The E.F. Wallengren Hoopfest drew a large crowd of friends and family to the gymnasium at Saturday not only for an annual 3-point shootout, friendly games of basketball and to raise money benefiting ALS research, but to celebrate the life of former basketball coach Ernest Ferrin Wallengren.
“It’s important not in just raising money for the research, which is the goal of the fundraising, but all of the publicity we get helps to create ALS awareness,” said his wife, Cheryl Wallengren. “And it’s just like a big family and friends reunion.”
Known as Ernie to his loved ones, Wallengren coached the Calabasas High basketball team until one misstep on the court in the 2000-01 season turned into a devastating diagnosis. He was informed that the inability to use his foot was the beginning stages of ALS, short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease. He died two years later in 2003.
Also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS is marked by a degeneration of a select group of nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, which leads to the progressive paralysis of the muscles, according to the ALS Association.
A loss of walking ability is often followed by quadripalegia, and eventually paralysis of the throat and heart. Almost every person who dies of ALS chokes to death, said Mark Wallengren, Ernie’s brother and radio host of KOST 103.5.
“I am told that it’s the worse diagnosis that anyone could ever have as far as this is how you’re going to die,” Mark Wallengren said. “And the problem is that it’s called an orphan’s disease — not enough people get it to make it profitable to pharmaceutical companies.”
Lending his namesake to the foundation he formed to raise funds for ALS research in conjunction with the ALS Association, Ernie Wallengren hoped to further stem cell research as a way to stave off the debilitating symptoms of the disease, and eventually, find a cure.
“He loved science, so he read up on all the possible approaches to finding a cure for ALS and decided that he wanted it to go to stem cell research because he felt not only that it held out hope for ALS, but also Parkinson’s Disease and all other neurological diseases,” said his mother, Claire Peterson. "He was unselfish like that.”
Having raised about $400,000 since its inception less than a decade ago, The E.F. Wallengren Foundation got some help this year from Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis, who was on hand to sign autographs for fans.
The NFL player and UCLA alumnus was spurred to action by his publicist, Michael Goldman — a 1999 Calabasas High graduate and former basketball player who said he was fortunate to know Coach Ernie.
Although not personally affected by ALS, Lewis said he was happy to support a good cause—on the same day which happened to be his birthday.
“When people start foundations or charities, it’s tough to get people to come out and support and give back," Lewis said. "And so whenever I have the time and I’m available, I try to do that. Every disease and illness is unfortunate.”
Lewis started the Marcedes Lewis Foundation four years ago to assist inner city youth in his hometown of Long Beach.
Also on hand to lend support was Calabasas Mayor Pro Tem Fred Gaines, who has visited Hoopfest in years past.
“It’s a great event," Gaines said. "We’re really happy to be doing it here in Calabasas.... Everybody knows the [Wallengren] family. It’s a fun event.”
Before coaching, Wallengren was a television writer/producer who worked on notable shows such as Baywatch, Falcon Crest, The Waltons, Knight Rider and Little House on the Prairie.
A multifaceted individual, Wallengren was described as a jokester by his brother Eric. And he was the only one of the five Wallengren siblings, of whom Ernie was the eldest, who loved basketball. While not a passion shared by his brothers, a love for the game was passed down to almost all of his five children.
Daniel Wallengren, Ernie's youngest son, is a track and field runner who admits to being the one child who didn't inherit the "basketball gene." But he still enjoys Hoopfest.
“It's also like a family gathering time," Daniel said. "So it’s more than just a fundraiser."
Lending their support to the day were several organizations and businesses, including Ralphs, Stonefire Grill and of course, Calabasas High School, which hosts Hoopfest for free every year.
Cheryl Wallengren said that the support she receives from the school is huge, but due to size limitations, the option to move it out of Calabasas is always on the table.
“We are limited to just the gym, or do we expand to be able to make it larger and make more money?” she said. “But the connection to Calabasas is so important that it always comes up and everyone says, No, let’s keep it in Calabasas. This is home.”