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Jim Larranaga called dying alumnus

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Jim Palma played one year of freshman basketball at the University of Miami in the 1940s. His name appears in no official program records, and since he wasn't on the varsity squad, he's not recognized as a letter winner at the school.

To Miami coach Jim Larranaga, that's irrelevant.

"We have a saying," Larranaga said, "Once a Cane, always a Cane."

That's why, last week, Larranaga took a break from preparing for what became Miami's win over Duke and spent a few minutes on the phone with Palma. Larranaga told the man, whom he had never met and will never meet, that the Hurricanes were dedicating their game against the Blue Devils to him.

"He was thrilled," Palma's son, Larry, told The Associated Press. "And that was the last phone call he ever took."

Miami won that game 90-74.

Jim Palma died Sunday morning in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications related to pancreatic cancer, his son said. He was 88. For the 65 years between his graduation from Miami until his death, the Navy veteran who decided to become a Hurricane when World War II ended could often be found wearing the school's orange and green.

That was why Palma's daughter-in-law decided to write a letter to Miami's athletic department last week, telling them his story, how he was in hospice care and asking if someone could send a team photo or something to lift Jim Palma's spirits. Her note eventually found its way to men's basketball director of operations Adam Fisher, who alerted Larranaga.

He asked Fisher to get Jim Palma on the phone.

"Coach was incredibly genuine," Larry Palma said. "He was asking, 'How tall are you? What position did you play? How was your team? What did you study? What was your job? How are your kids? Did your kids play?' It was not like a mail-it-in phone call. He really cared, and at the end of the conversation, he said his team was dedicating the Duke game to Jim Palma."

"We have a saying: Once a Cane, always a Cane."

Miami coach Jim Larranaga

The game started at 9 p.m., way past what was Jim Palma's bedtime. He stayed up later than usual, going to bed when Miami led 14-12. Larry Palma woke him at midnight to give him some medication, told him the final score and watched his father's face light up.

"He was just elated," Larry Palma said. "And I don't know if what happened next was fate or whatever."

The next morning, the light wasn't there.

Jim Palma had clearly started to slip away, and on Sunday, he was gone.

"We're a sports family," Larry Palma said. "For this to happen, it was a great family moment and a tribute to my dad and really a tribute to Hurricane sports. Little things can be huge things at the right moment in time -- to me, that's what I take from this."

Larranaga believes the same.

His philosophy on stories like this one goes back to when he got the phone call that his father had been diagnosed with bone cancer and that he needed to find him a doctor. Unsure of where to begin, Larranaga called his high school coach, the famed Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy in New York.

Curran told him not to worry about anything. Larranaga's father got an appointment to see a renowned doctor the next day. For the next seven months until his death, his father got the best care possible.

"That stayed with me," Larranaga said.

So he pays it forward, whenever he can, and does so quietly. In the past few weeks, he has invited a cancer-stricken girl and her family to a Hurricanes game, taken his team to the Homestead Air Reserve Base to pay tribute to troops and tell them that his team with players from many different nations is thankful for them, and reached out to a dying man to bring him a little peace.

"I know he doesn't want to pat himself on the back," Larry Palma said, "but my daughters played college sports. I know how busy it is. He had better things to do on the day before they played Duke. But my dad, he was a Cane for life, and for Coach to do what he did meant so much to our family."