Commentary

Fowler: Pam Valvano Strasser embraces March Madness, past and present

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

Every March, it starts again.

Pam Valvano Strasser’s life blurs at the edges. The past feels like the present, and the present feels like the past, and there is Jim Valvano from 30 years ago, running deliriously on a court in New Mexico, and there he is again from 20 years ago, so sick he can’t navigate six stairs up to the stage without help but telling a rapt audience at the ESPYs to never give up.

“It’s very hard for me to know who I am at times,” says Valvano Strasser, who was married to Jim Valvano for 25 years and then a widow for 10 more years before she married John Strasser in 2003. “I want to be this new person, but the old life just doesn’t end. I’m very proud of what Jim did – as proud as I can be. But I also have moved on.”

Valvano Strasser has lived in the Raleigh area for 32 years. She is 67 now – the same age Valvano would be if he had not died of cancer in 1993. And she navigates these two worlds – the present and the past – as well as she possibly can.

She participated in the two-hour documentary called “Survive and Advance” on the 1983 N.C. State basketball team that won the national championship – it airs Sunday night at 9 on ESPN. She visits Jim Valvano’s grave on his birthday and the anniversary of his death. She is active in “The V Foundation,” which she says has now raised more than $125 million for cancer research.

She still loves the N.C. State basketball program. She traveled with the team in December to watch them beat Connecticut in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York, and she leaves coach Mark Gottfried a good-luck voicemail before most games.

“Mark has been so wonderful to us,” she says, speaking of her family, which includes her three daughters and five grandchildren. “And he’s really brought new life to the program. Now I’m acting like a coach’s wife again. I’m talking to the TV, I’m screaming, I’m superstitious. Mark could have said, ‘You are history. We don’t want to compete with you.’ Instead, he has embraced us.”

She has also moved almost all of her basketball-related memorabilia out of her house in Cary. She thought this would be more respectful to her second husband, John Strasser, a longtime veterinarian in the Raleigh area who knew Jim Valvano before the coach died.

“At one point, I had an office in the house with all Jim’s stuff – pictures from floor to ceiling,” she says. “When John and I started dating, though, I thought that maybe it was not really nice for him to come to this mausoleum. So I gave the pictures to the (Jimmy V celebrity) golf tournament and to the V Foundation.”

But the reminders come anyway. They are everywhere if you watch TV – and since Pam Valvano Strasser is still a big-time college basketball fan, she does. Every March, the past tugs on her sleeve, insisting that it is time to tell the story once more.

Valvano and the 1983 N.C. State team epitomized the underdog as well as any NCAA team ever has. A No. 6 seed with 10 losses, the team just kept winning close games in March and into early April – “surviving and advancing,” as their 37-year-old coach called it.

In the NCAA final on April 4, 1983, N.C. State played Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” team – which featured two future basketball hall of famers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

“I saw the semifinals, and I thought Houston was going to mutilate us,” Valvano Strasser says.

Instead, N.C. State won, 54-52, on a last-second dunk by Lorenzo Charles following a desperation air ball by Dereck Whittenburg.

Valvano famously sprinted around the court, looking for someone to hug. It couldn’t be his wife. She was too nervous and had left her seat to walk the arena’s concourse, as was her end-of-game tradition, missing the game’s final two minutes.

Ten years later, on March 4, 1993, there was Valvano’s 10-minute talk at ESPN’s annual awards show called the ESPYs. It contained the words “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up!” It remains one of the most touching speeches in sports history. Valvano gave the speech less than two months before he died.

Valvano also told the audience: “Take time every day to laugh, to think, to cry.” Those words are enshrined on his tombstone.

With both the national championship and the ESPY speech marking significant anniversaries this season, Valvano’s televised image has been even more omnipresent than usual this March.

“My 12-year-old grandson and I were sitting at a McDonald’s,” Valvano Strasser says, “and all of a sudden he says, ‘Grandpa Jim is on TV.’ He never met Jim, of course. But it was the speech – they were replaying it again. And I was thinking to myself, ‘Where have 20 years gone since that speech? Where have 30 years gone since that championship?’”

‘Coach V’s wife’

Jim Valvano met his future wife in New York. They were both 12 years old, and it was a few years before romance blossomed. “He just played ball all the time,” she says. “Finally, the junior prom came. My boyfriend was away. I let it be known that I’d like to go. Jim asked me. That was 1962.”

That was it for the old boyfriend. They married in 1967, after Valvano graduated from Rutgers. She accompanied him on all his head-coaching stops – Johns Hopkins, Bucknell, Iona – before the family landed in Raleigh in 1980.

Valvano was so outgoing, so good as a storyteller, so “on” all the time that his wife mostly faded into the background at social gatherings. “I never even had a name if you want to know the truth,” she says. “I was just ‘Coach V’s wife.’ ”

She was far quieter then, she says. After Valvano died on April 28, 1993, though, she had to do more. Talk more. Become more independent. People would ask her to give speeches. She would initially get nervous, and then the same thing would happen.

“Even now, any time I’m asked to speak, I have no idea what I’m going to say,” she says. “And then I wake up around 3 a.m. and I know. I don’t know if Jim jumps in my body or what happens. But the speech becomes clear as day, and I’m not one bit stressed about it anymore.”

‘A notecard guy’

The game-day stress – that’s one thing Valvano Strasser doesn’t miss. Although she certainly cheers hard for N.C. State now, at least she can stay in the same room (or arena, as she attends a lot of the Wolfpack’s games).

Throughout the magical nine-game, do-or-die N.C. State run through the ACC and NCAA tournaments to close the 1983 season, though, she would always leave the arena and start roaming the hallways with a few friends with about two minutes to go. “My stomach was always in such a knot,” she says.

In the hallway, she would rub a golden wolf pin with red eyes for luck.

“So I didn’t see Lorenzo Charles and the dunk,” she says. “I was in the hallway. People were streaming out and I had to say, ‘Who won?’ I’ve seen it a million times since, of course.”

Charles died in 2011 in a bus crash at age 47 – the same age as Valvano when he passed away. The player is buried only a few yards away from his old coach at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

Thirty years later, Valvano Strasser still owns the pin. “I still have it, but all the finish has worn off,” she says. “I bring it out occasionally when we really need a win.”

When she sees the highlights of her husband running on that court in 1983, how does she feel?

“Total happiness,” she says. “Jim was a notecard guy, you know. He would write his goals on index cards and stick them in a pocket somewhere. His first one was to play the 9 o’clock game at Madison Square Garden. When we were at Iona, we did that for the first time. The second one was to win a national championship. The third one I pulled out of his sports coat pocket once taking his suit to the dry cleaners. It said, ‘Find a cure for cancer.’”

A call from Clinton

Valvano’s time at N.C. State ended messily after an NCAA investigation. He was forced to resign in 1990.

The family briefly considered moving. They ultimately stayed because they loved the area and the people, and their roots have deepened. The Valvanos had three daughters together – Nicole, Jamie and LeeAnn – and two of them live with their families in the Raleigh area. The third daughter lives in New York.

Jim Valvano’s most lasting legacy has been “The V Foundation for Cancer Research,” formed in 1993 by Valvano and ESPN and based in Cary. “It took Jim dying for us to be able to help all these other people,” she says.

Her middle daughter, Jamie, is a breast cancer survivor.

The foundation (JimmyV.org) has been financially supported by many – including Valvano Strasser’s current husband.

And Valvano Strasser has long admired the amount of time that announcer Dick Vitale and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, have taken out of their lives year after year to help the organization.

“When Jim was sick, a lot of times Mike (Krzyzewski) would come over to the hospital at Duke after practice,” Valvano Strasser says. “And then Jim wasn’t sick anymore for awhile. Then it would just be two coaches talking, and oh, he loved that.”

Even at the end of his life, Valvano could turn on his famous personality, as the ESPY speech showed when he accepted the Arthur Ashe courage award and announced the forming of his foundation.

“Every time I see it, I still choke up,” Pam says. “He was so sick that day. He said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to accept this. I might cry.’ And I said, ‘It’s OK if you cry. You’ve got a lot of reasons you could cry.’ And he got up there and never in a million years would you know he was sick. Then he came back to his seat and said, ‘Was I OK?’”

Once, toward the end, President Bill Clinton called. Valvano was sound asleep. Pam woke him up, told him the president was on the line and instantly, he flipped the switch.

“President Clinton did all the listening,” she says. “Jim did all the talking.”

‘Will she be all right?’

In the final months of his life, Valvano allowed Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith close access to his family for a story. This at first angered Pam, who believed that the intimate details of her husband’s struggle with cancer should be kept more private. But she eventually came around.

During their interviews, Valvano told Smith about a moment when he saw his wife from a distance while broadcasting one of his final basketball games for ESPN. As Smith later wrote in Sports Illustrated: “He (Valvano) looked across the court and saw his wife speaking to a woman beside her, saw his wife smile. And he thought: It’s so good to see her smile, but how many times have I seen her crying lately? What’s going to happen to her? Will she be all right?”

Yes, she is all right.

She is a strong woman surrounded by her family. She eventually found another good man.

“In the men I’ve married,” she says, “I’ve been lucky twice.”

And every March, Pam Valvano Strasser remembers – whether she wants to or not. Mostly, she wants to.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “And it’s hard.”

Is there anything else she would like to tell people?

“Yes,” she says. “I want people to realize no matter how famous you are or how much money you have, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. There was no one who wanted to live more than Jim did. No one. But he couldn’t. So make sure you take care of yourself. Get checked what you should get checked. Live each day the best you possibly can. And don’t ever, ever take life for granted.”

Fowler: 704-358-5140 Twitter: @scott_fowler

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