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Lizi Arbogast / The Outlook Auburn men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl speaks to the crowd at Russell Medical Center's annual cancer survivor dinner Friday night.

Basketball is always the first thing on Bruce Pearl’s mind. As the head coach of Auburn’s men’s basketball team, which advanced to its first Final Four in history this past season, Pearl has a lot of expectations to live up to.

But Friday night wasn’t just about basketball; it was about what Pearl and his basketball platform can do to fight a bigger battle.

Pearl joined a group of cancer survivors and their guests for UAB Medicine Russell Medical Center’s annual cancer survivor dinner. In addition to his duties as the men’s basketball coach, Pearl is also the founder of AUTLIVE, an organization that raises awareness of cancer prevention and dedication.

First, Pearl told the story of how AUTLIVE got started. Chris Loftin, who played under Pearl at Tennessee, discovered through a random drug test he had testicular cancer. Loftin underwent treatment and continued to play for the Volunteers during his senior season. That’s when Pearl began OUTLIVE, but when he moved to Auburn, he brought the organization with him and changed the name.

After helping to build facilities in Tennessee dedicated to cancer treatment, Pearl’s foundation started to focus more on those directly affected by cancer.

“We began to know more patients as they went through treatments and we began to know what you guys live through,” Pearl said. “What we learned is that families go through cancer. Work needs to be done. Bills still need be to paid. And you can’t fight cancer on the road; you gotta fight cancer at home. That’s the beautiful thing about the Russell Medical Center here.”

Since then, AUTLIVE now works with nine local community hospitals that help cancer patients and their families.

“We give the money raised directly to hospitals and caregivers,” Pearl said. “We say, ‘Look, you know who’s tight on that car payment. You know you can’t afford that medication and you know who, with three chemo treatments left, wants to stop because quite frankly they don’t have the gas money to get there and they gotta go to work.’ No, we’ll fill your tank of gas. You’re finishing this. And we’re going to continue to do as much as we can.”

The conversation did, of course, eventually turn to basketball as Pearl opened up a question-and-answer session. One big topic of conversation was the rehabilitation of Chuma Okeke, who suffered an injury during Auburn’s run to the Final Four. Pearl said Okeke was rehabbing well and he was one of several Tigers who are headed to the NBA.

“I do say this that when we as a team are successful, you as an individual will benefit far more than when you as an individual are successful but the team fails,” Pearl said. “We had a historic season and we had four guys in the NBA Summer League. I just think it’s a great thing for us to build on.” 

Pearl also talked about recruiting, especially replacing Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, arguably the best backcourt in Auburn history. Although Pearl said the Tigers are going to be young and maybe not as deep this year, he is still confident in what they could accomplish especially if Austin Wiley stays healthy.

But ultimately, Friday’s dinner wasn’t about winning and losing and it wasn’t about Auburn versus Alabama. In fact, Pearl gave both a “War Eagle” and a “Roll Tide” to begin his speech. And each point Pearl made about his basketball team, he related to the battle so many in the room at the Mill Two Eighty had fought and won.

“You know, I get asked sometimes what happened to our basketball team this year,” Pearl said. “If Auburn can get to the Final Four, you can beat cancer.” 

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.