What if you were George H.W. Bush’s former press secretary and you woke up in a room at Alexandria Hospital in 1991? And during minor surgery to combat stage-three colon cancer, you became so violently ill on the operating table, vomiting while under anesthesia, that they had to put you in the ICU with a severe case of aspiration pneumonia?
“Well, it’s Friday,” the nurse told Peter Teeley after he finally opened his eyes.
“Friday, the day I went into surgery,” Teeley recalled saying.
“No,” the nurse began, “it’s a week later.”
She added, “You’re going to make it, but you almost didn’t.”
Would you think of college basketball at that moment? Teeley, now a two-time cancer survivor, did.
At that moment in 1991, laying in that bed, Teeley wasn’t the accomplished politico and future U.S. ambassador to Canada; he was a middle-aged man confronting his own mortality, about to have an important epiphany:
“I basically said to myself, ‘If you get through this thing, you ought to be doing something to help children here,’ ” Teeley said Thursday morning.
It is now 21 years since he wrote a letter to Abe Pollin, saying he had an idea to raise money for kids: a college hoops tournament in Washington.
Twenty-one years later, though now condensed to a single-day event amid larger financial guarantees to big-time programs from other in-season tournaments, the BB&T Classic has raised almost $9 million for Washington children’s charities. That’s not counting the coat drive he started nearly three years ago.
This isn’t a story about the doubleheader on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center — George Washington plays Manhattan in the opener at 12:15, followed by Maryland-George Mason. Instead, it’s about how some very good teams like Massachusetts (back when some guy named Calipari was the coach), Gonzaga, Michigan State and Texas ended up here over the years instead of in Hawaii or Alaska, where the competition and TV exposure might have been better. It’s about the reason behind Gary Williams’s unmatched loyalty to an event that hardly ever helped Maryland’s RPI — and often hurt it.
As author and Post columnist John Feinstein, a member of the Children Charities Foundation’s executive board, said: “It’s just impossible to say no to Pete. He’s relentless.”
Teeley’s brainstorm didn’t come out of nowhere. Before cancer, he was named the U.S. representative to UNICEF. “I learned a lot about the plight of children from all over,” he says. “I began to see the poverty and struggles firsthand. It changed me.” He was also the first to write a U.N. resolution supported by both Israel and Arab nations concerning the plight of Palestinian children.