It’s hard to believe that it has been more than 25 years since the world lost Jim Valvano to cancer. “Jimmy V” was one of sports’ true characters. He was a darn good coach who won one of the most memorable championship games in any sport and would ultimately carry the burden for a disease even after his death.
Valvano lived life to the fullest. He would coach in the same basketball triangle as legendary North Carolina head coach Dean Smith and upstart Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but he was charismatic enough to separate himself from the two, yet win plenty of games as their equal. There aren’t many people you will meet in your life like Coach Valvano. The ESPYs speech has taken on a life of its own and has carried on the life and cause of Jimmy V. Here is a retrospective on the impact Valvano had on the world.
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Playing career at Rutgers
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Jim Valvano played point guard for Rutgers University from 1964 to 1967. He shared a backcourt with Bob Lloyd, who would become an All-American in 1967. The Scarlet Knights finished in third place in the NIT that season. Valvano averaged 15.2 points per game in 74 games at Rutgers.
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Becoming a college head coach
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In 1969, Valvano became head coach of Johns Hopkins for a season before leaving for an assistant job at Connecticut. But his only year at Johns Hopkins was the school’s first winning season in 24 seasons. Two years later, he would leave UConn to become the head coach at Bucknell for three years and then Iona. His pre-NC State coaching record was 138-97.
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Taking Iona to the NCAA Tournament
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Iona made its first NCAA Tournament in 1979, Valvano’s third year at the helm. The Gaels went 23-6 and would lose their first round game against Penn, 73-69. Iona would have a better season in 1980, going 29-5 and beating Holy Cross in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Georgetown in the second round. That win over Holy Cross is still the Gaels only NCAA Tournament win in 13 tries. The 1979-1980 season would be his last in New Rochelle, New York as he would then take the NC State job.
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NC State head coach
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When Norm Sloan left North Carolina State for the Florida job after the 1979-1980 season, Valvano took the gig. That began a 10-year run that netted 209 wins, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, two ACC regular-season titles and two ACC Tournament championships. The relevance of the Wolfpack mixed with the successes of North Carolina and Duke made the Triangle a hoops haven.
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1983 ACC Championship
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The Wolfpack’s run to the 1983 ACC Tournament Championship is one of the most impressive feats in ACC history. NC State was a No. 4 seed in the ACC and was not a safe bet to make the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack squeaked by Wake Forest, 71-70, in the first round. They would take on Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and the rival North Carolina Tar Heels in the semifinals and would beat the eighth-ranked Heels in overtime, 91-84. In the title game, NC State would topple Ralph Sampson and fourth-ranked Virginia, 81-78. Three tough wins against some of the nation’s best teams would guarantee the Pack a spot in the tournament.
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Winning the 1983 NCAA Tournament
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The biggest moment of Valvano’s basketball coaching career came in Albuquerque in 1983. The Wolfpack entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed and beat Pepperdine in double overtime in the first round before squeaking out a one-point upset win over UNLV in the second round. They would beat Utah before upsetting top-seeded Virginia to get to the Final Four. They would defeat Georgia (which made the Final Four in its first-ever tournament appearance) before taking on heavily favored Houston for the title. The Cougars fought through foul trouble and Albuquerque’s altitude to take a lead late. NC State would eventually tie the game and had the final possession. Dereck Whittenburg heaved a 30-foot shot as time expired, and Lorenzo Charles grabbed it in the air and dunked it to give the Wolfpack the win. That final play and Valvano running onto the court to celebrate are among the most indelible moments in NCAA Tournament history.
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NC State’s athletic director
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In 1986, Valvano took over as North Carolina State’s Athletic Director. He would have the job for three seasons before he was asked to resign in 1989.
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ACC Coach of the Year
Valvano led the Wolfpack to a 10-4 record and the regular-season ACC title in 1989, which earned him his only ACC Coach of the Year award. That NC State team was loaded with talent, as Tom Gugliotta, Chucky Brown, Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani would go on to the Sweet 16.
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In 1989, Peter Golenblock wrote “Personal Fouls,” which went into detail about academic violations at NC State, primarily involving former forward Chris Washburn. The book sparked an investigation into the Wolfpack program and found that student-athletes performed poorly in the classroom, and players were selling tickets and shoes. Valvano, while cleared of any wrongdoing, was asked to resign as the school’s athletic director in 1989 and as head coach of the basketball team after the 1989-1990 season. He would never coach again.
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Working for ESPN
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After his coaching days were over, Valvano got a job as an analyst for ESPN/ABC. He, of course, did college basketball work but also contributed to the first season of World League of American Football. He would be paired with Dıck Vitale, broadcasting games as well as doing studio work where the two would riff on each other and keep audiences engaged with their lively banter.
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Speech to NC State students
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On Feb. 21, 1993, Valvano gave one of his most memorable speeches in sports when he addressed the crowd at Reynolds Coliseum as the program was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the 1983 championship team. It was a 13-minute speech, a bit similar to his ESPYs address, but honed in on his experience in Raleigh. He would then lead the crowd in singing the fight song before he left the university for the final time.
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The V Foundation
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The V Foundation for Cancer Research was formed by Valvano in 1993 and has had a lasting effect long after his death. It has raised over $200 million that has been used for grants to find cures for cancer as well as raise awareness of the disease and also for people to get routine medical checkups. The NCAA and ESPN have been heavily involved in the foundation, often hosting fundraisers and events.
The ESPYs, which was a new awards show in 1993 celebrating sports, had its most memorable moment when Valvano became the first recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. He gave his “don’t give up” speech that gripped everyone who watched it that March night and everyone who has watched it since. He was brutally honest about his body’s condition and being near the end of his life, but he stayed true to his passionate, humorous self. This speech has not only been a beacon to people who are battling cancer but also has been an inspiration for anyone fighting any opponent in life.
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On April 28, 1993, James Thomas Anthony Valvano passed away at Duke University Medical Center at the age of 47. He was survived by his wife, Pamela, and three daughters. While he would ultimately lose his battle with cancer, his fight has continued for 25 years as the V Foundation has raised millions of dollars in search of a cure. ESPN and college basketball’s Jimmy V Week has several games and fundraisers to raise awareness for the need to fund cancer research.
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Reynolds Coliseum arena named after Valvano
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In 2018 it was announced that the arena at Reynolds Coliseum will be named in honor of Jim Valvano. With other naming rights, it is officially the Kay Yow Court at James T. Valvano Arena at William Neal Reynolds Coliseum. The arena was home to the Wolfpack when Valvano was head coach, but the team moved to PNC Arena in 1999. The women’s basketball, gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling teams still compete at this venue.