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Paul Klee: Pack Clune Arena for the Air Force basketball game on Sunday, and everyone wins

By: Paul Klee
November 8, 2017 Updated: November 9, 2017 at 3:32 pm
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photo - Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich talks with officials during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against New Mexico in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament Wednesday, March 11, 2015, in Las Vegas. Air Force defeated New Mexico 68-61. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich talks with officials during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against New Mexico in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament Wednesday, March 11, 2015, in Las Vegas. Air Force defeated New Mexico 68-61. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken) 

DENVER — This is the best sports thing you can do this weekend.

Pack Clune Arena on Sunday.

Pack it for Nick Pilipovich.

His bar was called “Hucksters.” It was a place where the steel-mill workers of Duquesne, Pa., could rest their tired arms on the wood bar top and chase a whiskey shot with a beer. Once a week the employees climbed into a truck and drove the 25 minutes over to Pittsburgh. They bought fresh produce from the food district and returned to feed the hard-working folks in their own neighborhood. The bar was busiest at closing time for the mill, 3 p.m. The next wave slid up a stool at 7 a.m., beat down from the midnight shift.

Dave Pilipovich filled the freezers at Hucksters. He slung drinks, scrubbed bathrooms, talked Penguins and Pirates as if the players were old friends.

“I got my degree in business,” says Pilipovich, the Air Force men’s basketball coach. “But I always say I learned more from behind that bar than any job I’ll ever have.”

Dave answered to one man, his father and the bar’s owner, Nick Pilipovich. Dad was 85 when he died of cancer of the blood in September, just a few weeks ago. It’s been hard for Coach P. It is for everyone who’s lost someone they love to cancer. He got a phone call from his dad after every Air Force game, and when that phone call doesn’t come this season, it’s going to hurt.

Here’s what Dave Pilipovich is going to do about it.

Sunday, Dave and his wife Kelly are going to write a big check to the American Cancer Society. “And I can’t wait,” he said. But it’s up to you how big that check is. Dave and Kelly will donate $1 to the ACS for each person that’s in the building when Air Force hosts Texas State. Clune Arena seats 5,858.

Be one of them. Fill it. Pack it for Nick.

“I want to be turning people away at the door,” Pilipovich said.

The thing about cancer is it hits everybody in the family. The Pilipovich family is hitting back.

Kelly lost her mom to bone cancer in June, just a few months ago. Kelly had been Lynda Campbell’s caretaker for two years. She also volunteers as a driver for the “Road to Recovery,” a program that ensures cancer patients have a ride to and from doctor appointments and treatments. They’re not fun car rides. They are car rides that connect life and death, and, for a woman whose mother was going through the same, must be especially and deeply personal.

The last time Air Force sold out a men’s basketball game was a 2007 NIT quarterfinal against DePaul. The next time should be 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10. Let's pack Clune Arena. Pack it for Lynda Campbell.

“When you give back, give back to a worthy cause,” Dave says, “I think it helps everyone.”

That’s another thing about cancer. It’s everywhere. You can’t walk the hallways of the Air Force athletics department without meeting someone who is directly affected by it. One is Holly Green. She scored about a million points at Idaho State and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame. She’s also a former Air Force women’s assistant coach and now is an administrative assistant with the men’s program. Holly learned she had breast cancer on Valentine's Day, just this year. After eight months of surgeries, radiation treatments and biweekly doctor visits, Holly feels like she's in the clear. 

"It actually helped being at work because of the support system we have at the academy," Green said. "Now I'm just waiting for my hair to grow back."

The Falcons are planning a ceremony to honor her and a bunch of other cancer survivors at halftime. Pack Clune for Holly. 

“I'll be the one in the pink 'Air Force basketball' shirt,” she said.

Another is Troy Garnhart, the associate athletic director for communications. When Troy was a kid he had red hair and, for reasons only kids know, was “unmercifully teased” because of it. His sister was a beautician. She once dyed her hair to show her baby brother that red was the new cool. 

Troy was the youngest of five kids and the first to graduate from college. Know the first person to give him a hug as he walked off the stage? Billy Jean Garnhart. She died of brain cancer, just a year ago.

“Miss her every day,” Troy says.

Pack Clune for Billy Jean. Pack it for Nick, Lynda and Holly. Pack it for the day cancer finds your family, because it probably will. One ticket to the Air Force game on Sunday is the best $10 you’ll spend this year.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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