I did not come to the office today planning on writing a post about Jim Valvano. That all changed after reading a terrific blog post by John Feinstein this morning about Jimmy V, the legendary coach and cancer crusader who passed away 17 years ago yesterday.
A big tip of the cap to Seth Davis for tweeting the link to Feinstein’s article this morning. It is a quick and wonderful read by a man remembering his friend through the good times and the bad in their relationship.
After reading Feinstein’s post, I decided to spend a few minutes this morning providing my own thoughts about Jimmy V, a man who left a legacy that I bet most of you have been inspired by, just as I have been.
Jim Valvano’s career as a coach was checkered with highs (winning the NCAA title) and lows (the NCAA investigation at NC State) and I’ve read numerous accounts of him in the years since he passed away that have varied greatly in how they’ve portrayed Valvano.
I was too young to really understand the importance of his ’83 title and too wrapped up in IU basketball to care about what happened to NC State after that; to me, Jim Valvano is quite simply the guy who gave one of the five greatest speeches I’ve ever heard and who, 17 years after his death, inspires millions of people across the world every year to donate to cancer research.
The number of lives that have been touched, inspired, and saved by Jim Valvano’s words and legacy are countless.
Ultimately, no matter what shade of gray you see when you look at his coaching career, what he did on and off the court at NC State is a footnote to his legacy now.
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.
I encourage you to read the entire post. It is yet another example of why John Feinstein is one of the best sportswriters of his generation.
Seventeen years later, Jim Valvano’s memory lives on — (Feinsten On The Brink)
And below is the speech that I’ve probably seen between 400-500 times since it was given (and that I have on in the background as I type this).
Like a favorite movie I can never turn the TV off if this speech comes on. It is perfect. That it continues to live on and inspire to this day, and will for years and years beyond, is a testament not only to the words and how they were delivered, but to the goodness in the soul of the man delivering them.
Say what you will about Valvano – and fortunately most of what is said is positive – but it takes a special man to be the person speaking these words. For whatever his foibles maybe have been, I don’t think anyone would argue that Jim Valvano is a special man and that the world is a better place because of him.
Jim Valvano died early, he died tragically, and he left many, many productive and entertaining years on the table when he passed. But he most certainly did not die in vain, nor has his memory ever been forgotten. Here is why:
Jim Valvano Speech at ESPYs
I can only imagine that the notoriously restless Valvano rests today in relative peace seeing how his words have lived on in a legacy unparalleled in the history of sports. He passed away early, but he certainly lived a full life and did plenty of thinking, laughing, and crying, as he implored all of us to do in the speech above.
As a writer, I can only imagine how incredible it would be to create and communicate words that are spoken over and over, with heart and feeling, long after I am gone; words that inspire people across the world to perform the selfless act of giving to a cause greater than themselves.
Jimmy V was one of the rare people who grace this earth with the cause, the opportunity, and the charisma to speak such words, and he did.
Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.
[Note: For those of you who want to learn more about the Jimmy V, his foundation, and how to donate, follow this link to JimmyV.org.]
* – Jimmy V ESPY Speech photo credit: ESPN
* – Jim Valvano painting photo credit: NC State University via NCBioTech.org