Hollidaysburg native Jeff Bower doesn't get back to this area very often any more, but when he does, the 1979 Hollidaysburg Area High School and 1983 St. Francis University graduate always feels like he has never left.
"It's great, I'm really excited to be back,'' Bower was saying Friday before serving as guest speaker at the third annual Griff's Run & Gun for a Cure Dinner and Auction to benefit pancreatic cancer research that was held at The Casino at Lakemont. "The special thing about being back here is that even if you haven't seen people you grew up with for awhile, you can always pick up right where you left off.''
The Dinner and Auction is held each July in memory and honor of Bower's high school basketball teammate and close friend, Greg Griffith, who passed away at age 50 last August after a 19-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
In just three years, the Greg and Cathy Griffith Family Foundation has raised more than $200,000 to fund research toward finding a cure for the dreaded disease. This year, the foundation weekend will include a first-time Sunday golf tournament at Sinking Valley that will follow a 3-on-3 community basketball tournament today on the Hollidaysburg Area YMCA indoor and outdoor basketball courts.
Bower, 51, has spent much of his working life as a National Basketball Association front-office executive. In 2010, he left his position as the general manager of the New Orleans Hornets after a 15-year association with the team as a GM, coach and scout that was highlighted by the franchise's first-ever Western Conference and Southwest Division championships in the 2007-08 season. Those laurels enabled Bower to place third in votes cast for the NBA Executive of the Year Award that year.
Bower - who still lives in the New Orleans suburb of Belle Chasse with his wife, Lisa, and their daughter Lindsey, 9 - was in the running for NBA general manager positions with the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers earlier this summer.
"I've talked with a number of different people about a variety of different [jobs] the last couple of years,'' said Bower, who has been relishing the time off for the last couple of years to enjoy quality time with his family. "When the right fit presents itself, I'll do something. I'm grateful to have worked 15 years in a variety of different positions with an NBA franchise, and I'm excited about exploring new opportunities.''
Bower joined most of his Hollidaysburg High School basketball teammates from the Class of 1979 at The Casino Friday to honor the memory of Griffith, who touched so many in both his personal life and his professional life as a banker.
Bower last met up with Griffith at an NBA game shortly before Griffith was diagnosed with cancer in February 2010.
"[The Hornets] were in Washington to play the Wizards, and Greg came down to see that game,'' said Bower. "I talked to him after the game, and I was so happy to see him. It was a special moment. There are so many different memories of him.''
Praising Griffith's courage in the face of adversity, Bower's speech included recollections of Griffith as a man of "action, atmopshere and attitude.''
The Blair County community has embraced Griffith - who is survived by his wife and their two grown sons, Jordan and Jamie - in his passing just as it embraced him during his life.
"Greg was a connector,'' said Booker Moore, another long-time Griffith friend who is serving as president of the Griffith Family Foundation. "He liked connecting people and doing good things for people, and now those same people are repaying him for the things he did for them during his lifetime.''
Griffith and Dr. Gregory Fulchiero, Sr. - an Altoona physician who died earlier this summer after a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer - were friends who shared common bonds in not only battling the same disease, but in being under the care of the same physician, Dr. James Moser. Moser, now the executive director of the new institute for hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, formerly practiced in Pittsburgh and spoke at Friday's dinner.
"Both Greg and Dr. Fulchiero were so well-connected to the community that when they passed, their friends all stepped forward and wanted to be involved in their cause,'' Moore said.
Youth was served at Friday's dinner, which included a poignant speech by young Kiera Chirdon, 11, of Altoona, who is fighting a rare form of cancer, epitheloid sarcoma. Kiera was presented with the Griffith Foundation's inaugural Beacon of Light citation. Maryland high school freshman Jack Andraka, 15, wowed the crowd with his presentation of his recently developed novel paper sensor that can detect pancreatic and several other cancers.
The community support for the Griffith Foundation has been overwhelming, Cathy Griffith said.
"The Blair County community has embraced this cause,'' she said. "Because of all their love and support, we are making a strong fight against pancreatic cancer.''
It's a fight that Greg Griffith's oldest buddies are happy to continue for the one-time Hollidaysburg basketball standout.
"The purpose of an event like this is not only to raise money for the Griffith Foundation, but to raise awareness [about pancreatic cancer] as well,'' Bower said. "I think we've all been touched by illness in some way, and hopefully, this is another step forward. I'm glad to be a part of it.''