“Trees will tap dance, elephants will drive in the Indianapolis 500 and Orson Welles will skip breakfast, lunch and dinner before North Carolina State finds a way to beat Houston.”
-Washington Post, April 4, 1983
“Call up the elephants, baby. Teach them how to drive.”
– NC State Coach Jim Valvano after his team’s 54-52 NCAA Championship win
Each year about this time, I find myself thinking about Jim Valvano. It’s ESPN’s fault and I’m mad and grateful at the same time. The sports network runs its annual Jimmy V Foundation tournament at the front end of the college basketball season to commemorate the late NC State coach who died 15 years ago this May.
Along with that tournament, the proceeds of which go to Valvano’s cancer research group, the network plays for all of us Jimmy V’s defining moment. It’s not the highlights from the 1983 tourney in which Valvano took a rag-tag group of also-rans who were in danger of not even making the NIT through a NCAA tournament run for the ages.It’s not Valvano’s finals performance, in which he bested a Houston squad that boasted two players who would eventually be named to the NBA’s top 50 of all time squad. It wasn’t his mad dash around the court, looking for someone to hug after Derrick Whittenburg’s desperation 30-footer landed short, but in the hands of Lorenzo Charles, who slammed it home for the win.
If you don’t believe it’s been 15 years since he was taken from us, I’d only ask that you look at the bad fashion and mall hair sprinkled through the deeply saddened crowd at the 1993 ESPY awards. On unsteady legs and with a dying body, Valvano gave us a 10-minute glimpse into his soul. He challenged us to laugh every day, to think every day and let our emotions move us to tears every day. Each time I watch it, I find myself doing all three simultaneously.
I laughed when he chided the tech kid at the back of the room for trying to wave him off the stage (“I’ve got tumors all over my body,” he joked. “Like I’m worried about some guy in the back going “30 seconds.”) and when he told the story of how he tried to inspire his Rutgers basketball team but couldn’t get into the locker room.
I thought about how hard it must have been for him to say he wanted to be back next year to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to the next winner, knowing full well he wouldn’t last a few more weeks. I wondered if I would have been so brave or so strong, knowing that the end was so painfully near.
I was moved to tears when he told me “don’t give up. Don’t ever give up” because it was clear he hadn’t. Instead of taking a chance to put the spotlight on himself, he used the speech as an opportunity to launchthe cancer foundation. He did it as a selfless act, telling the audience that it was clear this wouldn’t save his life, but it might help save someone else’s. I cried when he said, “I know I’ve got to go” because even though it was 15 years ago and he’s long gone and buried, I wanted to reach out and say, “No, please stay. Just a few more minutes…”
If we are nothing but the sum of our accomplishments and achievements and faults and failures, Jim Valvano was a mixed bag. He was accused of rule-breaking at NC State and Iona during his coaching days. He took one team on an improbable run and etched his picture on our minds for years to come. He was an adequate broadcaster who used a self-depreciating wit to distract us from his shortcomings.
However, if we are to be judged as to what we do in our time of greatest despair, then the singularity of a courageous act can redeem us all and give hope to those we leave behind.
Each year when ESPN shows that speech, I’m grateful to be reminded of that.