NC State

Pack would love to have had Valvano at White House

NC State head coach Jim Valvano embraces Dereck Wittenburg.
NC State head coach Jim Valvano embraces Dereck Wittenburg. 1983 News & Observer archive photo

It’s hard to imagine, but Jim Valvano, had he lived, had he returned to the White House on Monday, would have been 70 years old.

What’s easy to imagine is Valvano still being Jimmy V at 70, critiquing President Barack Obama’s left-handed jumper or his stand-up comedy routine at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, maybe giving the president some new material – and, knowing Coach V, some suggested price ranges – for the speeches Obama surely will give after leaving office.

“I can see him saying, ‘Prez, glad you got us here. Why did it take so long?’” Dereck Whittenburg said recently, laughing at the thought. “He’s the only one who could have gotten away with saying that. And he’d probably be the only one talking.”

N.C. State’s 1983 champions finally had their day at the White House, their chance to be properly recognized. But it wasn’t the same without Coach V. It hasn’t been the same.

Valvano died in April 1993, killed by cancer a little more than 10 years after the Wolfpack gave its fans – and much of America – the basketball ride of their lives. It was a journey Valvano believed could happen, would happen, and one he made his team believe in.

“The first time we ever met him, he talked about his dream,” said Thurl Bailey, who along with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, worked to get the team Monday’s White House visit. “He wanted us to see that vision, that goal.”

Whittenburg, Bailey and Sidney Lowe were the seniors; they had been recruited by former coach Norm Sloan, who had won the school’s first national championship in 1974. Now there was this New Yorker, this young Italian guy, coming to N.C. State in 1980 and talking about dreams.

Was it 1981, ’82? A reporter was sitting by the court before a practice in Reynolds Coliseum when Valvano dropped by to chat for a few minutes. The reporter looked toward the south end of the coliseum, where N.C. State’s ’74 NCAA banner was hanging in the shadows.

“Looks a little lonely down there by itself,” the reporter joked.

“Oh, we’re going to get another one of those,” Valvano said as he walked away.

Cutting down the nets

And Valvano wasn’t being glib. There was something about the tone, the matter-of-factness, the surety of his words, that still brings goose bumps.

We’re going to get another one of those.

The ’83 Pack wasn’t the most talented team in the country. Valvano never claimed to be the greatest coach in the country.

Valvano didn’t like practice. He wasn’t crazy about recruiting. He might stay up until the wee hours of the morning, but it wasn’t watching game film.

But put him at courtside, in a game, matching strategy with the other guy, motivating his team, working the refs, and few at the time were better.

There was one practice routine Valvano did enjoy. It was having the players practice cutting down the nets, preparing for the day when a championship was won.

Why stumble up the steps and cut yourself with the scissors? Be ready to cut down that sucker and look good doing it, he might say.

The Pack did it at the 1983 ACC tournament in Atlanta, when the ACC championship was won. They did it in The Pit in Albuquerque when the national championship was won.

All these years later, Valvano is gone. Gone also is Lorenzo Charles, whose last-second dunk of a Whittenburg airball (Whitt always says pass, but everyone knows better, including Whitt) beat Houston’s Cougars in the championship game. It forever will be known as Destiny’s Dunk, the single most exciting moment in NCAA tournament history.

Charles died in 2011, killed when the bus he was driving crashed on Interstate 40. He was 47, the same age as Valvano when Coach V died.

Ed McLean, an assistant coach on the ’83 Pack, died in April 2011 and Quinton Leonard, a former walk-on, in 2006. They, too, were missed again Monday.

An earlier visit

In the 1980s, most college teams flew commercial, the players and coaches mixing in with the other passengers, including sportswriters. In January 1983, Whittenburg had been lost to a broken foot, and the Pack was in a tailspin. After a late-January loss at Maryland, the losing streak was four games and the Pack’s record 9-7.

On the flight back to RDU the day after the game, a reporter spotted Valvano sitting alone a few rows up – in coach those days – and looking glum. He joined the coach, asking a few questions for a follow story, but mainly gauging his mood.

“We’re going to get better,” Valvano said in that low, guttural baritone voice. “We lost Whitt, but we hope to get him back before the season ends, and we’re going to go back and get this thing turned around.”

Valvano didn’t say anything like “don’t ever give up,” and there may have been a few other words said that won’t be printed in this space. But the Pack did get better, winning seven of the next eight, including a memorable win over North Carolina at Reynolds Coliseum.

Whitt came back. The Pack won the ACC tournament. You know the rest.

While Valvano went to the White House that year to be congratulated by President Ronald Reagan, the team did not. As Whittenburg said, it either had to do with NCAA rules preventing such a visit or maybe former athletic director Willis Casey, always tight with a dollar, not wanting to foot the bill.

“Either the NCAA or Willis Casey. Pick one,” Whittenburg said, laughing.

But they were there Monday. There at the White House with The Prez. Why did it take so long?

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip