows right now is that he had a tumor, and doctors say the surgery went well, and he's expected to be back coaching his team in time for the first practice on Oct. 12.
You can be certain he will receive a mammoth ovation at Late Night, and calls are pouring into the basketball office as we speak from concerned players from Lawrence to Chapel Hill to even Asheville's Owen High School. More tellingly, there are also numerous calls from coaches who-in Williams's lingo-try to "beat his butt" during the season but consider him a friend in addition to a competitor.
At some point, the coach will be ready to joke about this. He and close friend Ted Seagroves, who recently battled pancreatic cancer, will compare surgery stories, and Williams will-of course-want to compete to see who has the bigger scar.
But soon, he'll remember there are more important things to do. He has a breakfast to plan.
The Fast Break Against Cancer breakfast will be held Oct. 12 at the Smith Center. Visit www.unclineberger.org/fastbreak for details and how to be a part of it.