This is my favorite time of the year! Winter is fading into spring, the days are gradually getting longer, and basketballs are bouncing all over gyms in high schools and colleges throughout the land. Boys and girls are dreaming of state championship runs and young women and men in college arenas are clawing and sweating to make it to the “Big Dance.” And all over the country, has-been’s and never-was jocks fill out tournament brackets based on years of experience, spectating, and some good ol’ fashion guessing.
My personal love affair with the game started about 1971 in our driveway with a wooden backboard hung above the carport shooting thousands of layups and jump shots and at least a million free throws. That early passion was fueled by watching legends like Pistol Pete Maravich, Ernie and Bernie, George “Iceman” Gervin, and of course Dr. J! My early career grew from fantasy games in the driveway to my first Jr. Pro league in a cracker-box gym. My next level championship run ended in 1983 with a soul-crushing loss to our arch-rivals in the semifinals of our regional high school tournament, two games shy of our goal to reach the state tournament.
Despite the sadness of a 12 year obsession with basketball coming to an end in early March, there was one consolation. The NCAA Tournament was gearing up and my Tennessee Volunteers were playing. They unfortunately were given a horrendous draw by the basketball gods receiving a first round battle against the Virginia Cavaliers led by 7 foot, all-everything Ralph Sampson. My undersized Vols executed a terrific game plan to near-perfection against Big Ralph, but alas came up short. Surely this was the final chapter of basketball for me in 1983. And then I saw them!
In a game played on the west coast, well after I was supposed to be home in bed, another first round contest took place. It was to become the most unlikely Cinderella story in college basketball and very nearly didn’t happen. The North Carolina State Wolfpack was the upset champion of the ACC beating the aforementioned Virginia Cavaliers. Their first round opponent was Pepperdine in Corvallis, Oregon and it was looking bleak as the Wolfpack trailed by 6 points with less than a minute to play. A quick history refresher is in order here because in 1983, college basketball did not have a three-point shot or a 35-second shot clock, so a 6 point lead was nearly insurmountable.
Well, the Pack tied the game and won in overtime which continued a string of victories that would stretch to 10, half of which they trailed late in the game. This winning streak would culminate in what I consider the best championship game I have ever witnessed as they beat the heavily favored Houston Cougars on a last second shot. But that is not what makes this story one I will never forget. It was him, Head Coach Jim Valvano and his guys, the players on that 1983 team.
He was an enthusiastic, bombastic, Italian-American basketball coach named Jim Valvano. Coach V rubbed some coaches the wrong way because of his emotional outbursts and enthusiastic celebrations. However, I could tell very quickly that he was not obnoxious and cocky, but rather he was enthusiastically confident and he loved his players. Most importantly, they loved him back! His players were not household names like their Houston counterparts, but I will never forget them: Dereck Wittenburg, Sydney Lowe, Thurl Bailey, Lorenzo Charles, Cozell McQueen, and Terry Gannon to name a few.
Coach V’s limelight was bright, but faded in the years following that championship run and his coaching tenure ended in controversy. But his legacy will forever be ingrained in American sports history because of what happened next. Coach V’s next was a terminal diagnosis of cancer in 1992 and the prognosis was bleak. It was the ensuing 10 months that the world would truly see the heart of a real champion.
The ESPY’s was ESPN’s brand new sports awards show and the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian award would be given to Coach V. He was barely able to attend, making a last minute decision to travel to New York for the event. I am forever grateful that he did because the brief speech he delivered is one of the most inspiring moments in my life. (https://youtu.be/HuoVM9nm42E ). The advice that he offered that night is as relevant as any practical life coaching I have ever heard:
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”
He closed his speech with words that ring true for anyone facing a diagnosis or a major life challenge:
“Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all.”
On that night in early March of 1993, Coach Valvano announced the creation of the The V Foundation for Cancer Research. Over the next 2+ decades, The V Foundation has awarded in excess of $150 million to more than 120 facilities nationwide and proudly awards 100% of direct cash donations to cancer research and related programs. Coach Valvano gave the foundation it’s mission statement from the words he shared with his championship team at their 10 year reunion: “don’t give up… don’t ever give up!”
On April 28, 1993, Coach Jim Valvano died, but he is still fighting! And tomorrow, I will do my best to laugh, to think, and to cry because Coach V was right, that makes for a heckuva day!
(For more information about The V Foundation, go to http://www.jimmyv.org/)