Bob Lesniewski had few expectations when he first sent the email.

The former Buckshot Run director and longtime Special Olympics stalwart was looking to give back to the community. And, as someone living with cancer, putting that effort toward others battling the disease seemed like an obvious choice. He began setting up a golf outing at Hickory Hills, looking to raise funds while creating a day of camaraderie.

He found a partner in UW Health and the Carbone Cancer Center’s pediatric department. Then, he looked for a guest speaker. Greg Gard was a perfect fit.

The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball coach has himself been affected by cancer. His father, Glen, died in 2015 after a six-month battle with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He went on to found the Garding Against Cancer foundation with his wife Michelle, a UW-Eau Claire alum, to help battle the disease.

“He is a strong advocate for cancer,” Lesniewski said.

So Lesniewski sent off an email to Gard, someone he had never met before, explaining his situation and his hopes for the event. Two days later, he got a response. The message had left a serious impression, and a mutual connection with former Badger basketball star UW Athletic Hall of Fame member Dick Cable helped.

“He talked about the right things,” Gard said Thursday. “Things kind of aligned. We shared probably four or five emails back and forth.”

Gard couldn’t make it since it coincided with the end of his family vacation to the Smoky Mountains. But he could send some Wisconsin basketball swag to auction off, and he offered Lesniewski well wishes on his cancer battle. The Lesniewskis were thrilled.

Then, on Wednesday night, they got even better news. As Gard’s itinerary became more clear, the coach realized he’d be able to make the trip up after all. He flew in to Madison from Knoxville, Tennessee, then made the drive up to Eau Claire to speak at Hickory Hills on his personal history with cancer, his background as a small-town Wisconsin native, and of course, Badger basketball.

“I told Bob, if there’s anyway I could get there, I will be there,” Gard said. “Late last night I knew everything was going to align today for our flight back to get here.”

Glen Gard was diagnosed with cancer at a pivotal point in his son’s career. Greg had just helped Wisconsin reach the 2015 National Championship game about a month prior as an associate head coach under Bo Ryan. Fourty-five days after Gard’s father died, Ryan stepped down mid-season and Gard became UW’s interim head coach.

“Just going through that journey with him and our family gave me a little different perspective,” Gard said. “We were always involved in cancer fundraising and knew the importance of it, but when you sit front row through somebody’s journey and watch it, and unfortunately for my dad and our family after six months he passed away from it.”

It became clear Gard would stay on as the full-time head coach by the end of the 2015-16 campaign. He realized the opportunity that provided him off the court.

“I knew my platform and our voice was something we really wanted to try to help with,” Gard said. “Maybe things happen for a reason. I don’t know. I’ve tried to figure out the how’s and why’s of this whole journey. With the formation of Garding Against Cancer now we’re able to help cancer research both at Carbone but also with patient care across the state.”

Basketball-wise, Gard discussed the youthful nature of his 2021-22 group. About a fourth of the roster has ever played college basketball in front of a live crowd. He joked that program sales will be up as fans work to get familiar with all the additions.

The Badgers have been doing the traditional offseason work that was disrupted last summer at the height of the pandemic, which Gard said should be a benefit.

“We’re wet behind the ears,” Gard told the attendees. “It’ll be a fun group. You’ll enjoy watching them, you’ll enjoy watching them grow and mature and develop right in front of your eyes.”

After a short break, which included some whitewater rafting, Gard is prepping to begin work again for the upcoming season.

“We had the team on campus for eight weeks from early to mid-June to the first week of August,” Gard said. “Then they get a month at home for break. They’ll start to trickle in this weekend actually, and then we’ll start when school starts Sept. 8.”

Lesniewski was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2019. He has a tumor in his liver but is currently in remission. He says life is good.

“You don’t take for granted having the opportunity to spend time with people,” Lesniewski said. “If I can gather some people together and make the public aware of cancer, raising money for cancer, that’s a great day.”

Lesniewski said 70 people attended the event and about $8,000 was raised. And now, he’s a diehard Gard fan.

“No matter what people say about you or what I read about you in the paper, please know this,” Lesniewski said to Gard while introducing him to the crowd. “You will always have a 70-year-old Polish man with cancer who will have your back.”