When Roy Williams returned to his home state almost a decade ago to become North Carolina's next basketball coach, one of the first places he visited on campus was the Lineberger Cancer Center.
Williams lost his mother to cardiac arrest while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in 1992 and his father to cancer and emphysema in 2004. He previously worked closely with the American Cancer Society and Coaches vs. Cancer while coaching at Kansas, but he wanted to fight the disease on a more local level now that he was back in North Carolina.
Out of those initial brainstorming sessions Williams had with officials at UNC Lineberger came the idea for the coach to host an annual breakfast and auction to raise money for cancer research, prevention and awareness in the state. Williams' "Fast Break Against Cancer" has since generated $1.2 million entering its eighth edition on Oct. 12.
"It's refreshing that someone who has so much on his plate takes the time to do this and takes it as seriously as he does," said Debbie Dibbert, director of external affairs at UNC Lineberger. "He's very much personally involved in it, he takes it very seriously and it has been very successful for us."
Stories of Williams' efforts to fight cancer are especially poignant now because of the surgical procedure he endured Wednesday morning. The 62-year-old coach underwent a 3 1/2-hour procedure to remove a tumor from his right kidney that doctors detected during a physical earlier this month.
Doctors expect Williams to recover quickly enough to be on the Tar Heels bench at the start of "this season and for years to come." It wouldn't even surprise Dibbert if he still calls to check on last-minute details for next month's breakfast and auction because that's how involved in the event he is.
He identifies and recruits corporate sponsors. He writes letters inviting donors or prominent alumni to support the event. He donates golf outings, dinners and all sorts of memorabilia for the auction. And he seeks out Tar Heel guest speakers like soccer star Mia Hamm, "SportsCenter" anchor Stuart Scott or former Cleveland Cavaliers center Brad Daugherty.
Williams' involvement with fighting cancer doesn't end with the "Fast Break Against Cancer" event. He has made several donations to UNC Lineberger and routinely visits the hospital after games to meet with cancer patients and see if he can lift their spirits.
"He has been the best partner you could ask for," Dibbert said. "He doesn't just lend his name, and that's the important thing. He is very personally invested."
Even before Williams' own tumor was detected this month, this year's "Fast Break Against Cancer" breakfast was already going to be emotional for him. One of the honorees will be Ted Seagroves, a close friend and golfing partner who is battling pancreatic cancer.
The staff at UNC Lineberger didn't learn until Wednesday that Williams would be having surgery, but they're hopeful he'll still be able to speak at this year's breakfast the morning of North Carolina's first practice. They've even set up a place on their website where fans can leave get well messages for Williams.
"Our thoughts our with him," Dibbert said. "We'll be anxious to have him back coaching the team and to see him walk by the office making his daily walk around campus."