Jim Valvano would have loved joining N.C. State Hall of Fame

N.C. State is inducting its first Hall of Fame class Friday night, and nobody would have enjoyed the moment more than championship basketball coach Jimmy V

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2012 

  • Remembering Jimmy V. James Thomas Anthony Valvano, the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano, was a native New Yorker whose father was a high school basketball coach. He had an older brother Nick and younger brother Bob, but as Nick recalls, "Even though I was the first-born I stopped talking when Jim started talking." Valvano played college basketball at Rutgers, where he was an English major, then turned to coaching. His first head job was at Johns Hopkins, where he liked to joke his starting lineup included "an ophthalmologist, gynecologist and a pediatrician." He moved on to Bucknell and Iona before coming to N.C. State in 1980. In 1983, just after turning 37, Valvano led the Wolfpack to the ACC championship and then the NCAA championship, realizing one of his lifetime goals. The "Cardiac Pack" survived and advanced through six NCAA games, knocking off heavily favored Houston in the national championship game. No coach younger than 40 has won the NCAA since. The Pack also won an ACC title in 1987. Valvano was named Wolfpack athletics director in 1986 and served as A.D. and coach until investigations into the program by the NCAA and UNC system resulted in his departure in 1990. Diagnosed with cancer in 1992, when he was working for ESPN and ABC, he died in April 1993 and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.   Signature moment The Wolfpack’s magic March of 1983 will be remembered as long as there are rims and basketballs. After winning the ACC Tournament in Atlanta, the Pack began its NCAA run in Corvalis, Ore., and ended it in The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. The late Lorenzo Charles had "Destiny’s Dunk" at the buzzer to beat Houston 54-52 in the NCAA title game. Just as lasting was the sight of Valvano, racing about the court just after Charles’ dunk, looking for someone to hug.

— Jim Valvano would have thoroughly enjoyed being in Reynolds Coliseum this coming Friday night.

First of all, he loved the place. Put Valvano in Reynolds and it became “Jim’s Gym.”

Valvano also would have been happy, perhaps a bit humbled, to be a member of the first class inducted into the N.C. State Athletics Hall of Fame. He would have liked joining David Thompson and Roman Gabriel and the other inductees in the festivities at Reynolds.

If you knew Jim Valvano, you also know he couldn’t have sat idly by. He probably would have grabbed the mike and become both master of ceremonies and inductee and would have had everyone laughing to the point of tears.

“He would have been incredibly honored, but he would not have been speechless,” said Nick Valvano, Jim’s older brother.

Valvano died of cancer in 1993 at age 47. But nearly 20 years after his death, his legacy at N.C. State is one of a championship basketball coach, of a man who served as athletics director, of a dynamic personality who did much good for the university.

Granted, Valvano’s departure from N.C. State in 1990 came with much rancor. Many Wolfpack fans believed then, and believe now, that he was needlessly forced out amid accusations of NCAA violations and academic abuses that, with the passing of time, now seem mild when compared with other NCAA scandals at other schools.

Valvano may have been the most popular coach in Wolfpack history – quick with a one-liner, charming and entertaining when he wanted to be, smart, crafty, and someone who knew how to win games. And he wasn’t a coach who caught lightning in a bottle and won the 1983 ACC title and then the national championship. After ’83, he twice led teams to NCAA regional finals and won the 1987 ACC championship, the school’s last.

Thurl Bailey, a senior forward on the ’83 team, likes to say Valvano began talking of winning a national title soon after being hired at NCSU in 1980. He noted, “The first time we met him, he talked about his dream. He wanted us to see that vision, that goal.”

N.C. State already had a national championship banner in Reynolds. The 1974 team, led by the incomparable Thompson, won the first for the school.

One day in 1982, a reporter casually mentioned to Valvano at practice that the ’74 banner looked “lonely” at the back of the coliseum.

“Oh, we’re going to get another one of those,” Valvano replied quickly, like a husband assuring his wife he’d pick up a loaf of bread on the way home.

A little more than a year later, Valvano was racing around the court at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., looking in vain for someone to hug. The Pack had beaten Houston and its “Phi Slamma Jamma” bunch 54-52 in the national championship game, winning on Lorenzo Charles’ last-second dunk off Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation 30-footer.

Soon, there were two banners in Reynolds.

“A big honor for Jim is to hear other coaches talk about the kind of bench coach he was, how well-prepared he was,” Nick Valvano said. “If you’re a coach it’s certainly about the wins and losses. But it’s also about how your players mature as people and the lives they lead.

“Look at Jim’s players. By and large, they turned out well, didn’t they?”

As Whittenburg put it, Valvano talked a lot about dreams but also about life “after the cheering stopped, after basketball.”

Legacy thrives on, off court

The ’83 team was reunited at Reynolds 10 years after the title and many tears fell. By February 1993, Valvano was dying of cancer. Then with ABC Sports, he was to work the Pack’s game against Duke with Brent Musberger.

Valvano was in much pain before the game and could barely walk. But he made his way to the court, hugged his players, grabbed the mike and gave a speech that was incredibly filled with emotion and love. And inspiration.

He smiled. He laughed. He led Wolfpack fans in cheers. He was Jimmy V again.

“Don’t give up,” he said as Reynolds rocked.

Valvano died two months later. He left behind his wife, Pam, and daughters Nicole, Jamie and LeeAnn.

Valvano’s basketball legacy remains. But so does the legacy of fighting cancer and trying to save lives.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research, created in 1993, has awarded more than $90 million to more than 100 facilities. Jamie Valvano Howard is a cancer survivor.

In 2008, the Jimmy V-N.C. State Cancer Therapeutics Training Program was established. Linking the foundation and the university, the program was created to help introduce young scientists to cancer therapeutic research and support their efforts.

“There were coaches along the way who helped a young Jim Valvano start his career,” Nick Valvano said. “This is a way to help young cancer investigators get the support they need early in their careers to get started.”

Had Valvano survived his bout with cancer, some in his family believe he would have one day returned to coaching. Good friend Dick Vitale believes he could have been a talk-show host to rival David Letterman and Jay Leno – a “superstar in the business,” as Vitale put it.

“He was Seinfeld before Seinfeld,” Vitale said.

All that may be mentioned Friday during the Hall of Fame ceremony. It’s all a part of Jim Valvano’s memory.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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