The Dean E. Smith Center again proved to be a home court advantage for former University of North Carolina Men’s Basketball Coach Roy Williams, who helped raise more than $220,000 – and counting – through the 16th annual Roy Williams’ Fast Break Against Cancer, which supports the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. The event has raised more than $3.2 million since its inception.
The annual event raises funds and awareness for UNC Lineberger’s top-notch researchers, dedicated physicians and clinical care programs at a breakfast event featuring guest speakers, as well as a live auction. This year’s auction included items specially selected by Williams, including a 1982 team calendar featuring pictures and signatures of all members of the championship basketball team, including Michael Jordan, and an official North Carolina Department of Transportation Roy Williams Highway sign.
For those unable to attend the event, an online auction for Carolina basketball themed items, including signed basketballs and a round of golf for four with Phil Ford, is open for bids through March 11.
Jones Angell, the voice of the Tar Heels, kicked off the program, and welcomed the former coach to the stage in a spot he knows well, the Roy Williams Court. Williams said being back on the floor was special, and admitted he still gets up early thinking about Carolina basketball.
“I still take the games home with me, keep the losses with me, more than I do the wins. I love where our team is. [Coach Hubert Davis] is doing a marvelous job. It’s a good job, but it’s a hard job.”
The impact of cancer
During his years as head coach, Williams has lost friends to cancer, and has also spent many of those years supporting a cause that’s close to his heart.
“I lost my mother, lost my father, lost the best friend I had in town. My high school basketball coach has fought cancer and beaten it three times. Everybody here’s going to be touched, if you haven’t already been, you’re going to be touched by this disease,” Williams said.
Former UNC Athletic Director John Swofford, who retired in 2021 as commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, was the featured speaker at the event. “I’m fortunate to have been a part of this great place and this great populace for many years, but we’re here because of cancer. Cancer is definitely the most formidable opponent ever,” Swofford said. “I don’t use the word ‘hate’ very often. I’ve always taught my grandchildren not to use that word. But I flat out hate cancer, and I bet that you do too. If it hasn’t touched you through yourself, family or friends, you are one lucky individual.”
Swofford’s life was directly touched by cancer twice; first when his father lost his life to an inoperable tumor at 52, and again when his brother, Bill Swofford, also known as Oliver of “Good Morning, Starshine” fame, died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma at 54.
At just 13 when his father was diagnosed, Swofford wasn’t able to do anything for him, but years later, he was a bone marrow transplant match for Oliver and was able to give his brother a great gift, another year of life. Still, losing his family members was a devastating blow, and something he would never forget.
“I have very, very few regrets in life, but the two biggest ones are because of cancer. I wish I had had more years with my closest brother, and I truly regret I never had the opportunity to know my dad as an adult,” Swofford said. “Those that have truly shaped you, never leave you. Even though Dad and Bill were taken by cancer too soon, they’re still in my life and always will be. Cancer couldn’t take that away.”
Turning funding into cancer research findings
UNC Lineberger Director Shelley Earp, MD, addressed the crowd, detailing many of the advances that have happened in cancer research at UNC. He shared that money raised during Fast Break directly impacts cancer care and research at UNC Lineberger by helping fund the projects and efforts that set UNC apart, including the Good Manufacturing Practices facility, which is key to offering more patients chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) immunotherapy, as well as a focus on tough-to-treat cancers like pancreatic and endometrial, leading UNC Lineberger to establish centers of excellence in these areas to target these diseases.
“We are working hard at each level, turning science into not only treatments, but early detection and prevention. That’s the key to fighting cancer; catching it early,” Earp said.
Each speaker touched on the importance of raising money for cancer research, and how grateful they were to see a room full of people with the same drive and desire to eradicate cancer.
“Fast Break not only creates funding, it creates an atmosphere where terrific people want to be here, be a team, and be on the same team against cancer,” Earp said.
“It’s been 17 years, and we’ve raised a lot of money and helped a lot of people and kept the money here in Chapel Hill at our hospital,” Williams said.
“There’s progress for better results today than there was all those years ago with Bill and my dad,” Swofford said. “The world is a bit polarized, and as much as I hate cancer, maybe cancer has one redeeming quality; maybe it can unite. Unite all of us to work together to obliterate it.”