Twenty years ago today, on January 22, 1994, the LSU men’s basketball team played defending NCAA champion North Carolina in the Superdome. It was a national TV game. And it carried a special name – “Dribblin’ for Donors” – to promote organ donation.
The game concept was developed by LSU coach Dale Brown and a friend of his: Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Marx, whose sister, Wendy, was a liver transplant recipient. Brown had recently joined the U.S. Sports Council on Organ Donation, co-founded by Marx and Olympic champion Carl Lewis, and the game was used to help launch a Louisiana donor registry that became one of the best in the nation.
Two decades later, Marx shares memories and photos from “Dribblin’ for Donors” – an event that eventually led to his move from Washington D.C. to Louisiana. (Thanks to Brown and LSU basketball, the Yankee writer met and married a beautiful lady from Thibodaux!) Marx now lives in Baton Rouge and is working on a book about LSU sports. You can follow on Twitter (@LSUTigersBook) as he continues his journey with the Tigers.
Dale Brown, in his 22nd season as LSU basketball coach, was clearly one of the most remarkable people in all of sports. He was widely celebrated for twice taking teams to the exalted Final Four of the NCAA tournament and for being named national coach of the year. He prepared Shaquille O’Neal and many others for professional basketball. More than anything else, though, Dale was defined by his absolute devotion to the power of positive thinking and his unyielding commitment to enhancing the lives of others. He was Norman Vincent Peale with a whistle and a clipboard.
Sure, ardent LSU fans typically cared most about points on the scoreboard and rankings in the national polls, but Dale, the son of a welfare mother in rural North Dakota, measured his own success by the most meaningful statistics of all: lives touched, hope gained. His top priority as a coach was to use his public platform as a vehicle to help lift the needy and also inspire the more-fortunate toward even greater things.
Kid with cancer? Dale would put him on the team bench for a game.
Letter from a prisoner on death row? Dale would take his players for a visit.
Random panhandler? Dale would do a jig with him on a crowded city sidewalk – anything to lift the human spirit!
So it came as no surprise when Dale just called me out of the blue one day and said: “Let’s do a big basketball game for organ donation. I’ve got the perfect game.”
CBS already had it scheduled for national broadcast on a Saturday afternoon: perennial power LSU against Dean Smith and his North Carolina Tar Heels, live from the Superdome in New Orleans. The Dome would be packed with fans and millions more would be watching on television. What an opportunity to get out our message. And so we immediately went to work on a new program – we named it “Dribblin’ for Donors” – to combine college basketball with organ donor awareness.
In the months leading up to the game, we collaborated with the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) to ensure that we were making the most of this for everyone in the state. We produced public service announcements with Dale, Carl Lewis, and my sister, Wendy, then 26 and four-plus years post-transplant. We distributed posters to high schools, colleges, and hospitals. We blanketed the regional news media with interviews and special features pushing both the game and its message. And LOPA was able to parlay all the exposure into a successful launch of its new computer registry for donors.
The whole scene on game day was truly remarkable.
Several hundred volunteers, most of them transplant recipients and donor family members, offered everyone entering the Superdome a “Dribblin’ for Donors” brochure complete with donor cards and a family registration form.
I’ll always remember one particular volunteer, a donor mother named Angel – yes, it was actually Angel – carrying the most incredible message on her name tag. It was written in thick, black letters: “My Son Ryan Joseph Cramer Saved 3 Lives. Will You?” And there was a small halo drawn above the “R” in Ryan. With countless personal touches such as this one, the day would be long remembered by a great many of the thirty thousand people in attendance.
Before the start of the game, Carl and Wendy walked together to center court, where Carl introduced her, spoke briefly about organ donation, and then sang the national anthem. LSU players wore “Dribblin’ for Donors” T-shirts until they entered the game and then our logo patches on their jerseys while they played. Donor awareness messages ran on the huge stadium scoreboards. And CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer did an interview with Carl so he could reach their audience.
There was also some pretty impressive basketball action on the court, though not much of it went in the favor of LSU. The Tigers (without injured star Randy Livingston) were in the midst of a down season, while North Carolina was loaded with talented players, including future pros Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Eric Montross, and Jeff McInnis. The final score was North Carolina 88, LSU 65, but the lopsided nature of the game would take nothing away from all that was accomplished in terms of donor awareness.
No one saw this more clearly than the LSU coach.
As we were walking off the court toward the post-game news conference – Dale, Carl, Wendy, and me – Dale stopped to tell us: “You know, it really does humble you, something like this. You look at all the bright lights and the television cameras, all these thousands of people who come to see us, all the hype we put into a damn basketball game. A game. But then you stop for a minute and think about something that really matters. You think about all the people waiting for transplants, the people who have had them, the donor families – all these people we have met and everything they’ve had to endure. Man, I’m glad we did this. Win, lose, or draw, I’m just so glad we did this.”
It hardly seems possible that twenty years have passed since that walk and that talk. But Dale’s words still echo for me. They always will.