Jim Sabiston special to Duke women

There’s no doubting Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie’s competitiveness. And she’ll certainly have her unbeaten and No. 2 Blue Devils ready to face top-ranked Connecticut Tuesday in perhaps the biggest game of the NCAA women’s regular season. But the game still will be secondary for McCallie on this day. See, the heavyweight matchup is part of the Jimmy V Women’s Basketball Classic, and McCallie and her players have learned first-hand what the ugly disease of cancer can take away.

“I don’t like when people overemphasize the wrong things,” McCallie said. “To me, that’s the Jimmy V. It’s not the Duke-Connecticut game. It’s the Jimmy V--first. And I think that’s important to remember, especially for us this year. We learned a lot. We’ve grown up fast.”

For years, Jim Sabiston was a fixture at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He’d sit on the baseline, with his wife, Susan, at nearly every women’s game. A successful businessman in the food service industry, the Vietnam veteran and North Carolina native donated the money so the Duke women could have a new locker room. He also funded the renovations that left the coaches with spacious, state-of-the-art offices.

More important, he got to know McCallie, the rest of the coaching staff and the players. His wife baked cakes and cookies for them. Sabiston would ask about their families, while sprinkling in his desire for better rebounding.

“Jim was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met,” McCallie said.

Sabiston was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma about two years ago. McCallie and players would visit him during his treatment and he would quickly deflect attention away from his plight and toward the players and their season. After aggressive treatment his cancer was in remission, but he couldn’t overcome an infection caused by the disease.

Sabiston died on Sept. 21. He was 66.

“His death was a hard thing for us, especially the older players,” senior forward Haley Peters said. “But I know that we think about him every day. Our goal is to play in a way that would make him proud, to play 'junkyard mean', as he liked to say, and to finish every little thing we do on our terms.”

Sabiston was one of the first people McCallie met seven years ago when she left Michigan State for Duke, calling him someone who “helped us every way he could.”

“I had to speak at that funeral,” she said. “That was really a difficult time for me. I had never done that before. All I can say is that was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Nearly two months after his death, Sabiston remains on the minds of McCallie and her players. The team is dedicating the UConn game Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and WatchESPN) in his honor. The game serves as a fundraising event for The V Foundation, dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.

“So we’re just so proud to be a part of Jimmy V,” McCallie said. “We all have our stories, and that one is obviously very close to us.”