16 March 2013

You didn’t have to grow up in North Carolina or even be a North Carolina State University fan to adore Jim Valvano (or Jimmy V, as we called him).

It was a bit shocking when he arrived at NCSU in 1980 with his very strong Nooo Yawk accent, but in short order, he was beloved for his seemingly boundless boyish enthusiasm.  His place among NCSU’s exalted was, of course, affirmed in 1983 (30 years ago!!) when State won the NCAA Basketball Championship. Although the underdog against heavily favored University of Houston, NCSU pulled off one of the most thrilling victories in NCAA history when Lorenzo Charles dunked at the last second (from an airball by Dereck Whittenburg), giving State the win 54-52. Always the excitable boy, the footage of Valvano running up and down the side of the court looking for someone to hug right after the win was as famous as Charles’ final basket. 

A few years later, though, after adding athletic director to his duties, he was embroiled in a scandal — most of the charges were later deemed false — and left NCSU in 1990 under a black cloud. While it was sad and horrible at the time, it seems like such a small footnote now in his legacy that it’s all but forgotten. He was working as a commentator and motivational speaker when he was diagnosed with cancer in June 1992. He died in April 1993. But before he did, he not only returned to NCSU to deliver a rousing speech for the  10th anniversary of the 1983 NCAA win, but spoke at the 1993 ESPY Awards eight weeks before his death. It didn’t matter at all if you had never watched a basketball game in your life or had no idea who Valvano was, his acceptance speech for the Arthur Ashe Courage And Humanitarian Award was one for the ages.  Like his NSCU speech from a few weeks earlier, he stressed “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up,” which could have sounded trite if it were not coming from someone who was fighting for his life. 

Shortly before his death, he announced the formation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research.  Much of the Foundation’s work supports young scientists/doctors searching for a cure and funds research in hopes of accelerating results. 

NSCU lost in the ACC tournament today, but tomorrow, Valvano’s life (and the 1983 victory) will be the subject of “Survive and Advance,” the latest  offering in ESPN’s acclaimed 30 For 30 documentary series. The story of how the documentary came together, just like Valvano’s story, is filled with highs and lows. Whittenburg called director Jonathan Hock in 2011 about making a film commemorating the 30th anniversary of State’s win (and the entire incredible post-season that also included a number of other Hail Mary victories). Incredibly, two days after the phone call, Charles, who was working as a bus driver, died in a crash.

Below is the trailer for the ESPN film (you have to get through an ad first). If you don’t remember the win, do yourself a favor and watch, and see a little of the Valvano magic. Just try to get through the 90 seconds without tearing up. I dare you.

When I go home now, I inevitably find myself driving past the street re-named for Valvano and it makes me smile and sad at the same time. 

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