Jim Valvano: He twice taught us to never give up

By Lynn R. Mitchell

“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.” -Jim Valvano

This time of year — March Madness — always makes me think about Jim Valvano with his NC State Cinderella team in 1983, and his inspirational words just weeks before his death ten years later.

It was April 1983, and my then-boyfriend now-husband and I were on the mountain roads of western Virginia driving back to Richmond after a ski weekend with friends at Snowshoe Ski Resort in West Virginia. We had enjoyed hitting the slopes, some of our group skiing in shorts as we soaked in the warm sunshine and uniqueness of spring on the mountain, but the weekend was over and we were headed home and back to work on Monday.

On that Sunday afternoon the radio was tuned to the Final Four playoff game between NC State and Georgia. We were big fans of UVa, Coach Terry Holland, and Ralph Sampson — they were seeded #1 for the Western Region tournament but lost to #6 NC State who was on its way to becoming overall champions. But more than anything we were ACC loyalists so NC State became everyone’s team after the other ACC teams were eliminated.

As we drove the back roads, the radio blared with the sounds of the crowd, squeaky sneakers on the hardwood court, and the exclamations of the announcers, keeping us glued to the game. When NC State won, we cheered for this team that went on the next night to win over Houston, becoming America’s Cinderella team. Their win under Coach Jim Valvano, affectionately known as Jimmy V, was considered one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.  (See 1983 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournment brackets here.)

The video above is the last four breath-taking minutes of the final game. Shorter YouTube clips are available of the last seven seconds with NC State’s winning at-the-buzzer shot but today I wanted to watch and remember the closing minutes of the game, the familiar names of youthful players, and Coach V after the victory as he triumphantly raced around the court seemingly looking for someone to hug. His team would forever define a come-from-behind Cinderella team, a positive dream he left for America.

On that victorious day, no one could guess that a short ten years later Jimmy V would be dying of bone cancer at the youthful age of 47. In his last public appearance at the ESPY Awards on ESPN just weeks before his death, he left a second positive message for America. His remarks that night, forever etched in our memories and preserved on YouTube, are still a lasting impression of optimism and hope.

During his remarks he introduced The V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer with the motto, “Don’t give up … don’t ever give up.” I had lost my dad to cancer 18 years earlier so his words hit home. As he stood at the podium and spoke to the crowd for ten minutes, his words were a mixture of humor and poignant honesty. At one point while he talked the teleprompter flashed up that he had 30 seconds left. His response was,  “They got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen. I got tumors all over my body and I’m worried about some guy in the back going, ’30 seconds.’ ”

He was right, of course.

Here are his words. If you read them, I promise you will be inspired. If you have 12 minutes to spare, watch the video of his ESPY remarks so that you will experience the real flavor of Jim Valvano’s remarks as he accepted the first ever ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award:

I can’t tell you what an honor it is to even be mentioned in the same breath with Arthur Ashe. This is something I certainly will treasure forever. But, as it was said on the tape, and I also don’t have one of those things going with the cue cards, so I’m going to speak longer than anybody else has spoken tonight. That’s the way it goes. Time is very precious to me. I don’t know how much I have left, and I have some things that I would like to say. Hopefully, at the end, I’ll have something that will be important to other people too.

But I can’t help it. Now, I’m fighting cancer, everybody knows that. People ask me all the time about how you go through your life and how’s your day, and nothing is changed for me. As Dick said, I’m a very emotional, passionate man. I can’t help it. That’s being the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano. It comes with the territory. We hug, we kiss, we love. And when people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing.

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.

And so, I can’t help — I rode on the plane up today with Mike Krzyzewski, my good friend and a wonderful coach. People don’t realize he’s ten times a better person than he is a coach, and we know he’s a great coach. He’s meant a lot to me in these last five or six months with my battle. But when I look at Mike, I think, we competed against each other as players. I coached against him for fifteen years, and I always have to think about what’s important in life to me are these three things. Where you started; where you are; and where you’re gonna be. Those are the three things that I try and do every day. And you know when I think about getting up and giving a speech, I can’t help it — I have to remember the first speech I ever gave.

I was coaching at Rutgers University, that was my first job — oh, that’s wonderful [reaction to applause] — and I was the freshman coach. That’s when freshmen played on freshman teams. And I was so fired up about my first job. I see Lou Holtz, Coach Holtz here. What was it like, the very first job you had, right? The very first time you stood in the locker room to give a pep talk. That’s a special place, the locker room, for a coach to give a talk. So my idol as a coach was Vince Lombardi, and I read this book called Commitment To Excellence by Vince Lombardi. And in the book, Lombardi talked about the fist time he spoke before his Green Bay Packer team in the locker room —  they were perennial losers. And I’m reading this and Lombardi said he was thinking should it be a long talk? A short talk? But he wanted it to be emotional, so it would be brief.

And here’s what he did. Normally you get in the locker room, I don’t know, twenty-five minutes, a half hour before the team takes the field; you do your little X’s and 0’s, and then you give the great Knute Rockne talk. We all do. Speech number eight-four. You pull them right out, you get ready, get your squad ready. Well, this is the first one I ever gave. And I read this thing — Lombardi, what he said was he didn’t go in. He waited. His team was wondering: Where is he? Where is this great coach? He’s not there. Ten minutes — he’s still not there. Three minutes before they could take the field Lombardi comes in, bangs the door open, and I think you all remember what great presence he had, alright, great presence. He walked in and he just walked back and forth, like this, just walked, staring at the players. And he said, “All eyes on me.” And I’m reading this in this book. I’m getting this picture of Lombardi before his first game and he said “Gentlemen, we will be successful this year, if you can focus on three things, and three things only: Your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers.” And he…like that…And they knocked the walls down and the rest was history. I said, that’s beautiful. I’m going to do that. Your family, your religion, and Rutgers basketball.

That’s it. I had it. Listen, I’m twenty-one years old. The kids I’m coaching are nineteen, alright? And I’m going to be the greatest coach in the world, the next Lombardi. And…I’m practicing outside of the locker room and the managers tell me “you got to go in.” “Not yet, not yet”… family, religion, Rutgers Basketball. All eyes on me. I got it, I got it. Then finally he said, “three minutes,” and I said “fine.” True story. I go to knock the doors open just like Lombardi. Boom! They didn’t open. I almost broke my arm. I was like…Now I was down, the players were looking. Help the coach out, help him out. And now I did like Lombardi, I walked back and forth, and I was going like that with my arm getting the feeling back in it. Finally I said, “Gentlemen, all eyes on me.” These kids wanted to play, they’re nineteen. “Let’s go,” I said. “Gentlemen, we’ll be successful this year if you can focus on three things, and three things only: Your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers,” I told them. I did that. I remember that. I remember…where I came from.

It’s so important to know where you are. And I know where I am right now. How do you go from where you are to where you wanna be? And I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. And you have to be willing to work for it.

I talked about my family, my family’s so important. People think I have courage. The courage in my family are my wife Pam, my three daughters, here, Nicole, Jamie, LeeAnn, my mom, who’s right here too. And…that screen is flashing up there thirty seconds like I care about that screen right now, huh? I got tumors all over my body. I’m worried about some guy in the back going thirty seconds, huh?

You got a lot, hey va fa napoli, buddy. You got a lot.

I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get you’re 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.

Now, I look at where I am now and I know what I wanna to do. What I would like to be able to do is to spend whatever time I have left and to give, and maybe some hope to others. Alright, Arthur Ashe Foundation is a wonderful thing, and AIDS, the amount of money pouring in for AIDS is not enough, but it is significant. But if I told you it’s ten times the amount that goes in for cancer research. I’ll also tell you that five hundred thousand people will die this year of cancer. And I’ll also tell you that one in every four will be afflicted with this disease, and yet, somehow, we seem to have put it in a little bit of the background. I want to bring it back on the front table. We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research. It may not save my life. It may save my children’s life. It may save someone you love. And it’s very important.

And ESPN has been so kind to support me in this endeavor and allow me to announce tonight, that with ESPN’s support, which means what? Their money and their dollars and they’re helping me — we are starting the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research. And its motto is “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” And that’s what I’m going to try to do every minute that I have left. I will thank God for the day and the moment I have. And if you see me, smile and maybe give me a hug. That’s important to me too. But try if you can to support, whether it’s AIDS or the cancer foundation, so that someone else might survive, might prosper, and might actually be cured of this dreaded disease. I can’t thank ESPN enough for allowing this to happen. And I’m going to work as hard as I can…for cancer research and hopefully, maybe, we’ll have some cures and some breakthroughs. I’d like to think I’m going to fight my brains out to be back here again next year for the Arthur Ashe recipient. I want to give it next year!

I know, I gotta go, I gotta go, and I got one last thing and I said it before, and I’m gonna say it again: Cancer can take away all my physical ability. 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.

Jim Valvano spoke with no notes and from the heart. He was animated and he was humorous. When he finished speaking and the crowd was on its feet with thunderous applause, two men helped Valvano slowly make his way down the steps and back to his seat. He died six weeks later, ten years to the month after the 1983 NCAA championship game.

In an ironic twist, Lorenzo Charles, the player who tapped in the winning shot in that NCAA game, died in a bus crash on June 27, 2011, and was buried near his college coach in the same Raleigh cemetery where Valvano was laid to rest 18 years earlier. Charles was 47 years old when he died, the same age as Valvano at his passing.

For those who have been touched by cancer in their lives, or if you are looking for something to support, the V Foundation puts 100 percent of donations into cancer research. As of January 2013 they had plowed $100 million into research.

Ironically, I have been working on this post all afternoon. While doing the final editing, I realized that today would have been Jim Valvano’s 69th birthday. March 10, 1946. Perfect timing on writing this piece.

Jim Valvano. His life was short but he twice inspired Americans to never, ever give up. We have not forgotten.

Update: After publishing this, friends alerted to ESPN’s one-hour “30 for 30: Survive and Advance” about Coach Valvano who advised his players to survive each game and advance to the next, with remembrances from the 1983 NC State Wolfpack team, and highlights from the Wolfpack’s road to the NCAA 1983 Championship (video above).

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