UCLA Basketball, Vallely Team Up To Battle Pediatric Cancer

Oct. 25, 2011

By Bill Bennett

As a starting guard on John Wooden's UCLA NCAA Championship men's basketball teams in 1969 and 1970, John Vallely learned a lot from Coach Wooden, both on and off the basketball court. But the Coach Wooden adage that has stayed with Vallely for his entire adult life is "It is a sense of peace that comes from knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming."

Vallely did his best in the game of basketball. As captain as a senior in 1970, he helped lead UCLA to a 29-1 record, along with the team's second consecutive NCAA and Pacific-8 titles, while averaging 13.8 points and 3.5 rebounds a game. He was inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.

A successful businessman, he and his wife Karen did their best raising a family, mentoring their son, Eric, who was a member of two UCLA men's volleyball NCAA Championship teams (1996 and 1998), and their daughter, Erin. But in 1988, at the age of nine, Erin was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of children's cancer. She died three years later at the age of 12.

"When Erin was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 at the age of nine, I used to pray every day on the way to the hospital, `God show me how to be the best father to this child and the best husband I can be to my wife Karen,'" John Vallely said.

"We worked hard as a family," he continued. "We were enthusiastic, we cooperated, we were loyal, and we made decisions as best we could. We had team spirit, we tried our best for our son as well, and then we lost Erin at 12 years old. The loss was huge and hurts today, but in a way we felt we were successful because we played the game of life at the highest level. We gave everything we could give. It's just that in that part of our journey the opponent was one we and science could not understand - yet!"

Since the death of his daughter, the Vallelys have been on the frontline battling cancer. As a two-time stem cell transplant cancer survivor, John knows what it means to fight the disease head-on. For more than 20 years, he has served on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (PCRF), raising funds to help combat children's cancer.

Vallely brought Dribble for the Cure, a fundraiser to fight children's cancer that had previously teamed-up with other universities, to UCLA in 2008 with the blessing of both UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and men's basketball head coach Ben Howland.

"I have great respect for John," Howland said. "He's very passionate about helping to find a cure for these cancers, especially when you are talking about cancers that affect children. I don't think anything is harder for us than to see children when they are sick. So it's something that we've been very excited about as a program to be a part of. We've enjoyed watching it grow, and hopefully it will continue to grow bigger and bigger."

Now in its fourth year, Dribble for the Cure will take place this Sunday, Oct. 30 on the UCLA campus. With the UCLA women's and men's basketball teams acting as hosts, funds raised will benefit the PCRF and the Cancer Research Program at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA. Registration takes place at Drake Stadium beginning at 8:30 am. Opening ceremonies begin at 10 am, and the `Dribble' starts at 10:15 am, with a finish line ceremony in Collins Court (Wooden Center) at 11:15 am.

Last year, DFTC featured over 750 participants dribbling a basketball across the UCLA campus and raised more than $95,000. Since 2008, the three-year donation total is over $260,000. Sponsorship support has increased each year as well, with Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisees coming on board in the highest-level sponsorship and BJs Brewery and Restaurants signing on with a $10,000 sponsorship.

"I am very pleased with the progress of Dribble for the Cure, especially in this difficult economic environment," Vallely said. "Many more individuals and businesses are supporting this event as well. Every year, we have had an increase in attendance, with over 750 entrants last year. When we add parents and friends, the UCLA band, Bruin cheerleaders and the great UCLA men's and women's basketball teams, it becomes quite the festival."

Howland and Bruin women's basketball head coach Cori Close are proud to have their UCLA teams act as hosts. For Howland, there's a personal note, too. His daughter Meredith has a master's degree from the UCLA Nursing program and is a registered nurse (RN) at the Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA in pediatric oncology.

"On a personal level, it's extra special for me because of my daughter," Howland said. "From her I get to hear first-hand the type of fantastic work that is going on there. She's gone through some very rewarding experiences and some very tough experiences trying to help these families and, most of all, these children."

Because of the success of DFTC at the local level, Vallely has intentions of making it a national event. On Sept. 24 at St. John's University, Steve Lavin's Red Storm men's basketball team hosted a DFTC event. Lavin, UCLA's men's basketball head coach from 1996-2003, recently underwent surgery for prostate cancer.

"This year, because of our success at UCLA, I approached Steve Lavin, and he immediately jumped at the idea," Vallely said. "Because of the UCLA model, we have developed a template that may allow us to expand to multiple campuses in the future. Everyone gains in this great branding opportunity while we continue to improve the survival rate for children stricken with cancer."

Howland is looking forward to the Oct. 30 DFTC at UCLA and encourages others to get involved.

"It's really been a great event and supported very well by the people who come out for the event and the children who have been involved, dribbling their basketballs around campus," he said. "All the activities are set up for the children who participate, and the Bruin women's and men's basketball teams have been there each year and very involved. And John, in particular, continues to do a great job, getting more support, more corporate sponsorship, and more awareness."

"Everyone's lives are touched in one form or another having been affected by cancer, lost loved ones to cancer," Howland continued. "One of the great stories about pediatric cancer is we're getting better and better at curing it. The cure rate now is almost 80% for children, a higher rate than it is for adults. So that's a good thing, but we want to get it to where it's 100%."

For more information about UCLA's Dribble for the Cure on Oct. 30, please go to dribbleforthecure.com, or call 1-800-354-7273.

Sunday, Oct. 30/Dribble for the Cure/UCLA Campus
8:30 a.m. - Registration (Drake Stadium)
10 a.m. - Welcome Ceremony (Drake Stadium)
10:15 a.m. - Dribble for the Cure
11:15 a.m. - Finish Line Festivities (Collins Court/Wooden Center)

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