His players describe New Prague coach Jeff Gravon as the kind of basketball nut you could call during the summer to open the gym, the kind of guy who would get excited about an instructional video and call players to his house to break bread and break down film.
Saturday, the town will return the favor. While Gravon is at Duke University seeking a groundbreaking cure for a rare form of cancer in his right arm, an ever-growing group of supporters will gather at The Ridges of Sand Creek golf course for a bread-and-basketball benefit, with Gophers coach Tubby Smith featured as the keynote speaker.
This season, Gravon has coached New Prague's best team in years while wearing a bandage and holding his tongue.
"We kind of knew about it for a while," senior Tony Johnson said. "But we never knew it was this bad. He's not one who would really talk about this kind of thing.
"When we found out that it was this bad, it hit us."
Gravon's search for a cure has given new meaning to the basketball term "four corners." In the past year he's traveled to Arizona, California, New York and now North Carolina seeking creative or specialized treatments.
He's spending this week at Duke, where doctors are attempting a form of chemotherapy that concentrates on the stricken limb, in the hope of saving his arm.
Lorie Geiger, one of the organizers of the benefit, said Gravon has promised to return by next Tuesday, and he's told his players he'll coach from a wheelchair if necessary. "He's not the kind of guy who would ever seek attention," said Tim Dittberner, principal of New Prague middle school, who is serving as interim coach. "This is really tough for him. He's had a couple of tough years in terms of basketball, but this is the best talent we've ever had.
"I feel guilty being here, because he's the one who has put in the time and should reap the rewards. This is a great group of kids, very coachable, and they're all good students. This is one of those teams that you dream about. Like I told him, get this done before the end of the season and get ready for sections, because this team has a lot of potential."
Gravon's illness is symbolic of cancer's indiscriminate nature. He teaches a wellness course, which didn't keep a man described as an introvert from becoming a reluctant center of attention.
"I don't think I knew anything about this until, a few games into the season, he said he was leaving for a week," senior Adam Michel said. "He's not the type of guy who would admit there's something wrong with him."
The event is scheduled for 5 p.m. at The Ridges at Sand Creek. Tickets are $35. Contact the high school (952-758-1200), Megan Ames at 952-892-8605, e-mail email@example.com, or call Geiger at 952-649-7107. Also, an account has been set up at Community Security Bank in New Prague, 952-758-2265.
"The outpouring of support has been phenomenal," Geiger said. "It's been heartwarming to see the compassion the people in this community, and even outside this community, have shown."
Dittberner said one e-mail to New Prague school employees -- many of whom don't know Gravon personally -- instantly raised about $2,500 for Gravon's expenses. Geiger said people have contributed airline miles and hotel points as well as money.
Smith's presence and the silent auction scheduled for Saturday are expected to help make the event highly successful. "Tubby walks on water in Minnesota,'' Dittberner said. "I think this is very rare, very special, that he would come down here on Saturday when he's got a game on Sunday, in the middle of the Big Ten season.''
Said Geiger: "There are some people coming because Tubby is the keynote speaker. However, the bulk of the people are coming to rally around Jeff.
"We're grateful to Tubby, and our kids are excited. Aside from what this is doing for Jeff, this has been a great model for our children. They are learning what it's like to put a benefit together, and how it draws people together.
"It's a phenomenal life lesson, and it extends even beyond what we're doing for Jeff.''
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org