It was 17 years ago today that Jim Valvano died after a bout of a little less than a year with cancer. I can still remember the day vividly. I was teaching at Duke back then and I’d flown down early in the morning (in those days I still flew regularly) and I was in a rental car driving to campus when I heard the news on the radio.
It wasn’t a shock. I had last seen Jim when Duke played North Carolina in Chapel Hill in early March and you could almost feel the life seeping out of his body. By then, he had made the two speeches that came to define his last days—one at a 10-year reunion for his 1983 NCAA championship team at North Carolina State (click here: reunion speech); the other at the ESPY’s (click here: ESPY speech), the first and last moment that the ESPY’s had any value at all—and had clearly made peace with what was to come.
Jim and I had been close for a long time. I had seen him play at Rutgers (he was part of a superb backcourt along with a great shooter named Bob Lloyd) and had first gotten to know him when he coached at Iona. I had spent many late nights sitting with him after games when he was coaching at State. Like most coaches, Jim couldn’t sleep after games—he was never much of a sleeper to begin with—and he would always head up to his office after doing his postgame press conference in Reynolds Coliseum and order pizza, wine and beer. His coaches would come in and hang out and so would various friends. I always stayed until the end because I knew when the room cleared out, Jim would stop telling stories and get serious. As hysterically funny as his stories were—I still re-tell some of them when I speak—the best parts of the evening always came well after midnight.
Jim would put down his wine glass and often stretch out on the couch in his office and say things like, “I need to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.”
He was constantly restless. He had spent his life dreaming about winning a national championship and then when he won one at the age of 37, in the most dramatic fashion possible, he felt unfulfilled. You could almost hear the famous line from the old Peggy Lee song, ‘Is that all there is?” playing in his head on a constant loop.
He chased The Next Thing for a while, flying to New York on Monday mornings to appear on CBS’s ‘Early Morning,’ Show; doing color on occasional games IN season; hosting that awful sports bloopers show; doing a pilot for a variety show in Hollywood (seriously); selling memorabilia; becoming the athletic director at State. Anything to avoid being JUST a coach.
Everyone knows what happened: he stopped paying enough attention to his program and enough bad kids seeped bad kids seeped in to bring the program down. A book, written with the (paid) cooperation of a former manager, helped bring about an NCAA investigation—even though there were so many in-accuracies in it on simple things like what day of the week Thanksgiving fell on (I’m not joking) that it should not have been taken seriously. Still, the investigation led to probation and to Valvano being forced to resign after the 1990 season. Twenty years later I think it is fair to say that State still hasn’t recovered from that episode.
Valvano quickly rebuilt his life through TV, which wasn’t surprising. He was smarter and quicker and funnier than anyone who had been given a microphone in a long time. He was a more direct version of Al McGuire: very smart, very funny but you didn’t have to unravel what he was saying to see the genius in it. It was right there in front of you.
As close as we had been—I was the first writer Jim talked to about the various accusations in the book—and I think it is fair to say someone he confided in often, he wasn’t happy with what I wrote when things fell apart at N.C. State. Basically I said I was disappointed because he seemed to be taking the route most coaches took when they had let standards slip in the program: It’s not my fault. It’s the administration’s fault or my assistant’s fault or the players fault or the NCAA’s fault.
Jim certainly wasn’t alone in doing this. And I wasn’t inconsistent in writing what I wrote: If you take the credit for success, you take the blame for failure. He and I were both working a game in St. Petersburg the year after he stopped coaching (I was doing radio, he was doing TV) when we had it out in a back hallway of what is now known as Tropicana Field.
Basically he said this: How could YOU of all people do this to me. YOU are my friend. He was in a place I hate going: raising the issue of where the line is drawn between a professional relationship and friendship. Years ago I believed you should NEVER be friends with people you covered. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that’s impossible. How can you know someone for 20 or 30 years, watch their families grow up, see them go through joy and tragedy and not have feeling for them? Similarly, when they are there offering help when you have issues in your life, how can you not be grateful?
I told Jim exactly that: I considered him a friend and I did not think I had violated any trust in what I’d written. But as someone covering college basketball, how could I not write about what had happened? As someone who KNEW he’d neglected his coaching job how could I say I didn’t know it? And, if I simply covered up for him, what credibility did I have when I defended him—as I had done when the book came out because it was so clearly full of mistakes on issues big and small.
We agreed to disagree—loudly.
The next summer he was diagnosed and it was apparent quickly that what he had was terminal. We had exchanged letters that never referenced our disagreements. On the early March afternoon when Duke played at Carolina, Jim was sitting at the broadcast table with Brent Musburger, who was on headsets taping some pre-game billboards. Jim was surrounded by security because so many people wanted to stop and wish him well. As I walked by, heading for my seat, I heard Jim’s voice: “John, come sit with me for a second.”
I turned in that direction only to be shoved backward by an over-zealous security guard (they breed them, I think, in Chapel Hill). “Hey pal, let him go,” Jim said. “Let my friend go.”
I smiled when I heard the word friend. I sat down in an empty chair next to Jim, the one where the floor manager would sit in a few minutes.
Jim was direct. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” he said. His voice was soft, very un-Valvano-like. “I was hoping you’d be here. I owe you an apology.”
“No you don’t.”
His hand was on my arm. “YES, I do. I was mad at you because I wanted you to be my apologist and that’s never been who you are. What you did, really, was an act of friendship because you wouldn’t let me off the hook. I needed more of that back then.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was certain—certain—this was going to be the last time I talked to Jim. I wanted to go back to his office, have him lie on the couch again and explain to me why ‘Perestroika,’ was a brilliant book as he’d done one night a few years earlier. That wasn’t going to happen.
“It means a lot to me you’d say that,” I said.
“I’m glad I got the chance,” he said.
I hugged him and could feel just how much his body had shrunk. I remember shuddering. He must have sensed it.
“Pretty scary isn’t it?” he said.
“There’s about a zillion people pulling for you,” I said.
He smiled. “I know,” was all he said.
I patted him gently on the shoulder as I stood up and he put his hand on my hand for a moment. I never spoke to him again.
Seventeen years later, thanks in large part to the millions of dollars raised by ‘The V Foundation,” which Jim started in his final days, people remember Jim. I remember him too. And, especially on days like this one, I miss him a lot.