Sports

Dick Vitale Gala | Sports stars raise money for childhood cancer

SARASOTA -- It was a night filled with laughter and tears wrapped around a ray of hope.

Everybody seemed to have a stake in the 10th annual Dick Vitale Gala because, as every speaker said, everyone does.

The night at the Ritz-Carlton began with a tribute to Jim Boeheim, Lovie Smith and Jimbo Fisher, highly successful coaches who have earned national acclaim.

They were reminders that cancer can strike anybody, anytime, anywhere. It's not impressed with your resumé.

These three coaching icons had a stake in an event that was trying to raise $2.3 million dollars for pediatric research under the V Foundation.

Boeheim, the Syracuse head basketball coach, has been to four Final Fours and won the NCAA national title in 2003. He lost both his parents and best friend to cancer and fought prostate cancer for many years.

"This is the one disease that touches everybody, which is why we (he and his wife) are such advocates in raising awareness and making sure guys 40 and 50 get checkups because the best way to beat cancer is early detection," Boheim said. "There have been a lot of advances in research because of the money raised by this group and others."

Boeheim was good friends with former N.C. State basketball coach Jimmy Valvano, who died in 1993 from cancer. The V Foundation was named after him and kept alive through events such as the Vitale Gala.

"He would probably say we would be doing more if he was there raising the money, and he would probably be right. It's a great legacy for him, and he would be happy doing this," Boheim said.

Smith, the Tampa Bay Bucs head coach, has had more than his share of illnesses in his family.

"Diabetes has really attacked my family quite a bit, but I also lost a sister to cancer a couple of years ago at the age of 49," Smith said. "She was too young to die, and it impacted me a lot. Most families have something they are dealing with, and that's why I try to come out for these events. It's about people answering the call to service whatever that might be."

Fisher, who led Florida State to the national title in 2013, has a son, 10 year-old Ethan, who in the spring of 2011 was diagnosed Fanconi anemia, a rare blood disorder that he says will eventually lead to cancer and has no cure.

"I got a dose of reality. My world was destroyed. I couldn't function and then I see him acting like nothing was wrong. It took awhile for me to put my life in order. It was a reality check for me," Fisher said. "After he has a bone marrow transplant in two to four years, he will be at an unbelievably high risk for cancer. He won't even be able to go through the radiation because his body won't be able to take it because of the Fanconi."

Told that there was no hope for his son, Fisher did his research and found the hospital at the University of Minnesota, which is considered the country's research center for FA.

Fisher and his wife, Candi, founded KidzlstFund, which last year raised more than a million dollars for research. He is emotionally invested in that along with the V Foundation because of his son.

"In the beginning, there was no hope. I didn't think he would be able to live two years, and now we are seeing research improvement and life expectancies getting longer and longer and it has given me hope," Fisher said. "What the V Foundation has done is create a culture that creates hope. It gets me out of bed every day and motivates me."

Vitale introduced his All Courageous team of cancer-fighting kids who reached out to help others while still fighting for their lives. He mentioned 13-year-old Cole Eicher. His friends raised more than $5,000 to help him, and he took the money and donated it to pediatric cancer research.

In the audience were the parents of Lauren Hill, the women's college basketball player from Ohio who lost her life to cancer last month. But before she passed away she raised more than $1.6 million for pediatric cancer research.

"What they have gone through and how they've done so much to help raise money for pediatric cancer research and others is just amazing. They are the real heroes," Vitale said.

There were numerous sports celebrities in attendance, including Bucs new quarterback Jameis Winston, Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari and West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins.

Vitale said only 4 percent of the overall money donated for cancer research goes to pediatric cancer. He would like to see that change.

"Kids should be playing ball and doing things they like and not undergoing chemo," the college hoops analyst and Lakewood Ranch resident said.

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