All these years later, Norm Stewart considers himself fortunate to have survived.
The longtime Missouri basketball coach collapsed on a team plane bound for Oklahoma in 1989, and was diagnosed with colon cancer. He missed the final 14 games that season, at a time when so little was known about cancer that “there was a lot of guesswork going on,” Stewart said.
“People guessed right at my deal,” he said, “and so I’m a lucky survivor.”
There have been plenty of advances made in the fight against cancer since then, and many of them have been made with the assistance of Coaches vs. Cancer, the organization that Stewart and his wife, Virginia, helped to found 20 years ago.
What started as a way to raise money at Missouri has grown into a nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and has already raised more than $100 million to support the mission to eradicate cancer.
“The thing about it is I’d lost my mother to cancer, and I was just recovering from cancer, so it was kind of a no-brainer,” Stewart said in an interview. “But no one I think had any idea the magnitude of what it’s become, and it’s only going to become bigger. It’s pleasing, and the main thing is we’re raising money, and we’re making advances on cancer.”
Stewart was the guest of honor recently at Coaches vs. Cancer’s annual tipoff event at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, and was joined by plenty of dignitaries.
Among those who attended the fundraising dinner, auction and celebration were Kansas coach Bill Self, current Missouri coach Frank Haith, Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and new Missouri-Kansas City coach Kareem Richardson.
“Obviously he’s the guy who really got this going, Coaches vs. Cancer, and he enjoys being around the coaches, being around the game still,” Weber said. “It’s great that all the coaches can come together. The cause brings everybody together, so it’s a positive thing.
“Plus, it’s the start of basketball,” Weber said. “It’s right around the corner.”
Indeed, one of the early season tournaments is the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclay’s Center in New York. Other tournaments have benefited the organization, but last year’s was the first edition of the tournament bearing its name. Among the schools scheduled to participate this year are Michigan State, Oklahoma, Seton Hall and Virginia Tech.
Another spinoff of Coaches vs. Cancer is the annual Sneakers Weekend, when college coaches wear sneakers with their regular game attire to draw more awareness to the fight against cancer.
“When you have a pulpit as a coach, a voice, people listen,” Marshall said. “Cancer is a terrible foe, and if we can all come together, we can a lot of positive things. This is vitally important, being able to solve and eradicate this horrible disease.”
Self has been involved with Coaches vs. Cancer dating to his days at Illinois.
“Everybody has been touched by it, directly or indirectly, in some form or fashion,” he said, “so anything we can do to bring awareness or add to a possibility of beating this disease in the future is something well worth everyone’s while.”
Stewart said that Coaches vs. Cancer recently teamed up with CEOs Against Cancer, a similar organization from the business world. He said that 400 chief executives from across the country have already participated, and that number could grow to 1,000 by the end of the year.
The hope, Stewart said, is to raise $50 million annually for cancer research within five years.
“My vintage, when somebody said cancer, you had your papers in order and you folded your arms,” he said, “and young people today, they don’t have that thought. They know they’ll be tested, and you do your testing whether it’s a mammogram or a colonoscopy, you can catch the disease.