By Mr. Clarke
“Strange things continue to happen throughout New Mexico, reads a 1983 Albuquerque headline following the upset Jimmy Valvano and his North Carolina State pulled off against the University of Houston in the Division I Men’s National Championship.
As a young man from Queens, New York who was known for his passion for life, Valvano brought a sort of energy and intensity to the game of basketball, both as a collegiate athlete and as a coach. After beginning his coaching career at John Hopkins University, the former Rutgers’ point guard, Jimmy V., found himself taking over an NC State basketball program in 1980, when he was just thirty- four years old. It was just after a messy political departure from former coach Norm Sloan which made the compassionate Valvano the perfect person for the job. Ending his first season as the coach of the Wolfpack with a record one game over .500 (14-13) was not ideal for Valvano, but he did not let that slow him down.
The next season was marked by a clear improvement. As a program, North Carolina State University made incremental steps by boosting their record to 22-10 and making it to the 1982 NCAA Division I Tournament. But it was his next season at the helm in 1983 that Jimmy V. made his mark on college basketball. As underdogs throughout the season, the NC State Wolfpack defeated college basketball titans North Carolina and Virginia en route to a 1983 NCAA tournament bid. Although nobody in the country believed that the Wolfpack deserved to even be on the same court as most of the teams in the tournament, Jimmy sounded like a broken record, repeatedly telling his team, “We belong here. We can win this thing. Don’t give up!”
With this mentality, NC State found themselves in Albuquerque, New Mexico, matched up against a Houston team on a 26-game winning streak in the national championship game. Jimmy led his team into competition the only way he knew how: by lighting a fire in his players’ hearts. At halftime, the Wolfpack was leading by eight when Jimmy addressed his team. “You will never, ever, for the rest of your life in whatever field you go into, have the emotion and feeling you will have when the final buzzer goes off and we win.” Even against future NBA Hall of Fame inductees Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, their coach maintained a confidence that seemed to come out of nowhere; nobody quite knew how he was able to remain so sure against such great odds.
Houston came out strong, though, matching the level of intensity they saw NC State bring and tying the score at fifty two with seconds left on the clock. After an inbound pass with less than ten seconds left, Dereck Whittenburg threw everything he had into a shot that came up just short of the basket. With the words of his coach’s halftime speech echoing in heart, Lorenzo Charles leaped above the Houston defenders to dunk the ball in as time expired.
With the final scoreboard reading 54-52 in favor of the North Carolina State Wolfpack, fans rushed the court. Among the chaos, one could not help but notice a man in a suit sprinting around the court “looking for somebody to hug.”
It is this kind of story that defines Jimmy V’s career; no matter what odds he faced, he remained faithful by seeing only the beauty of any situation. As Dick Vitale once complained to him about a busy schedule, Jimmy replied by simply putting things into perspective by asking, “Do you want to come with me tomorrow? You drive me to chemotherapy, watch me throw up and see people faced with real adversity.” Jimmy told his good friend, “You’re missing the important stuff, Dickie. You’re moving too fast. You gotta slow it down, baby.”
At 46 years old, Jimmy Valvano was diagnosed with cancer in his bones while working for ESPN as a sports anchor. While making a point to make his battle with the disease public, Jimmy maintained the mentality that had gotten him to this point in life, coming at it with all of the energy he could muster. He was known for the diligence with which he read any book that might give him more information to win his health battle and always remaining positive.
When the first ever ESPY’s sports awards came around, there was only one person fit to cement the event in award show fame, and that was the lovable Jimmy V. Although he was battling a cancer that plagued his bones and could barely speak or walk, with the help of his dear friends Mike Krzyzewski and Dick Vitale, Jimmy took the stage and started cracking jokes. Vitale reflected on this moment saying, “Twenty-four hours earlier, he could barely talk and now he was cracking jokes.”
The speech he gave while he accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award soon became the inspiration for the V Foundation, an organization committed to furthering cancer research efforts and inspiring those without hope. There were a few main lessons that Jimmy emphasized in his speech: “There are three things everyone should do every day. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think – spend some time in thought. Number three, let your emotions move you to tears. If you laugh, think and cry, that’s a heck of a day.”
Less than two months later, on April 28, Jimmy passed away, but it has become clear that his words will never die. His slogan of “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up” has continued to be the motivation that gets a chemotherapy patient out of bed in the morning. It has been the motto for anybody going through adversity and, while simple, pushes people to do great things against seemingly insurmountable odds.
To this day, Jimmy’s friends, led by Dick Vitale, lead the fundraisers, including an annual tournament dubbed the Jimmy V Classic, for the Jimmy V Foundation, as they raise millions of dollars for research grants that might one day stop this indiscriminate killer.
In an article he wrote for ESPN, Vitale writes of Jimmy V’s legacy, “I know he is looking down from heaven, so proud of what has been done in his name. I know that he would be so proud of the Jimmy V Classic, caring so much about the roundball, baby!”
*This is part of The Ranchor issue of The Anchor, which is a satire edition of our student newspaper. None of this article is meant to be taken as fact.*