Why fight against cancer means so much to Oakland basketball coach Greg Kampe

Dan WetzelColumnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaw/teams/oakland/" data-ylk="slk:Oakland Golden Grizzlies">Oakland Golden Grizzlies</a> head coach Greg Kampe on the sideline during a men's college basketball game. (Getty)
Oakland Golden Grizzlies head coach Greg Kampe on the sideline during a men's college basketball game. (Getty)

Ken McCarter enjoyed a lengthy career as a vice president at Chrysler in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Along the way he became friends with the local college basketball coach, Greg Kampe of Oakland University.

Ken and his wife Kathy became fans of the team, boosters and eventually served as a mentor to the players. Anytime Kampe, who will start his 36th season at Oakland, had a player who was a business or engineering major, Ken would help him get an internship at the automotive giant. Later, after retiring, Ken worked directly with players, trying to motivate and guide them through school and prepare for a career.

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“He was in our office practically every day,” Kampe said. “I used to say he was on staff and every year I’d double his salary … $0 doubled to $0. He just loved helping the guys. He became one of my top three or four friends in my life.”

Seven years ago Ken McCarter was diagnosed with cancer. Everyone has been touched by the disease in some way, but it was the latest in what felt like an overwhelming number for Kampe — friends, family, player’s families and so on.

As treatment began, Ken and Kathy realized all that the American Cancer Society does for patients and in the fight against the disease. They decided they wanted to do something, so they teamed up with Kampe, who was looking for a way to fundraise, to create one of the most unique and — if you’re a basketball fan, most incredible — ideas, Coaches Beat Cancer.

The McCarters were a major sponsor of the event, which allows basketball fans to bid on the opportunity to bring two friends along and hang out and play golf over a 24-hour period with a famous college basketball figure.

There’s a small dinner banquet with all 10 coaches (about 40 people in all are there) at the Motor City Casino in Detroit, where everyone stays — in a relaxed environment before everyone heads to the casino and hotel bars for a fun night out. The next day, after a trip to a local children’s cancer ward, your foursome plays the famed Oakland Hill Country Club, home to Ryder Cups and U.S. Opens and annually ranked among the top-20 courses in America.

The interaction with the coaches is incredible. This isn’t a meet and greet; it’s a chance to listen in as some of the most famous figures in the game swap recruiting stories and old tales.

Through the years Tom Izzo, John Calipari, John Beilein, Bob Huggins, Rick Barnes, Mick Cronin, Frank Martin, Chris Holtmann and others have participated. The number of memories and laughs are incalculable.

“It’s a pretty neat thing,” said Izzo who will return for a third time at this year’s event, which will be staged Aug. 4-5. “It’s fun just to be sitting there and listening to all the stories and the jokes … and you get to play Oakland Hills.”

This year’s event is particularly meaningful for Kampe, who has won over 600 games at the mid-major level and is one of the most respected coaches in the profession.

Less than a month ago, Ken McCarter, the inspiration for the entire thing and someone who loved every minute of the first two, lost his battle with cancer. He was 70. At the end he told Kampe to make sure they did the event again.

“He understood that people hear about all this money raised to fight cancer but it sounds like it just goes into this big pot and no one knows what it does or where it goes,” Kampe said. “But having gone through it, having seen what a $75,000 chemo treatment can do to families, having seen all the support that gets provided, he wanted people to know how important the American Cancer Society is and what they do.”

Kampe figures the banquet this year will take on a serious tone but only for a little while. Ken always wanted this to be fun and it has always delivered. Everyone takes pride in knowing that the total amount donated to the American Cancer Society will soon exceed $500,000.

The bidding is ongoing, the chance to buy a coach as a golfing partner, but with the knowledge that you get access to everyone.

College basketball in particular has taken on cancer as its chief opponent. Maybe that’s because of Jimmy Valvano. Maybe that’s because of Dick Vitale’s relentless work against the pediatric version of the disease. Or maybe that’s because so many famous coaches have faced the disease themselves, including 2019 NCAA tournament participant Jim Boeheim.

Or maybe it’s just because of all the smaller events like this one, born out of a business executive who loved the game in its simpler form — helping mid-major players prepare for a life outside of the NBA.

“Ken was undergoing treatment once and I called to check in on him,” Kampe said. “He was battling chemotherapy and he could barely talk, yet he tells me that I have to remind one of my players that he has a paper due. He was just incredible.”

For that, Ken McCarter’s legacy carries on. Let the bidding continue.

To make a bid, click here.

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