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Quality family time: BYU’s fathers and sons camp about bonding

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PROVO — During his first year as BYU's head basketball coach, Steve Cleveland conceived a novel idea and pitched it to his staff.

Cleveland announced he wanted to host a fathers and sons basketball camp on Memorial Day weekend. Some of his staff looked at him strangely, or thought it sounded a little crazy. But the first camp was held in 1998.

"It may bomb," Cleveland acknowledged beforehand. About 150 fathers and sons showed up.

Twelve years and 12 camps later, it's become "the bomb," as the kids like to say. It may be the most popular sports camp at BYU, out of the many that are offered. "It's typically sold out in two hours," said Chad Bunn, the video operations coordinator for the BYU athletic department.

Less than a month ago, over Memorial Day weekend, about 600 fathers and sons once again descended upon the Smith Fieldhouse for the annual camp. Memorial Day weekend is a fitting time to stage this event because those who participate say it's an experience that is remembered fondly, including days like today — Father's Day.

Though the camp is organized and run by the Cougar basketball coaches, the weekend retreat is about much more than hoops.

Current BYU coach Dave Rose, who was an assistant under Cleveland and succeeded him in 2005, says the purpose of the camp transcends athletics — it's the chance to strengthen the bonds between fathers and sons.

"The biggest highlight is the dad gets to spend four days with the son," said Rose, who was diagnosed earlier this week with pancreatic cancer. "It's tough to duplicate that anywhere, as far as having that much isolated time with your boys. That's the highlight. The core principles of this camp are to have fun, be with your dad and enjoy time together, to have a really good physical activity and a great spiritual experience. It's turned into a situation where I think every dad and their kids come for their own personal reasons."

Over the years, Rose estimates, participants have hailed from every state in the U.S., and throughout Canada. Some BYU graduates who live overseas have traveled from as far away as Asia and Europe to attend.

"We've had them from all over during our 12 years doing this," Rose said.

What started as an experiment has grown exponentially, mostly by word-of-mouth.

"People kept coming every year, bringing their young kids, then their younger brothers," Rose said. "I've gotten an e-mail the last two Memorial Days from a dad who had been to 10 straight camps, then his son went on a mission. This is the son's second year on a mission. He told me he can't wait for his son to get back from a mission and hopefully they'll be able to come next year. That's pretty fun."

The camp is basketball-oriented, but the NCAA requires that this particular event feature activities in addition to basketball. So fathers and sons participate in other sports such as flag football, Frisbee golf, golf and soccer. Of course, there are plenty of basketball contests and drills set up to help campers enhance their hoops skills. Many current Cougar players, such as Jimmer Fredette and Jonathan Tavernari, were on hand to lend instruction.

On Sunday, campers traveled to Temple Square in Salt Lake City to watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast, followed by a sacrament meeting. That night, a fireside was put on by the coaches and players.

For assistant coach John Wardenburg, who oversees the camp, it's a joy to see fathers and sons dribbling, shooting, sweating, mingling, talking and worshipping together.

"This is my favorite camp to organize for the year because of the things I see, the relationships I see develop, not only between the kids and their dads, but other kids and fathers," he said. "It's a neat thing to see. It's a lot of fun. Not only the stuff we do in the gyms, but the stuff we do on Sundays, too. It's a pretty special experience."

Duane Gardner of Bountiful is the patriarch of a family composed of four generations that attended this year's camp. In fact, the Gardners have been coming for about 10 years, making it a Memorial Day tradition.

Gardner came this year with his two sons, who live in the Las Vegas area (another son, who resides in Idaho, couldn't attend this time), six grandsons and one great-grandson, 4-year-old Max.

At age 79 (he turns 80 in October), it's difficult for Gardner to participate in some of the grueling physical activities, but that doesn't deter him.

"It's about dads being involved with their kids. It doesn't matter what you do," he said. "We've always supported the kids, so this is kind of natural. I'm pleased that they'll let me hang out with them."

With no moms around, the all-you-can-eat cafeteria meals provided can be as nutritious as desired. "Sometimes," Gardner said, "it's Sprite and cereal for breakfast."

What keeps the Gardners returning every year?

"Well, it's not the athletic prowess. It's not the Motrin we have to take to keep moving," joked Robert Gardner, Duane's son. "I like that my sons have had a chance to play with their cousins. I like the chance to see my brothers. That's what keeps us keeping back. It's certainly not to relive any past non-glory days."

Among those attending this year's camp was former BYU tight end Byron Rex (1990-92). He's come the past couple of years with his son, Isaac, who is 10. This year, he brought his 7-year-old, Preston, for the first time.

Rex doesn't bring his sons to Provo to reminisce or wax nostalgic about past triumphs.

"The kids are sick of hearing about that. They hear enough about that at home. We try to ignore it," said Rex, who lives in San Clemente, Calif., and works for a pharmaceutical company. "But coach Rose and coach Wardenburg are good about recognizing the former athletes, both football and basketball players who come to this camp. They appreciate what this school represents and what we built here. So it's great."

The best part of the camp is "just staying in the dorms with my 7-year-old, talking at night," Rex said. "He reads from his joke book and I fall asleep. Spending time with my boys and getting them excited about seeing the BYU campus is the highlight. Now, my boys want to come to BYU to go to school. The food they eat in the cafeteria is great. Everything about this camp is wonderful. I'm sure I'll be here with my three sons when my 3-year-old is old enough."

Rose said that through the camp, fans can enhance their connection to BYU basketball.

"It's a real good way for people to get to know our program and our coaching staff and players. We're here every day and we have interaction with these guys," Rose said. "You get to know them. A lot of guys are from out of town and you see them on the road when we're playing games. They really like BYU basketball and BYU athletics. It's a good way for them to feel close to the program."

Not all of those who attend the camp are die-hard Cougar fans, however. This year, a group from Logan unabashedly displayed their loyalty to Utah State.

"We have guys who wear their Aggie or UNLV shirts from their hometowns," Rose said with a smile. "We see USC, Oklahoma shirts. They're all welcome."

David Olsen, of Logan, admitted that attending the camp is not cheap but added that the experience is priceless.

"It's dorm living, which isn't that great. There are noisy kids and we're up late and we eat too many doughnuts. But my son, Henry, has a great time. He looks forward to it all year. I see us doing it for quite a few more years. It's pricey — about $700 for the two of us. But you can't get that kind of time with your kid anywhere else."

Bunn, who has worked at BYU for two decades, is one of the camp's strongest proponents.

"I'm addicted to this camp. I love it," said Bunn, who has two daughters and no sons. "This is by far my all-time favorite camp. I think it's because of what it is. We call it a basketball camp, but I think there's probably as much other things as basketball going on. You don't have to be a basketball phenom to come to this camp. It's about being with your son for four days, which I think is absolutely incredible. There are so many of us that are so busy with things outside of our family. It's a great opportunity."

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com