Updated: Aug 4, 2022
“If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day.”
To sports fans across the nation, the name “Jimmy V” will most certainly elicit plenty of different emotions. For the older crowd, it’s the memories of the outspoken Rutgers point guard that never relented from speaking his mind - on and off the court. Others recall the miracle that became the 1983 National Championship, in which a third-year Power Five head coach led North Carolina State to its greatest moment in program history. The young college basketball aficionado may only recognize the name from the Jimmy V Classic, a double-header held each December to bring cancer research to the limelight.
But “Jimmy V” is so much more than that. “Jimmy V” is synonymous with greatness, persistence, and making the most out of life.
Jim Valvano was the quintessential New Yorker. Born in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, he was raised in Seaford - just across the bay from Jones Beach - and graduated as a three-sport athlete from Seaford High School. A gritty & scrappy kid who strived constantly for greatness, Valvano - or “Jimmy V” as they called him - was laser-focused on his goals, to the point that he’d carry his aspirations on an index card in his pocket.
After his graduation from high school, Valvano became one of the most decorated players at Rutgers University, shooting 52% from the field and averaging more than 18 per contest. Keep in mind, he did this all while taking a backseat to his roommate Bob Lloyd, the All-American who still holds the Rutgers record for career points-per-game. The Scarlet Knights finished third in the 1967 NIT - the senior year of both Valvano and Lloyd.
All-American Bob Lloyd (left), Rutgers head coach Bill Foster (center), and Jim Valvano (right). PIC: TimeToast.com
Valvano, deservedly so, became an assistant at Rutgers following his graduation; it was clear to the coaching staff that his natural leadership ability would be an asset to the Rutgers program. Valvano assumed head coaching duties for the freshman team, while assisting a young Bill Foster with the Scarlet Knights varsity group.
It wasn’t long before Valvano was purged away by Johns Hopkins - his first head coaching duty - and shortly after, the likes of Connecticut and Bucknell. The shining moments during his early coaching years were certainly aplenty; among them was his experience at the helm of a storied Iona Gaels program, who at the time, was simply a New York Catholic school that only served as bait to other Power 5 schools looking for a cruising victory.
In 1976, Valvano’s first year as the head coach of the Gaels, the team won a less-than-ideal 11 games, and wasn’t destined for any sort of turnaround. By 1980 - Valvano’s last season - the Gaels won 29 games, earned a #19 ranking in the national polls, and punched a victory in the first round of the Big Dance. He accomplished his goal of winning a game at Madison Square Garden over a future national champion in Louisville, and cemented his name in Iona basketball history forever.
Iona head coach Jim Valvano (left) converses with Mike Krzyzewski, then the head coach of Army. Picture: Hugh Morton Collection
But it wasn’t his accolades in the Empire State that basketball fans remember him for. Without question, it was the storied path that Jimmy V paved as the head coach at North Carolina State University, a program in which he spent ten years at the helm. After two seasons of relative mediocrity - 14-13 in year one and 22-10 in year two - Valvano led the Wolfpack to a season that will live forever in college basketball history...one synonymous with greatness.
In 1983, Jim Valvano led North Carolina State to its most storied endings in program history. PIC: Clio
The 1982-83 season was full of promise for NC State; the Wolfpack began the season in the Top 25, and largely due to a roster that was finally filled with Valvano’s recruits. While non-conference play brought plenty of victories, Valvano and his Wolfpack stumbled to an 8-6 finish against ACC foes. Many began to doubt they’d be able to secure a bid to the Dance without a conference tournament victory.
So, against all odds, NC State went on to defeat Wake Forest, defending national champion North Carolina, and the second-best team in the country in Virginia, and got their hardware.
But Jimmy V wasn’t done.
Although NC State faced a relatively tough path to the 1983 Final Four, no one could stop the Wolfpack. After a two-point win in double-overtime against Pepperdine and a hard-fought one-point victory over the famed basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, Valvano’s next three games were sure to be the death of NC State, who critics simply thought were too exhausted to win more games. But, the Wolfpack convincingly knocked off both Utah and #18 Georgia, with a nail-biter one-point win in the Elite Eight against #4 Virginia.
Of course, if you’re a college basketball fan, you know how the 1983 National Championship game finished. To summarize, most believed NC State shouldn’t have stood a chance against the #1-ranked Houston, where Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon made their names. But after nine straight victories for the Wolfpack - five against ranked opponents - pundits began to buy stock in Jim Valvano and his system. NC State and Houston played to a 52-52 tie with only seconds to go, so it was up to the Wolfpack to pull off what some considered the upset of the century.
Dereck Whittenburg took what he thought would be the game-winning shot, but it fell significantly short. Lucky enough for him, center Lorenzo Carter was standing ready.
And then, history.
Jim Valvano, against all odds, was a National Champion. The scrappy, witty Long Islander was on top of the world. He went on to lead a life synonymous with winning, perseverance, and defying the odds. His mantra of “survive and advance” - which became a rallying cry and a plea to his teammates - had paid off.
His battle with adenocarcinoma, however, was a battle unlike anything that Jim Valvano had ever expected.
At age 46, Valvano was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; essentially, he’d been given a death sentence. He knew he had only months to live, yet chose to make the most of it.
And so, as he had done his entire life, Jimmy V fought like hell. He knew he more than likely wouldn’t be able to change his own fate, but fought for so many others - his loved ones, his players, and people he didn’t even know - whose lives would be changed by cancer forever.
On March 4, 1993 - less than two months before his death - he took the stage at the ESPY Awards to accept the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. If there were ever a deserving soul to be the inaugural recipient, it was Jimmy V. Although he was nearly on death’s door and in an insurmountable level of pain, Valvano appeared on the Madison Square Garden stage with a tuxedo and a full head of hair - he was as sharp as he ever looked in his life. It was on that stage that he delivered one of the most iconic speeches in sports history, albeit only 10 minutes.
Among his immortal words he gave that night, here’s a collection of Jimmy V quotes that live eternal:
"Don't give up, don't ever give up.”
“There are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”
"Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all.”
Although the 28-year anniversary of his death will come and go in April 2021, Jim Valvano’s legacy is alive and well. For one, ESPN’s Dick Vitale - a dear friend of Valvano’s - has made it his life’s mission to eradicate cancer from the face of the earth. Vitale spoke to his philanthropic endeavors on The 401 Podcast with Kevin McNamara, a friend of our blog & podcast.
“Today, 45-50 mothers and fathers are going home to hear four words that no mom and dad ever wants to hear: ‘your child has cancer,’” said Vitale to McNamara. “And it is life changing.”
Dick Vitale, who made up the “Killer Vees” broadcasting duo with Valvano on ESPN’s college basketball broadcasts, has had cancer hit close to home. It’s no secret that he shares Valvano's positive attitude and willingness to help others who will inevitably be affected by cancer. Vitale knows the fight is far bigger than him.
“I’ve lived a blessed life - I’ve got a beautiful wife of 49 years, 2 daughters who got their master’s at Notre Dame, and they’ve given me five grandkids,” shares Vitale. “But out of all the things that have happened in my life, and all the fame and all that jazz, one of my biggest thrills is that my gala has raised 37 million dollars for kids battling cancer. And we’re trying to add to it.”
Vitale is one of tens of thousands of sports fans who keep Jim Valvano’s legacy alive and well today. Today, every person in America knows someone that has been affected by cancer - and although Jim Valvano lost his earthly battle, his passion and drive to stop cancer lives eternal.
In memory of James Thomas Anthony Valvano "Jimmy V"
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up." March 10, 1946 - April 28, 1993
PIC: The V Foundation
DONATE TO CANCER RESEARCH TODAY:
JIMMY V FOUNDATION: http://V.org/Donate
HUNTSMAN CANCER INSTITUTE: https://huntsmancancer.org/giving/foundation/ways-to-give/
DICK VITALE GALA (Supporting the Jimmy V Foundation): https://dickvitaleonline.com/v-foundation-2017/dick-vitale-gala