Rocco and Angelina lived in Queens, New York where they raised their three sons, Nick, Jim and Bob. They were a loving Italian family, never hesitant to hug and kiss each other – the words “I love you” flowing freely. The boys had a love of sports both as fans of their beloved Yankees and participants, especially playing basketball.
Jimmy, the middle boy, was born in March of 1946. He was the most mischievous, the nonstop talker and the one who would carry out crazy antics. Jimmy was charismatic, so much so that there were rarely any negatives as the result of his shenanigans. He was both popular and a talented athlete, playing three sports at Seaford High School on Long Island.
In 1963, when he was 17, he made a list of goals on an index card. Play college basketball, become an assistant coach, become head coach at a small school, become head coach at a major university, win a game in Madison Square Garden, win an NCAA National Championship. Beside each item, he listed a time frame in which to accomplish each goal – added together, his timeline totaled thirty years.
He was named Senior Athlete of the Year as a player at Rutgers University. He coached Johns Hopkins University to their first winning season in 24 years. He moved on to coach Bucknell University and then Iona College, where he led the Gaels to two NCAA tournament appearances, their first ever. That success led to Jim being named head men’s basketball coach at North Carolina State University. NC State played in the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the most prestigious conferences in all of college basketball.
The boy from Queens, New York endeared himself to the fanatical supporters of Wolfpack basketball. He made speeches at every opportunity, effusive with charisma and optimism. He promised big things for the basketball program while recruiting top-level players, many from New York. In 1983, NC State entered their conference tournament having finished the regular season tied for third place. They wouldn’t lose again that year.
The team won the ACC tournament and was selected to play in the NCAA tournament, where they were given little chance of success. All they did was win and advance to the title game where they would face the University of Houston, a prohibitive favorite. That team included future NBA Hall-of-Famers Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and had earned the nickname Phi Slamma Jamma due to their penchant for massive dunks.
Strategic coaching and unbridled optimism led to the game being tied as the final seconds ticked away. Suddenly, little known Lorenzo Charles leapt in the air to rebound an errant shot and in one motion dunked to score the winning shot as the horn sounded ending the game. The underdogs had won in an ending that would shape the importance of the NCAA finals forever.
In just twenty years, Jimmy had accomplished every goal he had given himself thirty years to achieve and he had done so in spectacular fashion. Results bigger than life – just like the man. Results that were accomplished because Jim “Jimmy V” Valvano was – and is – a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands don’t give up – they never give up
As the game ended, Jim Valvano ran around the court seemingly unable to find anyone to hug. That wouldn’t last long. Valvano – the man who loved life, loved people and loved winning – had become a major celebrity and a national treasure.
What wasn’t known at that time is that Jim Valvano had not yet faced the biggest challenges life held in store for him. In 1986 Valvano was named Athletic Director in addition to remaining head coach. In 1990, Peter Golenbock published a book titled Personal Fouls. In it, he made bold and far-reaching allegations of wrong doing in the North Carolina State program. Valvano immediately called for a full investigation to clear his name and that of the University. Fifteen months of relentless inquiries uncovered no wrong doing – outside of a few players selling their sneakers and tickets to make some money.
Nonetheless, Valvano was forced to resign. He did so with his head held high, his optimism and love of life bigger than ever and a determination to live life to the fullest. He became a basketball announcer for ESPN and ABC. He started a company, JTV Enterprises, through which he would implement his various entrepreneurial endeavors. Valvano became highly sought after as a motivational speaker. He was a frequent guest on late night television, notably Johnny Carson and David Letterman’s shows.
In June of 1992 he finally met what would be his greatest challenge in life. He was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma of unknown primary origin. Cancer. A type of cancer which had no known cure and, as the name suggests, no known origin.
Jim Valvano, Pamela, his wife of twenty-five years, and their three daughters were suddenly facing an uncertain and unexpected future. Jimmy V – the man who believed he could do anything and everything – suddenly had a new perspective on life. Facing certain death will do that to a person.
In public, Valvano was always positive and upbeat. He would not allow his doubts and pain and fears to become a focus. Instead, he pushed for a greater awareness of the breadth of cancer and its impact. He lobbied for additional funding for cancer research and committed to providing comfort in any way possible to every person with cancer.
Valvano also had an epiphany regarding athletics and sports when reading late one night. “That is why athletics are important,” wrote a British sportswriter named Brian Glanville. “They demonstrate the scope of human possibility, which is unlimited. The inconceivable is conceived, and then it is accomplished.” Suddenly he knew that all of those games meant nothing – yet they meant everything.
“It’s what I’ve got to do to stay alive,” he said. “I’ve got to find the unlimited scope of human possibility within myself. I’ve got to conceive the inconceivable—then accomplish it! My mom’s convinced I’m going to get better. My mom’s always right!” **
He didn’t get better – but he didn’t give up either.
While basketball was his path in life – his legacy has been encapsulated in his acceptance speech at the 1993 ESPY’s where he was presented the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. In that ten minutes, Valvano delivered a message which has touched the mind, heart and soul of millions of people throughout the world. It is more far-reaching and impactful than any sporting event, no matter how great an upset.
That night he announced that with the support of ESPN, the formation of the V Foundation for Cancer Research. It’s motto? “Don’t give up…Don’t ever give up.”
Typically at this point in my blogs, I highlight what I believe to be the most powerful and helpful lessons that we can learn from my Friday’s Fearless Brand. To do so this week would be a disservice to Jimmy V. Nothing I write can do justice to the legacy and message of Jim Valvano.
That message – just like his spirit – is powerful and timeless. My hope is that you will listen to the talk he gave twenty-three years ago.
Here are but two highlights:
“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.”
“I know, I gotta go, I gotta go; and I got one last thing, and I said it before, and I want to say it again. Cancer can take away all 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.”
Learn more about and donate to the V Foundation for Cancer Research
** Quotes are from the article “As Time Runs Out” authored by Gary Smith via the Sports Illustrated Vault. It is brilliantly written, capturing the true soul of Coach Valvano.