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Jenkins: Documentary celebrates Valvano, 1983 championship

March 20, 2013 

It was the flash of light that has flickered over N.C. State basketball for 30 years now. The light has a name, Jim Valvano. He was the coach who hurled that meteor of a 1983 national championship basketball team across the skies, and made stars of unknowns and champions of a group of players who’d never have dreamed of what he made of them.

Except that, of course, he made them dream it.

Now, in the 30th anniversary year of the “Cardiac Pack,” ESPN celebrates the team and the coach with “Survive and Advance,” a documentary about that championship campaign (nine wins in a row that at times seemed miraculous) and the coach who a little more than 10 years after his greatest moment died of cancer at the age of 47. It is a story made for drama and for tears and there are plenty, but it is neither overly dramatic nor overreaching.

(ESPN debuted the show Sunday night, as the NCAA tourney was about to get under way, with Wolfpack 1983 star Dereck Whittenburg as executive producer. The network will be showing it again in the next weeks, accessible through its website, espn.com.)

Appearing throughout the program is Valvano himself, before his illness had weakened him, giving a speech about motivation and inspiration and leadership. Seeing him in that setting, the magnetism and the brilliance are even more apparent with 30 years perspective. It’s easy to understand how he could motivate young men to overcome their limitations.

It’s also easy to understand why, after the championship and the adulation, he could have become pulled in a multitude of directions that took him away from coaching basketball, including becoming the university’s athletics director. Whittenburg, a man with keen perception of human nature and great love for Valvano, acknowledges the coach just didn’t have time for all the demands at hand.

In the view of Richard “Gus” Gusler, Raleigh attorney, former NCSU student body president and owner of the Players Retreat across from the NCSU campus, the documentary isn’t about basketball. “It’s people,” he says. “With Valvano, some people said he didn’t care about the players. That’s so wrong. Those guys worshipped him and they still do.”

Gusler was called by Valvano a couple of times when players got into problems. “He talked for two hours (about one player)”, Gusler said. “He was physically ill. Another time, after a kid’s name got out (as part of a minor incident) he was sitting there crying. Sitting at his desk and crying. He said, ‘How could they do this to this kid?’ ”

No wonder then that Gusler and other alumni and fans still are angry about a spate of publicity following a book publication about corruption in the basketball program and an NCAA investigation. In the end, it turned up relatively minor problems with players selling surplus gear and tickets. But Valvano was bought out and departed N.C. State. There have been four coaches since, all in a way seeking to return the basketball program to the glory wrought by Jimmy V. The current team begins a run for a championship tonight.

The NCAA investigator who appears on the show wrote Valvano when all was done and told him if he had a son he’d want him to play for the coach. “And he was the guy who did the investigation! The NCAA went through all this material, and found there was no cheating. None of the most serious charges was true. But some people still want to believe it.” Gusler said.

The players from that 1983 team, grayer, heavier and with 30 years worth of lines and living behind them, met for filming at the Players Retreat this past August, on a morning before the restaurant opened. They talked about their departed coach with deep emotion, and toasted Lorenzo Charles, the burly player who scored the winning basket in the national championship game against the University of Houston. Charles, a bus driver, died in an accident in June of 2011 in Raleigh.

Jim Valvano’s last hurrah came on a 10th anniversary celebration of the ’83 championship in February of 1993, when he led a crowd at Reynolds Coliseum in chorus of the fight song and said goodbye.

In one of the current film’s most powerful moments, Whittenburg goes back to Reynolds, with the lights dimmed. He looks to the rafters, and the tears stream down his face. Nothing need be said. Gusler is right. The story isn’t basketball at all. It’s people.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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