Bow Tie Day: Remembering Nick Gilbert and raising awareness for NF
5 Min Read
Bow-tie wearing NBA charm Nick Gilbert inspires unity and giving at the Rocket Mortage Classic.
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
You might remember Nick Gilbert from the 2011 NBA Draft Lottery.
He was the bespectacled 14-year-old wearing a dark suit and his signature bow tie, seated among those NBA executives, all of whom were hoping to snag the first pick. Gilbert turned out to be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ good luck charm, too, as the team -- owned by his father, Dan Gilbert -- walked away with the top prize, the first of three No. 1 picks in a four-year span.
However, Gilbert was representing much more than an NBA franchise that night. He was an ambassador for the Children’s Tumor Network amid a life-long battle with neurofibromatosis (NF) type 1.
NF is a genetic disorder with no known cure that causes tumors -- sometimes benign, sometimes malignant -- to attack nerve pathways. According to updated statistics, it affects one in every 2,000 people in the world. The tumors can lead to blindness, deafness, bone abnormalities and debilitating pain.
In Gilbert’s case, those tumors manifested in his brain. He underwent numerous surgeries, multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy as well. A frequent visitor to the hospital, he spent extended periods of time confined to bed or a wheelchair. As he grew older, he also experienced vision and hearing loss.
“But I think one of the most inspirational things about Nick is that he really truly -- I can't impress upon you enough that I'm not overexaggerating -- he truly never let that get him down,” said Laura Grannemann, the executive director of the Gilbert Family Foundation.
“He was really always incredibly positive and no matter what stood in his way, he would find ways to communicate to those who he loved.”
Nick Gilbert honored on the course at Rocket Mortgage
In May, Gilbert passed away at the age of 26 due to complications from the disease. To honor him and his iconic fashion statement, the Rocket Mortgage Classic is hosting “Bow Tie Day” at Detroit Golf Club in hopes of raising funds to fight NF.
The Gilbert family has deep-seeded roots in the city and a strong connection to the tournament, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. Dan Gilbert, the billionaire philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of Rocket Mortgage, calls his son his “personal hero” and has committed $500 million over the next 10 years to revitalize Detroit neighborhoods.
“I think about the Detroit that I knew even 10, 15 years ago and how different it is today,” RMC executive director Jason Langwell said. “And I don't think anybody would deny that the single driving force and primary reason that Detroit is where it is today is because of Dan and Jennifer Gilbert and their family -- not only the companies they built, but the community they built around it.
“That's what's so special about it. It's one thing to build businesses and stuff, but all that without any real impact, that's just commerce. That's not legacy. And they've really been intentional about that.”
Langwell may not have known Nick Gilbert as well as some of the others, but he did spend time with him at the tournament and at several Cavaliers games. He described Gilbert as having a special aura about him.
“You think about what he dealt with since (he was) 18 months old and to kind of carry that good energy and spirit about him,” Langwell says. “That's the thing. You just spend time around him and kind of leave and he makes you want to live your life (to the fullest).”
The Bow Tie Day concept came together quickly after Gilbert’s untimely passing. The Cavaliers dedicated their 2022-23 season to him, sporting the emblem on their warm-up jackets and the lapels of broadcasters, coaches and executives. Langwell and his staff decided to take the concept a step farther.
Every caddie bib on Thursday at Detroit Golf Club will feature an image of the Rocket Mortgage Classic tie on the chest and Nick Gilbert’s name on the back instead of the player’s name. After the professionals autograph the bibs, they will be collected and given to NF Forward for future fundraising efforts, along with pin flags signed at player registration.
In addition, the ninth and 18th holes will feature pin flags with the Rocket Mortgage Classic bow tie. The first 10,000 fans on the ground will receive a bow tie pin and all in attendance will be able to buy a special cookie in that signature shape. In addition, there will be QR codes on special signage that fans can scan to learn more and donate.
Any money raised will be matched by the Gilbert Family Foundation. The Gilberts have given nearly $100 million to researchers working to find a cure for NF and the Foundation’s primary fundraiser has topped $50 million.
Grannemann thinks the celebration of Gilbert’s life at the tournament is a perfect fit given his penchant for bringing people together and the tournament’s goal to bridge the digital divide in Detroit.
“I would get a text in the middle of the night or at some random time saying, hey, I've got this great idea. I want to introduce you to this person to do something really impactful,” Grannemann said, laughing at the memory. “And it was always a musical artist or a creative professional or someone he had met on a trip who had a passion about something.
“He just loved connecting the dots to help people to both do impactful work, but also create something really fun and innovative.”
And that’s what Bow Tie Day is all about.
“Nick was an incredible person,” Grannemann said. “I think one of the things that really stands out to me is the fact that he truly never let his diagnosis sway him from doing anything. And in fact, it was almost like a driving force for him to constantly move forward with whatever he had set his mind to doing.
“He was an incredibly positive person, very optimistic, very outgoing, and always took great pride in bringing people together. So that's part of the reason that we thought that this Bow Tie initiative at the Rocket Mortgage Classic would be such a great way to honor Nick, because the Rocket Mortgage Classic is a great example of bringing people together around a common mission.
“And while you're doing that, might as well have some fun.”