Tuesday's exhibition against Div. III Concordia has deeper meaning

Tim Dimas

On Tuesday, Steve Lavin and St. John's welcome Division III's Concordia University of Chicago, who is coached by a fellow cancer survivor.

When St. John's welcomes Division III Concordia University of Chicago for an exhibition on Tuesday, the game will be about more than preparations for an upcoming season.

Everyone knows Steve Lavin's uplifting story. Shortly after leading St. John's to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years, all wearing white Nike Air Force Ones for cancer awareness, Lavin revealed that he in fact was battling the disease.

Despite missing almost the entirety of his second year with the Red Storm, Lavin is back - strong, healthy, and energetic as ever - to lead the Johnnies on their journey through the Big East in 2012-13. He has beaten an opponent more imposing than any team in the nation.

But not everyone knows the story of Tyler Jones, the head coach of the little-known Concordia Cougars. His path from the depths of sickness and back parallels Lavin's, and they are in no way independent from one another.

Upon watching the television report of Lavin's diagnosis last September, Jones decided to visit his urologist. His family has a history with prostate cancer, after all. Why not be safe, rather than sorry?

Eight months after hearing about Lavin, Jones too was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He spoke with Concordia's Sports Information Director Jim Egan for an article and video about how the connection with Coach Lavin was forged; quotes below are from those sources.

"Hearing the announcement on ESPN about Coach Lavin being diagnosed with cancer was the impetus for me to go and get myself checked out," Jones said. "I was thinking that 'I don't want that to be me,' but when I was diagnosed a month later, knowing that Coach Lavin had gone through this helped me to prepare to fight this."

Jones' proton radiation therapist and the office's marketing department was enamored by his story, that he was a college basketball coach seeking to defeat the disease. They contacted ESPN, and soon after, Jones appeared on the network's highly acclaimed program "Outside the Lines."

It was then that Steve Lavin found out about Tyler Jones and the similarities of their respective health battles. It wasn't long until Lavin joined Jones on the ESPN program, which happened to be Jones' fourth appearance.

One week after their December 6th appearance together, Jones and Lavin's story had one more chapter yet to be written. Jones answered his phone.

"I received a call from (St. John's assistant) Derrick Wrobel who raised the possibility of the team coming to New York," Jones recalled.

It was settled. Tuesday's exhibition between St. John's and Concordia was planned because of reasons that couldn't be further from basketball.

"The opportunity for us to play in a Division I setting while also having the chance to promote cancer awareness through a collaborative effort - how could we say no?"

When smaller programs get the chance to play in big arenas against programs they've only watched on TV, even if the game means nothing in the standings, it is something special. St. John's fans might view the exhibition as the final roadblock before the November 13th opener against Detroit, but it could possibly be Concordia's season highlight.

"It's an exciting time for us. There's a bit of a buzz gaining momentum around Concordia University in anticipation of our trip," Jones said. "If you look at the history of the Big East, St. John's was a powerhouse in that conference and was one of the most recognizable programs in the country. We're excited about the game and for the cause."

The game will be just one of multiple efforts to increase cancer awareness at St. John's this season. After the men's and women's programs raised more than $25,000 at the school's second-annual Dribble for the Cure event, Coach Lavin and his staff will continue to sport the white sneakers throughout the year. In fact, fans are even being encouraged to dress like Lavin on Tuesday in honor of the game's significance.

As New York continues to recover from the devastation brought on by Hurricane Sandy, we can be grateful on Tuesday that there will be two healthy coaches on the sidelines.

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