Commentary

Off the court Boeheim focuses on helping others beat cancer

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Since being diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer seven years ago, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has won a national title, an Olympic gold medal and a pair of Big East tournament titles.

Oh, and he also helped lead a Coaches vs. Cancer event in Syracuse that netted $500,000 last spring.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Al Bello/ALLSPORT Jim Boeheim only missed three games in 2001 while battling cancer.

Boeheim's post-cancer run is quite impressive. He is an example, like his Hall of Fame coaching colleague Jim Calhoun, that having cancer is hardly a reason to quit. In fact, it's a reason to dig in and work even harder at everything you do. Calhoun just got through his second bout with skin cancer and is now coaching a potential national title team at UConn.

Calhoun is showing no signs of slowing down. Neither is Boeheim, despite his top assistant, Mike Hopkins, being named as the head coach designate.

Boeheim has a top-25 team, a squad that should get the Orange back in the NCAAs after a two-year hiatus. He's 64 years old and says, "I don't feel any slower, or a step slower, none of that.''

"I feel great,'' Boeheim said. "Healthwise I haven't felt better. I'm so busy, it's been good.''

Boeheim's prostate cancer was caught early. Like most men, catch it early and the road to recovery is usually a good path. Boeheim had surgery in the fall of 2001, taking a brief leave of absence in which he missed only three games.

"I probably came back too quickly,'' Boeheim said. "But you can come back quickly from prostate surgery. It's not as involved if you have to go through chemo. You can bounce back a lot quicker.''

Boeheim is a big proponent, as you can imagine, of early detection. Prostate screening for men 50 and older is a must, but for men 40 and older, according to Boeheim, screening isn't a bad idea, either.

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"Just take a simple blood test, a PSA test -- that's not a bad idea,'' Boeheim said. "The key is the early detection.''

Boeheim said the lure of getting back to his team in 2001, a squad that a year later he would coach to the national championship with freshman Carmelo Anthony, made his recovery move even faster. He said he's a big proponent of continuing to work -- something his doctors encouraged -- instead of stopping and remaining idle.

"The best thing for me over the years is to keep going,'' Boeheim said. "You have to keep doing stuff. That's a good lesson for everybody. Anybody that goes down this road, you've got to keep moving.''

For Boeheim, that's easy. He's got his team at Syracuse, his cancer-fundraising work, his role as the head of the selection committee for USA basketball's junior national teams and his role the past three years as an assistant to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski on the U.S. senior national team that took gold in Beijing. Also, on the home front he and his wife, Julie, have three children, one 10 years old and twins who are nine.

"Being busy has been a good thing,'' Boeheim said. "The Olympic thing really got me charged up. It's been good for me, rather than something that wore me down. It built me up, got me charged up and excited. I feel better now than I have for a long time.''

So, when he was told in 2001 that he had prostate cancer, and that surgery was the best option, he was completely comfortable with getting through it. He had known plenty of folks who in the early stages had the operation and got back rather quickly.

The best thing for me over the years is to keep going. You have to keep doing stuff. That's a good lesson for everybody. Anybody that goes down this road, you've got to keep moving.

--Jim Boeheim

"It's a big relief knowing that you can do that; get an operation, and get through it,'' said Boeheim, who now seven years later is deemed cancer-free. "That's a lot different than having treatments, that's cancer at its worst.''

He said he was in touch with Calhoun during his treatments this past summer and when he saw the UConn coach at Big East media day in October, Calhoun told him the battle was much tougher than he had expected. Calhoun remains optimistic that his cancer is under control.

At random points in a season, as was the case last week after a game against Colgate, Boeheim may bring in someone to the locker room who is battling the disease.

"When you see that, it really increases your energy to do something more, it's a constant, constant battle,'' Boeheim said. "I've lost friends it seems every year. We're losing somebody close to us and that keeps the motivation going, to keep doing something to help raise awareness, to raise money.''

There is still plenty of stress -- when the Orange lose a tight game, any game, or simply don't play well in a win.

"It's still tough, it's a grind, nothing is easy,'' Boeheim said. "But I don't feel like stopping. I'm going to keep going.''

Still, Boeheim marvels at all that transpired in the year-plus after he was diagnosed with cancer -- going from the emotional trauma of the surgery to the national championship less than 16 months later.

"It's amazing, amazing how it all worked out,'' Boeheim said. "It was quite a sea change in a short period of time.''

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com