Why I believe Jim Valvano’s legacy and spirit can beat cancer

Coach Jim Valvano

If you’re a college hoops fan you know this week on ESPN has been a buffet of great match-ups and games. Each year the sports network has an event they call Jimmy V Week in honor of the late charismatic basketball coach who lost his life to cancer in 1993. Valvano coached the North Carolina State Wolfpack to the greatest upset in the history of major American sports. You could argue different and I’ll give a nod to the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team defeating The Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics but what the Wolfpack accomplished is beyond the pale and beyond comparison. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

In 1993 during the networks’ annual ESPY awards Jim Valvano, who was obviously sick and succumbing to the dreaded disease, made one of the most encouraging and touching speeches in live television history. He had to be physically assisted to the stage by his friend Dick Vitale to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

If you have not seen this you owe it to yourself to watch:

What an inspiration:

“I know, I gotta go, I gotta go, and I got one last thing and I said it before, and I want to say it again. Cancer can take away all 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.”

You can read the full transcript of Valvano’s speech here. What Valvano established following that moment is a foundation that has awarded more than $90 million to more than 100 facilities nationwide and proudly awards 100% of direct donations and net event proceeds to cancer research.

I believe it takes big ideas and dreams to change the world and Jim certainly had that. He took his experience as a patient and decided that he would beat cancer. He believed that one day we would overcome it, kick its butt, take cancer out behind the barn and show it who’s boss and you know what, because of what he accomplished with the 1982-1983 Wolfpack team I believe him.

Our family lived in an idyllic neighborhood outside of Fayetteville, N.C. but my dad lost his job in the textile industry when his factory closed its doors and we moved to Florida where work was found. We were strangers in a strange land but we had that team. These cast of characters being labeled “The Cardiac Kids” led by Valvano including Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe, Derrick Whittenberg, and the late Lorenzo Charles certainly didn’t look like world beaters when they backed their way in to the NCAA tournament. The team had ten regular season losses (back before teams played 450 games in a season) but rallied to beat defending champs North Carolina led by Michael Jordan and then Virginia anchored by an all time college great, center Ralph Sampson, to win the ACC Tournament and receive an automatic bid.

In the first round as a 6 seed the Pack rallied from a 6 point deficit with only 24 seconds remaining to defeat Pepperdine in double-overtime (69-67). In the second round they upset UNLV on a last second tip-in by Bailey to win 71-10. The next game was the only real breather as they beat Utah 75-56. With a birth to the final four on the line, State had to once again face Ralph Sampson and they pulled out yet another one point victory after Virginia’s Othel Wilson missed a last second shot (63-62).

In the national semifinal N.C. State faced the Georgia Bulldogs at The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They don’t play final fours in killer hoops venues like that anymore but they should. It was another tight game but the Pack-Attack won 67-60 to set up the National Championship game versus one of the most intimidating teams to ever take the court in college, Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma led by future NBA greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. No one gave N.C. State a chance except for Valvano, his team and a misplaced Carolina family watching as if their lives depended on it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game, the Pack kept it close with perimeter shooting but fell behind in the second half. Valvano decided to start fouling Houston hoping to expose their one seeming weakness, free throw shooting. The desperate strategy worked, along with the questioned decision by Houston to slow the game down, as The Cardiac Kids rallied and found themselves with the ball, clock running down and the game tied. This is what happened:

When Charles caught Whittenberg’s air ball and slammed it home our family was shot through our hearts with the knowledge that we would be fine in our new home. As people looked on in disbelief and the team’s players went nuts the unforgettable image of Valvano rushing down the court looking for someone to hug will stay with me forever.

In Valvano’s speech he stated that his foundation’s motto would be, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” I’m with Jimmy V in believing that one day we’re gonna kick cancer to the curb. Davids beat Goliaths and so it is, amen.

If you’re with Jim and want to help I encourage you to visit his foundation’s site here.

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