By Jeff Louderback
A testament to perseverance, the fast-talking and wisecracking Jim Valvano saw a career and life defined by monumental peaks and dramatic challenges. The Queens native and coach’s son was the sideline general behind one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, a central figure in a scandal that led to his resignation and a motivational leader who delivered one of the most iconic speeches in sports history before he died from bone cancer at 47 in 1993.
It was 21 years ago – March 3, 1993, to be exact – when Valvano slowly walked to the stage to accept the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the ESPY Awards at Madison Square Garden. Weakened by metastatic adenocarcinoma – which was originally discovered in his spine and eventually spread to his back, neck, legs and hips – the gregarious Valvano was escorted to the podium by close friends, broadcaster Dick Vitale and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Despite fighting extreme pain from his illness, Valvano spoke for more than 10 minutes in an impassioned speech that evoked laughter and tears from the captivated audience. He talked about his life and his terminal condition with an energy, positivity and perspective that inspires those who watch it to this day.
“I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have,” Valvano said. “To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,’ to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.
In the speech, he also implored the audience with the immortal words that reflected his passion for generating funds for cancer research and offering hope to fellow individuals battling cancer. “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
A few weeks later, with his family at his side, Valvano passed away – almost 10 years after guiding North Carolina State to its historic upset over the heavily favored Houston Cougars. He called that night “the happiest day of my professional life.”
Long before he would etch his place in basketball history with the 1983 NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship and carve a lasting legacy for his role in advancing cancer research with the memorable speech and the creation of the Jimmy V Foundation, James Thomas Valvano was born Queens and raised on basketball on Long Island. Valvano and his brothers played for his father Rocca Valvano’s Seaford High School team.
He played basketball at Rutgers University and then served an assistant coach for a year for the Scarlet Knights before taking the head coaching job at Johns Hopkins University in 1970 at 22.
He led Johns Hopkins to a 10-9 record – the school’s first winning season in 24 years – before spending two seasons as an assistant at the University of Connecticut followed by a 32-32 mark in three seasons as head coach at Bucknell University.
Valvano made a name for himself in the coaching world in five seasons at Iona College, where he capped off his tenure there with a 23-6 record that included the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 1979 and a 29-5 season the next year when the Gaels reached the second round before falling to Georgetown.
Valvano’s prowess at Iona captured the attention of then North Carolina State athletic director Willis Casey. The coach’s 1991 autobiography detailed the story of how Valvano was hired.
Casey asked Valvano why he wanted the job.
“Because I want to win the national championship,” Valvano explained.
“Do you think you can do that here?” Casey responded.
“You guys have done it before,” Valvano said. “I would think you can do it again.”
In 10 seasons at North Carolina State, Valvano recorded a 209-114, reached eight NCAA tournaments, captured two Atlantic Coast Conference titles and was named ACC coach of the year in 1988 and 1989. He even served as athletics director for three years beginning in 1986. Yet it is the 1983 NCAA Tournament that made Valvano a household name among sports fans.
After an unimpressive regular season that saw the Wolfpack finish in a third place tie in the ACC with an 8-6 record (17-10 overall), they barely made it into the tournament before embarking on an improbable run that soared them to the championship game against the powerful Houston Cougars, who entered the contest with a 26-game winning streak and were anchored by future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
North Carolina State was not given a chance to win by most experts – and they trailed 42-35 with 10 minutes left – but in the final seconds they had possession and a chance to stage the unthinkable. With a few seconds left, guard Dereck Whittenburg lofted a 30- desperation shot that was short but caught out of the air by Lorenzo Charles and dunked in for a 54-52 victory.
Thousands in attendance and millions watching on TV were stunned as they witnessed the unforgettable image of Valvano racing off the bench and running wildly around the court, looking any anyone and everyone to hug.
“My favorite quote was ‘Trees would tap dance, elephants would drive the Indianapolis 500 and Orson Welles would skip breakfast, lunch and dinner before N.C. State figured out a way to win the NCAA tournament,’” Valvano later said. “This team taught me that elephants are going to be driving in the Indianapolis 500 someday.”
Valvano’s exhilaration turned into turmoil in 1989 when Peter Golenbock’s book “Personal Fouls” detailed corruption within the North Carolina State men’s basketball program. An NCAA investigation resulted in eight allegations, which eventually were reduced to three violations – selling tickets and basketball shoes, and lack of institutional control – by the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The program was put on probation for two years and the Wolfpack were declared ineligible for 1990 NCAA tournament.
Valvano said he was unaware of the wrongdoing by his players, but he was forced to step down as athletics director. He remained as head coach. In February of that year, former North Carolina State standout Charles Shackleford and as many as three former Wolfpack players made allegations of a points-shaving scandal. It was also discovered that Shackleford had improperly accepted $65,000 from a man posing as an agent and a North Carolina State booster while playing for the Wolfpack. Valvano denied knowledge of the payments, and Shackleford said that his coach was unaware, but that April he stepped down as head coach and launched a career as a commentator with ABC and ESPN.
Two years later, he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told him he could expect to live a year, maybe longer, if chemotherapy was a success. His health deteriorating, Valvano continued his role as a color analyst on college basketball broadcasts. With his sense of humor, quick wit and deep knowledge of the game, he was a natural for the position. He won a Cable ACE award in his first year of broadcasting.
Committed to raising money for cancer research and publicizing the importance, Valvano established the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research and an organization called VICTORIES: Valvano’s Incredible Cancer Team of Really Important Extraordinary Stars.
Valvano was vivid about his battle with cancer and his passion for raising as much money as possible for cancer research, even long after his life was over.
“I look at where I am now, and I know what I want to do,” Valvano said during the ESPY Awards speech. “What I would like to be able to do is spend whatever time I have left, and to give maybe some hope to others.
“I want to bring (cancer research) back on the front table. We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research,” he added. “It may not save my life, but it may save my children’s lives. It may save someone you love.”