Philadelphia Coaches Lace up Their Sneakers to Support Cancer Awareness

by Luke Malanga ’20

Saint Joseph’s University men’s basketball coaches on the sideline wear sneakers with gold laces for Coaches Vs. Cancer.

Saint Joseph’s University men’s basketball coaches on the sideline wear sneakers with gold laces in memory of 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth, an avid basketball fan who died in 2014.

Keys to the Article
  • St Joe’s men’s basketball coaches sported white sneakers with gold laces at the annual Coaches vs. Cancer game to raise awareness for pediatric cancer.
  • The Philly Coaches vs. Cancer program is the most successful in the country and has raised over $17 million since 1996.
  • Last season, the team rallied behind a young man battling bone cancer; he has since been given a cancer-free diagnosis after undergoing treatment at CHOP.

Most coaches have shed their suits for more casual attire on the sideline during the 2020-21 basketball season. But at the end of January, while the sneakers stayed, the suit came back on for Billy Lange and college basketball coaches across the country. 

As part of the Coaches vs. Cancer (CVC) initiative, college basketball coaches participate in “Suits & Sneakers Week” to help raise awareness and funds in the battle against cancer. Lange and his staff sported white sneakers with gold laces in memory of 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth, an avid basketball fan who died from cancer in 2014.

“It’s a great opportunity to promote the work of the American Cancer Society, and the need to get involved in the fight,” Ali Gill, senior development manager of the American Cancer Society says. “In Philly, each school dedicated a game that week to promote Coaches vs. Cancer. Nationally, coaches wore CVC masks, decorated sneakers in memory or honor of a loved one who had cancer, and asked for contributions.”

The Coaches vs. Cancer initiative is a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. For Lange, being a part of these efforts wasn't even a question. On the wall of the locker room are the program’s three core values: respect, elevate and serve.

“If those are the values, they have to be more than just words on a wall,” Lange says. “They have to be things that we’re trying to live out.”

In Philadelphia, there’s a particularly strong rivalry between teams on the court. Off the court there’s also a strong desire to work together to beat cancer. Philadelphia leads the most successful Coaches vs. Cancer program in the country. The Philly 6, which includes  St. Joe’s, Temple, Drexel, UPenn, La Salle and Villanova, has raised more than $17 million for the American Cancer Society since 1996.

“It’s funny because our city is the City of Brotherly Love and although we’re very competitive as coaches against each other, there’s something about being a coach in Philadelphia that I think unites us,” Lange says. “The thing that always sticks out for me at these Coaches vs. Cancer events, some of them are really really big and some of them are smaller in nature, but what you see is a group of coaches who are unified.”

Gill says not only do the six Philly-area Division I coaches team up for a cause, “they also inspire others to join the fight.”

More than 20,000 students, coaches and parents participate in the Coaches vs. Cancer school and youth initiative program at more than 120 local, Philadelphia area schools.

Lange also points out the efforts of the student-athletes, who he says don’t just show up but truly want to help.

“All our guys are incredible. Our guys are really amazing in that space. They never ever push back on spending their time to help other people,” he says. “But that’s St. Joe’s. If you just allow this place to take you over, it will take you over.” 

Last season, the men's basketball program was connected with a young man named Jacob who was battling a rare type of bone cancer in his leg. The team hosted Jacob and his family and honored him at the CVC game with players writing his name on their shoes.

“Jacob would send the team motivational videos on game days encouraging the Hawks to keep fighting,” Amanda Casale, director of men's basketball operations, says. “We took a few players to visit him in the hospital following his leg amputation to shoot hoops at CHOP.”

Jacob has since been given a cancer-free diagnosis and is back on the court.

This year, the Philly CVC has its usual events planned with some modifications due to COVID-19. The “Tourney Tip-Off Breakfast,” which usually takes place on the Palestra floor the Monday after Selection Sunday, will this year be hosted virtually on March 15 and 16. St. Joe’s alum and ESPN “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi  ’82 will be one of the guest speakers. The CVC's “BasketBall,” which is traditionally a black tie ballroom gala, will also be held virtually in April and will honor another St. Joe’s grad, Dan Hilferty ’78, former president and CEO of Independence Blue Cross, who has been a champion of cancer fundraising efforts.

While the events have shifted virtually, Gill says, “We know cancer doesn’t stop because of COVD-19 and neither will the American Cancer Society.” As for future goals, she adds, “Our Philly CVC motto is we won’t stop til we crush cancer.”