Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Seventeen years later, Jim Valvano’s memory lives on

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.


Edward said...

One day someone asked Muhammad Ali a personal question about Sugar Ray Robinson. Ali said, "I don't know that" The questional said, "Why not. You're his friend, aren't you. I see you two on TV kidding around with each other." Ali said, "Sugar Ray is an acquaintence of mine. A friend is someone you would lay down your life for. Consider yourself fortunate if you have five friends in your entire life." I've never forgotten that quote. Valvano was a friend of yours. Ed Oleata, La Jolla, CA

Dana King said...

Jim Valvano was, clearly a class act. Thanks for those stories.

There's one other salient point in this post:
"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."

This sums up the difference between you and Michael Wilbon as well as anything I can think of.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful essay. Thank you very much for sharing it.
Rich, Denver

Anonymous said...

I hate to take the opposite view but a class act does not violate a contract and leave kids behind. Although to the extent the violations were found @ NC State the Iona program was under a cloud.

Joe B

John from Indiana said...

Wow, I have always had a hard time reconciling the Jim Valvano that got bogged down in the mud with Chris Washburn with the one that died beloved by all that knew him. Makes a lot more sense now. Thanks for touching us all with a truly heartfelt story.

Gordon said...

I've never understood the "cannonazation" of Jim Valvano. He ran a dirty program and quit on his school and players. When the going got tough he got going...... OUT! Thats a coward and a cheat.
Yes the book was factually inaccurate on one level but the basis of the book was honest. The almighty "Jimmy V" as a cheat and had little or no concern for NCAA rules.
Like most guilty men he "got religion" only AFTER he got caught and only after his cancer became terminal. That's gives him little credibility. While his ESPY speech was on one level inspiring it also was highly hypocritical. His message was "Don't give up, don't ever give up" and that's exactly what he did when he left NC State for television.

That said no one should die at his age. And at least his passing has raised millions of dollars for cancer research.

But spare me the "Jimmy V" was a saint talk.

I give John high marks for loyalty and objectivity but lets also keep the real "jimmy V" in perspective. Bad guy who met a tragic and untimely death.

Anonymous said...

Well said Gordon. I was on a chat one time and critized Valvano. A poster had no idea what I was talking about. He said he only remembers Jimmy V running around after the NC. That's how ESPN wants us to remember him. That way, they can raise money for cancer and be the heroes in the end.

Anonymous said...

Gordon - you may be right in some respects, but he didn't walk out on State. Despite what the press was told or folks remember, Valvano was forced out - effectively fired - from NC State. He didn't 'walk out' on them for television.

KMD said...

Thanks for sharing. A wonderful story.

Anonymous said...


Love your writing.....hate your school!!!!

Walt said...


Great post as usual. JV is etched in my mind unfortunately, I was a huge Phi Slamma Jamma nut back in the day. That run UH had with Hakeem was something special and to see them lose to NC State in the National Championship game was a shame, JV did coach a great game but Guy Lewis blew it big time. Only way NC State wins is to make UH play a half court game and that's what happened. If you have any insight into that game please share, Thx.

Walt said...


Great post as usual. JV is etched in my mind unfortunately, I was a huge Phi Slamma Jamma nut back in the day. That run UH had with Hakeem was something special and to see them lose to NC State in the National Championship game was a shame, JV did coach a great game but Guy Lewis blew it big time. Only way NC State wins is to make UH play a half court game and that's what happened. If you have any insight into that game please share, Thx.

Dan said...

I met Jim at his first game in Cameron, handed him a giant plastic liquor store display bottle as a present (originally meant for Norm Sloan). Jim said "Thanks, you Duke fans sure are generous."

The second time I met him was on a morning flight from La Guardia to RDU. His eyes had raccoon circles and he mentioned how he had been carousing late with some old NY and Iona friends.

I wished him luck in the upcoming season, and he remarked how great Duke was going to be. It was Fall of 1985.

He was right.

charles pierce said...

John --
With all due respect, please, OK?
The guy never drew an honest breath as a basketball coach.
This is frankly embarrassing.

Ken Stallings said...

I was a student at NC State from 1982 until 1986. So I had the honor of meeting Jim Valvano a few times. It was especially available because as a cadet in the Air Force ROTC detachment, we shared Reynolds Coliseum for our classes and cadet facilities.

It is very rare that an article so well envokes what made Valvano special as this one did. You captured the essence of the man so very well.

For the record, for those who do not know, Valvano was fired from NC State -- told to resign. He wanted nothing more than to remain at NC State and continue to run the program. The faculty revolted and put our program on a self-imposed death penalty.

What actually happened on Valvano's watch was so minor as to be trivial. Many a coach fully recovered from far worse offenses and actual violations. The only NCAA finding was that a few players sold team-supplied shoes!

As you rightly pointed out, Golenbock's book was largely a work of fiction. For all Valvano did for the school, he should have been given the chance to continue as coach.

But the cancer happened so soon after that NC State would have suffered a downturn anyway, but likely far less severe. That's the legacy of the faculty at the time, not Valvano.

The reality is I miss the man a lot more so than even I miss the coach, and I miss the coach dearly!

Ken Stallings

bobby joe said...

Gordon, what you say in some respects were true. Jimmy V was not a saint, but he did not turn his back on the university. He did so many great things for State and then people on the NCSU Board of Trustees stabbed him in the back because they didn't like the power he was accumulating. Golenbock's book was full of lies and ended up destroying a man's career. Golenbock was a hack and I wish the Valvano's had sued the ever living hell out of the guy.

Did he get caught up in so much else that he neglected some of his coaching duties? Yes, but he didn't pay players, fix their grades, help them cheat in classes or use any of the tactics that todays coaches are allowed to get away with. He got caught up in so much else that he wasn't able to fully devote his time to his program, that's why you never see coaches get promoted to AD anymore, it just doesn't work. He was stretched so thin by the end that he couldn't do it all, that doesn't mean he was dirty. He wasn't perfect, he had his faults, but he wasn't dirty.

Anonymous said...

Gordon obviously has absolutely no idea what he's talking about. Roy Williams was found guilty of more infractions at Kansas than Jim Valvano was at NC State. The difference? Valvano attempted to clean up the situation and offered to coach for $1.00. Yep.. $1.00. Ol' Roy left Kansas just as the investigation heated up. Now, I'm not trying to say anything about Roy. I'm just comparing the perceptions of two men. Back then, the Wolfpack was given the equivalent of the near-death penalty. Kansas got a slap on the wrist and Roy got nothing. Was there a problem with oversight at NCSU? Absolutely. But there was also railroading, led by the Raleigh News and Observer (in turn, led mostly by graduates from the UNC@Chapel Hill school of Journalism). Front page articles threw accusation after accusation at Valvano and then columns buried - literally - in the Obituaries would later rescind the accusation.

Jim Valvano was not a saint. But he was not a dirty coach. Even before the cancer, he was an inspiring individual who took time with fans, promoted his school, and loved his players. An NCAA investigation AND an FBI investigation found only the most minor offenses... offenses which, in today's NCAA, would be the kind resolved with a "hey, don't let it happen again" attitued by the NCAA. The lead investigator wrote Valvano a letter stating that Valvano was the most open coach he had ever investigated, pretty much tossing the investigator the keys to the office and saying "look at whatever you want." He also said that he would be thrilled to send his own son to play for Jim Valvano.

So, Gordon, before you trash a man by calling him "dirty" or a "quit(ter)", you might want to have some clue as to what you're talking about.

Zack said...

Gordon, have you nothing to say to the post from May 4, 2010? We're a few months from it being a full year since it was left....ya, I didn't think so. You're just like most sports fans out there that have no proper perspective on reality/history because they don't take the time to research it themselves. Please consider ceasing your regurgitation of what you hear others say and study a bit before opening your mouth or typing on your keyboard.

Jennifer said...

As I read the comments posted on this article I cannot help but feel very sad that the extreme passion about sports sometimes over rides our good senses. As a cancer survivor who never met Jim Valvano but does have the privilege of knowing one of his daughter, I feel compelled to comment. One should never judge especially
When it comes to when someone reaches a deeper relationship with the Lord. Terminal cancer or cancer period always provides the gift of growing that relationship When you are critical of that you put yourself in a very bad place and pass judgment on all of us survivors who have been so blessed. Jim Valvano made a choice through his journey to grow in that relationship and did it in response to the invitation to do just that. Secondly if you still cannot see this then at least see that your passion for sports will never give you the right to say hurtful things for his family based on what you think you know. I know how difficult this was for him and was so blessed by the difficult path he chose by sharing his difficulty so that we all could benefit maybe we all need to put sports in a lower priority if it makes us be completely thoughtless toward others. Jennifer