Gary Smith is by far and away the great sportswriter ever
As Time Runs Out GRAVELY ILL WITH CANCER, JIM VALVANO IS FIGHTING FOR HIS LIFE THE SAME WAY HE COACHED BASKETBALL, BY LEARNING ALL HE CAN, TALKING UP A STORM AND INSISTING ON THE LAST SHOT
HE ENTERED THE ARENA WITH HIS WIFE ON HIS ARM and a container of
holy water from Lourdes in his black leather bag. His back and hips
and knees ached. That was the disease, they told him. His ears rang
and his stomach turned and his hands and feet were dead. That, they
said, was the cure. Each step he took brought a rattle from his bag.
Twenty-four tablets of Advil were usually enough to get him through
He braced himself. No doubt someone would approach him this
evening, pump his hand and say it. Strangers were always writing it
or saying it to him: ! ''We're pulling for you, Vee. You can do it.
Nobody thought you had a prayer against Houston in that national
championship game in '83, and you pulled that off, right? Keep
fighting, Vee. You can do it again.''
No. Not in the same breath. Not in the same sentence, not in the
same paragraph, not in the same magazine or book could the two be
uttered: a basketball opponent and a cancer eating its way through
the marrow and bone of his spine. A basketball opponent and death.
No. In their fear of dying, people didn't make it larger than it was.
They shrank it, they trivialized it. Vee versus metastatic
adenocarcinoma. Vee versus Phi Slamma Jamma. Go get 'em, baby. Shock
the world, Vee.
No. No correlation, baby, he longed to tell them sometimes. None.
The cameras, the reporters, the microphones awaited him inside the
Civic Center in Tallahassee. A brand-new season. Iowa State at
Florida State, 46- year-old Jimmy Valvano's first game back as an
ESPN college basketball analyst since he had learned last summer that
he most likely had a year to live.
He tried to quicken his pace. His left leg wouldn't let him. Four
or five times each day he dabbed his finger in the holy water and
made the sign of the cross on his forehead, his chest, his back, his
hips and his knees. Then he poured a little more into his palm and
rubbed the water deep into his hands and feet.
When he was coach at North Carolina State, Vee used to pause at
this point, just as he entered the arena. Having delivered his
pregame talk, he would leave the locker room on the lower level of
Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, mount the steps that led to the court,
and stand on the top one, still unseen by the crowd. For a moment he
would not be an actor at the heart of the drama. He would be a
spectator absorbing the immensity, the feeling of it all -- the band
blaring fight songs, the crowd roaring, the cheerleaders tumbling
through the air, the players taking turns gliding to the glass for
layups. And he would think, God, I am lucky. What do other people do
when they go to work? Go to an office, sit at a desk? I get this!
Yes, here was Vee's gift, the gift of the select, to be in the
swirl and at the very same moment above it, gazing down, assessing
it, drinking in all of its absurdity and wonder. It enabled him to be
the funniest man and most fascinating postgame lounge act in sports;
it enabled him to survive the scandal at North Carolina State that
stripped him of his reputation and his job. Even during his most
harrowing moments, part of Vee was always saying, ''God, in a year
this is going to make a great story.'' Exaggerate this detail just a
little, repeat that one phrase four or five times, and it's going to
have 'em howling. Even in the darkness after he had been forced to
resign, he looked down at himself lying in bed and thought, Boy, that
poor son of a bitch, he's really taking a pounding. But he'll be
back. Give him time. He'll be fine.
That was what cancer had stolen. The fear and the pain and the
grief swallowed a man, robbed him of detachment, riveted him to
himself. ''I can't do it,'' he said. ''I can't separate from myself
He tightened his grip on the black leather bag and walked under
It flooded through him when he walked onto a basketball court --
the jump shots with crumpled paper cups he took as a little boy after
every high school game his dad coached, the million three-man weaves,
all the sweat and the squeaks and the passion so white-hot that twice
during his career he had rocketed off the bench to scream . . . and
blacked out . . . and five or six times every season the backside of
his suit pants had gone rrr-iii-p! He wore Wolfpack red underwear
just in case, but it didn't really matter. A guy could walk around in
his underwear at home; Vee was at home. Maybe here, for two hours
tonight, he could forget.
He looked up and saw a man striding toward him. It was the Florida
State coach, Pat Kennedy, who had been Valvano's assistant at Iona
College. Kennedy leaned toward Vee's ear and opened his mouth to
speak. Those who had been in a bar at 1 a.m. when Vee was making
people laugh so hard that they cried, those who had seen him grab the
deejay's microphone at 2 a.m. and climb on a chair to sing Sinatra,
those whose hotel doors he had rapped on at 3:30 a.m. to talk about
life and whose lampshades he had dented with his head when their
eyelids sagged (''Had to do something to wake you up! You weren't
listening!'') . . . they could not fathom that this was happening to
him. Vee was a man with an electric cable crackling through his body;
he might walk a couple of dozen laps around an arena after a big win
to let off a little hiss, or wander the streets of a city until dawn
after a loss. He was the kind of guy you wanted to cook dinner for or
show your new house to, because that would make it the alltime
greatest dinner, the alltime best house, terrific, absolutely
terrific -- and Vee meant it. And now Kennedy's mouth was opening
just a few inches from Vee's ear, and there were a thousand thoughts
and feelings scratching at each other to get out -- ''Every day with
you was an exciting day. Every day you had 10 new ideas. Every day
you left me with a smile on my face, saying, 'Boy, that Valvano's
something else.' And you left me thinking I could do more with my
life than I'd ever thought before. Certain people give life to other
people. You did that for me'' -- but no words would come out of
Kennedy's mouth. Instead he just kissed Vee.
This was what Valvano missed most after his coaching career ended
in April 1990. Nobody kissed a TV analyst, nobody hugged him, nobody
cried on his shoulder. Vee used to astonish the directors who hired
him to give those dime- a-dozen, $50-a-pop guest speeches at their
summer basketball camps in the Poconos back in the '70s. The
directors would look back as they strolled to their offices after
introducing him, and they would see a guy in a floppy Beatle haircut
pulling a white rat -- a real white rat, gutted and stuffed by a
taxidermist and mounted on a skateboard -- toward the microphone and
roaring to the kids, ''What kind of a greeting is that? Look how
you're sitting! I come all the way here and what do I get? A coupla
hundred crotch shots? I'm supposed to stand up here and give a good
speech staring at a coupla hundred sets of jewels? Whadda we have
here, a bunch of big-timers? I want rats! Let's try it again. You
only get out of life what you demand! I'm gonna come to the
microphone all over again, and this time I want a standing O, and
once I get it you can bet I'm going to give you the best damn speech
I possibly can!'' The camp directors would look back again and see a
couple of hundred kids on their feet, cheering wildly. Look back a
few minutes later and see them crying. Look again and see them
carrying Valvano from basket to basket to cut down the nets and
chanting,''VEE! VEE! VEE!'' And for the rest of those camps, the
directors and counselors would have to peer in every direction each
time they opened a door or walked down a path, because Vee had
convinced a few hundred kids to leap from behind walls and bushes in
front of them, to sacrifice their bodies like True Rats, to shuffle
in front of the big-timers and take the charge!
He didn't recruit kids to his college program; he swept them
there. He walked into a prospect's home, and 15 minutes later he had
rearranged the - living-room furniture to demonstrate a defense, had
Mom overplaying the easy chair, Dad on the lamp, Junior and his
sister trapping the coffee table. Where the hell else was the kid
going to go to school? In the 30 games Vee coached each season, the
100 speeches he eventually gave each year, the objective was the
same: to make people leap, make them laugh, make them cry, make them
dream, to move people. ''Alive!'' he would say. ''That's what makes
me feel alive!''
And then one day last spring he was playing golf on a course in
the hills overlooking the Mediterranean in the north of Spain. He had
weathered the scandal at N.C. State. He had won an ACE for excellence
in cable-television sports analysis. He had turned down an offer to
coach at Wichita State and signed contract extensions with ABC and
ESPN. He had time, finally, for long dinners with his wife, for
poetry readings and movies with his 12-, 20- and 23-year-old
daughters. He had an assignment to do sideline commentary on a World
League football game in Barcelona; he had a tee time on the course
just north of the city. ''How beautiful it was that day,'' he would
remember. ''How happy I was. . . .'' And then he felt an ache in his
testicles. That's how death comes. A pang in the crotch when a man's
standing in the sun gazing across the green hills and the bluest
goddam sea in the world, deciding between a three-wood and an iron.
He laughed at all the inevitable aching-testicle jokes; the doctor
was almost sure it was just an infection or perhaps referred pain
from the lower backache Vee had been feeling. He was still laughing
while in the MRI tube last June at Duke University hospital, joking
through the intercom with the nurses about the heavy-metal music they
were pumping into his headphones as they scanned his spine to see if
he had damaged a disk, when the radiologist glanced at the image
appearing on his screen, and suddenly the laughter stopped and the
nurses fell silent. And the dread, the sick dread began to spread
through his stomach as the radiologist quietly said, ''Come with me,
Coach.'' And then: ''Let me show you a picture of a healthy spine,
Coach. . . . Now look at yours.''
The vertebrae in his were black where the others were white. And
the dread went up Vee's chest, wrapped around his ribs and his
throat, but he squeezed out another joke: ''You forgot to use the
No laughter. ''Coach, this is just how we see it in the textbook.
. . . Coach, I'm 90 percent sure this is cancer.''
) The world spun, and he asked a dozen questions that couldn't
be answered yet, but the look on the radiologist's face said this was
bad, very bad. Vee walked into the waiting room and told his wife,
Pam, and they held each other and cried and drove home, where his
oldest daughter, Nicole, was helping his middle daughter, Jamie, with
a Music 100 class project. They were banging on a piano key, beating
a wooden spoon against a pot, a pencil against a wine bottle and two
candlesticks against each other when the door opened and their dad
said, ''I've got cancer. I'm going to die. . . . I don't want to die.
. . . I'm sorry. . . . I'm sorry.''
It was still incomprehensible five months later. His sockets were
a little deeper, his olive skin wrapped a little more tightly around
his skull, but the 35 pounds he had lost made his body seem fit,
trim. His hair, against all medical logic, had survived massive
chemotherapy. He lived in a land where people vanished when they
became terminally ill. Most people who saw him walking through
airports, stepping in front of cameras and cracking jokes about his
plummeting weight (''Hey, I'm the quickest analyst in the country now
-- there's not an announcer who can go around me!'') assumed his
cancer was in remission. It was not. ''How you doin', Coach?'' they
What could he say? ''Hangin' in there,'' he usually replied.
''Hangin' in there.''
The crowd at the Civic Center caught sight of him now. The Florida
State band rose to its feet, waved a sign -- Welcome Back, Baby! --
and chanted, ''JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE! . . .''
It was a Friday night. On Monday morning, as he did every two
weeks, he would walk into the basement of the oncology center at Duke
and sit with a hundred people who stared into the nothingness,
waiting hours for their turns. His name would be called and a nurse
would say, ''Veins or port?'' and he would say, ''Port,'' which meant
that his veins had collapsed from being pierced by so many needles,
and that the four vials the doctors needed today would have to be
drawn from the lump over his left breast, where a plastic access
valve had been surgically inserted. He would remove his shirt, and a
nurse would swab the lump with disinfectant and squirt it with ethyl
chloride to numb it, flush out the tube inserted inside his superior
vena cava with saline solution, take his blood and send him back to
the waiting room while the lab ran tests on the blood. He would wait
another 45 minutes, murmuring something now and then to Pam or a
word of encouragement to nearby patients; then he would go to the
office of a doctor who tried to be cheerful but who saw 40 cancer
patients a day; and then he would be sent to the third floor to lie
down again and have Velban, a cell killer, pushed into his veins
through the port in the hope that it would kill as many cancer cells
as healthy cells. Finally he would limp out clutching Pam for
support, his body bent as if beaten with a bat, and you could count
on it, somebody would ask him for his autograph, and you could count
on it, he would smile wanly and say, ''Sure.''
''. . . JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE!'' He put the headphones
on and turned the sound up so he could hear the producer's cues over
the ringing that was always in his ears now, and then he stepped onto
the court to tape an introduction to the game. He could feel it now,
surging up through the hardwood, into his deadened feet -- the thump,
thump, thump of basketballs as the two teams pounded through layup
drills. Everything had a beat, a lovely chaos with an old, familiar
rhythm. The players were grinning and slapping five with him, the
fans were waving paper and pens at him, the band was blaring the
theme song from Rocky, the cheerleaders were tumbling through the
air, and Vee's right foot was tapping. In one breath he looked into
the ESPN camera and told the audience how Iowa State would have to
use its speed and stick the jump shot to win, whereas Florida State
would have to pound it inside. In the next breath he turned to the
boom mike and the interviewer on his right to answer her question
about the cancer consuming his spine, and with the horn section and
the backflips and the crowd's roar all around, he fell into that same
easy metaphor and delivered it in that same hoarse, hyped voice.
''I'm not happy to be here. I'm just happy to be! Even as we speak
the good cells are going after the bad cells. You gotta encourage
'em. Good cells. . . . Go get 'em! That's what's going on right now!
. . . It's hoops time! Let's play some hoops!''
''I'm helpless! I make no decisions! I have no control! I'm
totally at the mercy of the disease and the treatment! I'm not a dad!
I'm not a husband! I'm a freak! I can't do anything! I just lie there
and they stick needles into this lump in my chest and pour poison in
my body, and I don't believe in it. I'm a freak!''
He couldn't cry that into a microphone to the million and a half
people listening at home and watching in bars, but it was right
there, at the back of his tongue, at the base of his brain, welling
up and wanting to spill. It did, sometimes. There was no reason to
hide it, no reason anymore to hide anything. There were days, now and
then, that he passed huddled in his bathrobe in front of the
television, flinching from the pain, curling up in sorrow and
wondering how in God's name he would summon the strength again to
make the quip that would put everyone around him at ease, to tell the
world in that hoarse, hyped voice, You gotta get it into the middle,
it's the only way to beat a trap defense! as if there were a hundred
thousand more tomorrows. There were days when Jamie, who had taken
off her junior year at N.C. State to help him through this horror,
would shout, ''Get up! Go talk to your doctor! Go see a priest! Don't
just lie there! You've given up! Get up! Yell at somebody! Yell at
''Can a doctor or a priest take the cancer out of my body?'' he
''I don't know! I just want you to do something! Yell, fight,
punch! Even if it's all for nothing. So we can say, 'There's Dad.' ''
The old Dad, The Charge of the Light Brigade Dad, son of a man who
had a booming voice and an ear-to-ear grin and a yellow-pad list of
things that Vee's team needed to get right to work on . . . but
didn't they understand? How could Vee allow himself to hope? If Vee
liked a movie, he saw it five times. If Vee liked a song, he
transcribed every word, memorized it, sang it 20 times a day and
talked his kids into singing it with him a half dozen more times on
the way to the beach. Vee couldn't throw half or three quarters of
his heart into anything; he had to throw it all. Didn't they know how
dangerous it was for a man like him to throw all of his heart into a
hope as slender as this? Vee was a dreamer. Vee had no life
insurance. A man whose lows were as low as his highs were high
couldn't hope too hard, couldn't lean too far, because the next
downturn in his condition or the next darting away of his doctor's
eyes could send him whirling down a shaft from which he might never
Besides, where were the hooks to hang his hopes on? Doctors
couldn't even find the origin of his cancer -- they were guessing the
lungs, even though he had never smoked more than an occasional cigar.
With his kind of cancer, there were no tumors to X-ray, no reliable
way to chart the course of the disease. ''You'll know when it's
getting worse,'' they told him. ''You'll know by the pain.'' So he
would wake up each morning and ask himself the terrifying question:
Is there more pain?
Get up! Yell! Fight! Punch! He tried. He refused to put on the
gown when he checked into the hospital every sixth week for massive
doses of chemotherapy. He refused to take the prescription pain
pills. He talked to God out loud. He marched into the salon and
ordered them to buzz off all of his hair -- he would take it off, not
the chemotherapy. The same way, in the last minute of a tie game when
the other team had the ball, he flouted convention and ordered his
players to foul and risk handing the opponents the game-winning free
throw -- Vee wanted the rock at the end, Vee wanted the last shot. He
refused to sit there, cringing on defense, waiting for fate to happen
But the joke was on him. The hair grew right back and never fell
out. Every tactic in this new war came back at him turned upside
down. Every stoking of his fever to live increased his horror of
death. And he would remember that astonishing flood of emotional
letters that dying people had written to him after N.C. State had
shocked Houston nine years earlier, people thanking him for giving
them a reason not to give up, and he would sit there, shaking his
head. Could he explain all that during the next timeout? Could he let
everyone know that he only had to see his three daughters walk in the
house in order to cry now, that a TV commercial showing a dad
accepting a bowl of cereal from his little girl, hugging her and
saying, ''I must be pretty special for you to bring me bran flakes,''
brings tears to his eyes because they're just so goddam happy and
Iowa State guard Justus Thigpen's jump shot was descending a good
foot in front of the rim, a fine opportunity for Vee to say, as he
had with a slow, stupefied shake of his head two days earlier at
home, ''Justus Thigpen! Can you believe it? Who knows how much time I
have left, and I've been sitting here poring over Justus Thigpen's
stats in the Iowa State basketball brochure. I'm sitting here
reading, and I quote, that 'Justus Thigpen was twice selected Big
Eight Player of the Week' and that 'he scored 11 points at Kansas and
17 points in ISU's overtime win on ESPN versus Colorado.' What the
hell am I doing? The triviality of it just clobbers me. You get this
sick and you say to yourself, 'Sports means nothing,' and that feels
terrible. God, I devoted my whole life to it.''
He might say that to a million and a half people. He could say
that. He was a man who converted feelings to thoughts and thoughts
to words with stunning ease -- solid to liquid, liquid to gas; it was
beautiful and terrible, both. Sometimes he would look at his
daughters or his wife and say, ''God . . . I'm going to miss you,''
and it would rip their hearts in half. What were the rules after you
had dragged out of the doctor the fact that only a few patients with
metastatic adenocarcinoma diagnosed in its late stages, like Vee's,
lived more than two years, and most were gone within a year? Did you
tell the people you loved all the things that were banging at the
walls of your heart, or did you keep them locked inside to save your
family the agony of hearing them? Nobody taught you how to do this;
what were the rules?
Maybe it was time now for the TV camera to focus on his hands, the
left one balled and the right one wrapped around it, desperately
trying to squeeze some feeling into it as Bob Sura zinged in a
21-footer and Florida State's lead swelled to 50-31. Perhaps Vee
should tell all the viewers and listeners, even if it wasn't what
they had tuned in to hear: ''I'm being deprived of my senses. I can
hardly taste food anymore. I can't hear. I can't feel. My wife will
have to button my shirt soon because I won't be able to feel the
buttons between my fingers. It's got my feet and my hands and my ears
. . . but it doesn't have my mind and my heart and my soul. And it's
not going to. I'm going to fight this as long as I can. I'm going to
keep doing what I love.
''I'm going to have to miss some games because of chemotherapy. I
don't think you're going to see John Saunders in the studio saying,
'Live! From room 401 at Duke University Hospital, it's Jimmy
Valvano!' because I'm going to be at the sink throwing up. I don't
want to be wheeled to the microphone to do games, but I will. I'll
keep doing this until my mouth doesn't work, until my brain doesn't
Maybe he should tell them what he does some days at home in Cary,
N.C., how he removes his shoes and walks barefoot in the grass. Just
to feel. How he puts his hands around the trunks of the pine trees
and closes his eyes. Just to feel.
Here was a story he could tell. Goddam it, the Seminoles were up
by 21 at halftime, let him tell it. It was the one about a
23-year-old coach at Johns Hopkins University who was on a bus ride
home from Gettysburg, Pa., with his players, exuberant over his
squad's 3-0 start. A 23-year-old coach who had plotted his life on
an index card: five years, high school head coach. Five years,
small-college head coach. Five years, university assistant coach.
Five years, small-university head coach. Ten years, big-time
university head coach. A 23-year-old who didn't know he was going to
compress the first 20 years of the plan into 13, who didn't realize
he was going to have his dream, live his Pocono camp speech, cut the
NCAA title nets at 37 . . . who didn't know his life might already be
half over. His players called him to the back of the bus. ''Why is
winning so important to you?'' they asked. ''We've never seen
anything like it. You're irrational.''
''Because the final score defines you,'' he said. ''You lose;
ergo, you're a loser. You win; ergo, you're a winner.''
''No,'' the players insisted. ''The participation is what matters,
the constancy of effort. Trying your very best, regardless of whether
you win or lose -- that's what defines you.''
It took 23 more years of living. It took a rampage in his office
at home after a 39-36 N.C. State loss to Virginia in 1982, lamp
busted, chairs toppled, papers and books shoved everywhere. It took
charging through a locker-room door so hard that it knocked out the
team doctor. It took the pregame talk of his life and the coaching
jewel of his career, the 1983 NCAA championship upset that helped
rocket the Final Four onto the level of the World Series and the
Super Bowl. It took a couple of dozen Christmases when his wife had
to buy every gift and decorate every tree. It took bolting up from
the mattress three or four times a night with his T-shirt soaked with
sweat and his teeth rattling from the fever chills of chemotherapy
and the terror of seeing himself die again and again in his dreams --
yes, mostly it took that to know it in his gut, to say it: ''They
were right. The kids at Johns Hopkins were right. It's effort, not
result. It's trying. God, what a great human being I could've been if
I'd had this awareness back then. But how can you tell that to any
coach who has a couple kids and a mortgage and 15,000 people in the
stands who judge him only by wins and losses? Do you know, that 39-36
loss to Virginia was 10 years ago, but I could never let go of that
game until I got sick. Now it doesn't bother me at all.
''But I can't sit here and swear I'd do everything differently. I
wouldn't trade those years. Nobody had more fun than me. How many
people do you know who've had their dream come true? You're looking
at one. That was my creative period, my run, my burst of energy. .
. .'' Start his own company, JTV Enterprises? I can do that. Write
his own newspaper column, his own championship-season book? I can do
that. Broadcast his own daily radio commentary, his own weekly
call-in radio program and local TV show in Raleigh? I can do that.
Sell the advertising time for his own radio and TV shows? I can do
that. Commission an artist to paint an NCAA championship-game picture
each year and sell the prints to boosters of the school that wins? I
can do that. Commission a sculptor to produce life-sized figures of
the greats of sport for teams to showcase outside their stadiums? I
can do that. Write a cookbook? (He didn't know where the plastic bags
for the kitchen trash can were.) I can do that. Make 10 Nike
speeches, 20 alumni-club speeches, 25 to 50 speeches on the national
lecture circuit and a dozen charity speeches a year? I can do that.
Design and market individualized robes to sports teams that have
female journalists in their locker rooms? I can do that. Appear on
the Carson show, the Letterman show? I can do that. Host his own
sports talk show on ESPN? I can do that. Take on the athletic
director's job at N.C. State as well as coach basketball? Are you
sure, Vee? I can do that.
This was not for glory, not for money. There was none of either in
the AD's job, for God's sake. It came from a deeper, wider hunger, an
existential tapeworm, a lust to live all the lives he could've lived,
would've lived, should've lived, if it weren't for the fact that he
had only one. A shake of the fist at Death long before it came
knocking, a defiance of the worms.
Pam Valvano: ''Girls! Dad's in the living room!''
Daughter: ''Which channel?''
Vee: ''Live! In person! Downstairs! I'm actually here!''
Home at 1 a.m. Wide-eyed in bed at two, mind still grinding,
neurons suspicious, even back then, of sleep. ''Inside! Get the ball
inside!'' A daughter standing in the hall in her pajamas, hearing him
cry it out in his sleep. Up at 5 a.m. for the two meetings before the
breakfast meeting. Blowing out of his campus office at 4 p.m. to
catch a plane. Day after day, year after year. ''A maniac,'' he said.
''I was an absolute maniac, a terrible husband and father. Everybody
in the stands went, 'Awwwwwww, isn't that cute?' when my little girl
ran across the court in a cheerleader's outfit and hugged me before
every home game, but for 23 years, I wasn't home. I figured I'd have
20 years in the big time, who knows, maybe win three national
titles, then pack it in at 53 or 54, walk into the house one day, put
on a sweater and announce: 'Here I am! Ozzie Nelson's here! I'm
yours!' I always saw myself as becoming the alltime-great
grandfather. Leave the kids with me? No problem. Crapped his pants?
Fine, I'll change him. Vomited? Wonderful, I'll clean him up. I was
going to make it up to them, all the time I'd been away.'' His eyes
welled. ''God. . . . It sounds so silly now. . . .
''But I didn't feel guilt about it then. My thinking always was, I
would make a life so exciting that my wife and kids would be thrilled
just to be a part of it. But I remember one Father's Day when I
happened to be home, and nobody had planned anything, nobody even
mentioned it. How could they have planned anything? I'd probably
never been home on Father's Day before. I might've been in Atlanta
giving a Father's Day speech or in Chicago receiving a Father of the
Year award, but you can bet I wasn't at home on Father's Day. Finally
I asked them what we were going to do, and my daughter Jamie said,
'Dad, we spent all our lives being part of your life. When are you
going to be part of ours?' It hit me like a punch in the stomach.
''But it went on and on, that insatiable desire to conquer the
world. I was an arrogant son of a bitch. But it wasn't just
arrogance. I kept thinking of those lines from The Love Song of J.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ''Do I dare?'' and, ''Do I dare?''
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair --
(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')
''I wanted to dare. I wasn't afraid to show my bald spot, my
vulnerability, by trying new things. I'd go to bed after watching TV
on a Saturday night, and my mind would be saying, 'I should be the
host on Saturday Night Live. I can do that.' I look back now and I
see the truth in the Icarus myth. You know the story about the boy
who's so proud of his wings that he flies too close to the sun, and
it melts the wax and he falls and dies? What enables us to achieve
our greatness contains the seeds of our destruction.
''Every season I had bronchitis, bad colds; twice I had pneumonia.
The night we won the NCAA, I was sick as a dog. I was the Mycin Man
all season -- erythromycin, clindamycin. I wouldn't rest. I'd just
pop the antibiotics and keep going. Who knows? Maybe I put my body
in a position to get this. I've been reading books about cancer. They
say it often occurs if your immune system is lowered, and then you
have a trauma. . . .''
Yes, a trauma. To hell with that basketball game; it was going to
end just as it began, a Florida State blowout. Here was a man who lay
awake every midnight, chewing on mortality -- let him talk. Let him
wonder out loud if a book published in 1989, and the 15 months of
investigations and media barrage it set off, was his bullet . . . and
then try not to wonder, try to shut that midnight whisper down and
ignore the connection between cancer and personal trauma, because
otherwise he would have to blame a few people -- a writer, a local
managing editor -- for this nightmare he was living, and he would
have to hate, and hatred and blame were the worst detours a man could
take when he was locked in mortal combat to live. ''I can't do
that,'' Vee would say. ''I've got to fill these days I have left with
love and laughter and forgiveness. But I wonder. . . .''
Jan. 7, 1989, the first headlines. A book entitled Personal Fouls,
by Peter Golenbock, was about to appear, accusing Valvano and his
staff of fixing grades, hiding drug-test results from authorities,
diverting millions of dollars from the alumni club to the players
and paying the players off with automobiles. One publishing house
rejected the book; another one bought it, and the hammer blows began
in earnest, usually starting with the Raleigh News and Observer and
then ringing throughout the country, banging at the core of who Vee
was. He called press conferences, he dug up graduation statistics, he
demanded hearings by the North Carolina State Board of Trustees. But
the Icarus arc was now at work -- his glibness becoming proof, to his
critics, of his guile; his gargantuan appetite for life proof of his
The NCAA investigation lasted eight months. In the end the
investigators found no million-dollar diversions, no automobiles, no
grade-fixing, no hidden drug tests. They found two punishable
violations -- players had sold complimentary tickets and
complimentary sneakers -- and the NCAA placed N.C. State on two
years' probation, declaring it ineligible for the 1990 NCAA
tournament. Dave Didion, the lead investigator, wrote Valvano a
letter. ''I wanted to let him know that he had cooperated with me
more than any coach I had ever worked with,'' said Didion, ''and that
not everyone thought he was ; evil. I wanted to let him know that if
I had a son who was a prospect, I would be proud to have him play for
Jim Valvano. He wasn't the smart-ass egomaniac I'd anticipated. Yes,
the graduation rate of his players was not good . . . but no one
cared to look at the overall graduation rate at N.C. State. Yes, he
probably shouldn't have recruited some of the kids he did. But if he
hadn't, he'd have ended up playing against them and getting his
brains beaten out by them, because everybody else wanted those same
Then came the final blow: allegations of point-shaving a few years
earlier that involved former N.C. State forward Charles Shackleford.
No one believed Valvano had knowledge of it, and nothing would ever
be proved, but the hammering had to stop. In April 1990 he was forced
to resign. ''The pain of that -- having my mother, my brothers, my
wife, my children reading the things that were written about me,'' he
said. ''I felt physical pain. There were things I should've done
differently, but I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. The insinuation
that I didn't care about the kids. . . . I hated that. To be lumped
with coaches who cared only about winning and nothing about
education. . . . I hated that. I majored in English, not P.E. I had
two daughters on the dean's list. All but perhaps two of my players
at Johns Hopkins, Bucknell and Iona graduated. I didn't change. I'll
take responsibility, but that's different from blame. I didn't admit
the kids to N.C. State who didn't graduate -- our admissions office
did. In hindsight it's easy to say who shouldn't have been recruited,
but who knew beforehand? Sometimes kids from worse backgrounds, with
worse high school grades, did better than kids from decent homes,
with decent grades.
''Maybe I trusted the kids too much. The school wanted me to force
education down their throats, and I wouldn't do it. They wanted me to
say, 'You don't go to class, you don't play. I take away ball.' What
does that tell a kid? That ball is more important than education! My
approach was, If you don't study, you pay the consequences. You flunk
out. I tried to excite them about learning. I had Dereck Whittenburg
read King Lear and then go to the chalkboard and do a pregame talk on
it. I wasn't one of those coaches telling them to learn but never
reading a book myself. I lived it. They saw me reading Shakespeare on
buses. They saw me trying things outside of sports all the time.
''I guess I was unrealistic to think I could change kids. I
should've said , to them, 'I love you, but I don't trust you yet. You
have to do this and this your first two years here, and then I'll
trust you.' And there's no way around it -- I didn't have as much
time to give them after I became athletic director. I tried to do too
much. They couldn't just walk into my office at any time of the day,
like before, and talk. It was a little less each year, especially for
the 13th, 14th, 15th players. But each time, the change was
imperceptible to me. It happens without your realizing it.
''And now I'm fighting to live, and the irony of having people
think of me as a man who cared only about winning and athletics . . .
it overwhelms me. I'm looking for a reason to hope, a reason to live,
and the only thing that helps me do that is my education, my mind. If
I survive this, or even if I just wage this battle well, it will be
because of what I grasped from reading, from understanding the world
and my place in it, from learning to ask the right questions and to
grasp all the alternative treatments for this disease -- from
academia, not from athletics. People think a sports background helps
you fight death. Are you kidding? Athletes and coaches are taught
that they're special. You're nobody when you're a cancer patient.
''I want to help every cancer patient I can now. For some reason,
people look to me for hope. I'm feeling half dead, and they're coming
up to me in the hospital for hope. I don't know if I can handle that,
but it's the only conceivable good that can come out of this. If the
Clinton Administration wants someone to raise money for cancer
research, I'm here. If I survive, I'm going to work with cancer
patients one-on-one and help them find a way to hang on, like so many
people are trying to do for me. Half a million people die of cancer
every year in America, one out of every four of us will get it, and
there's no moral outrage; we accept it. I'm all for AIDS funding and
research, but how can the government give 10 times as much per AIDS
patient as per cancer patient? Barbra Streisand isn't singing for
cancer, Elizabeth Taylor isn't holding a celebrity bash for cancer,
and yet every time I go into that cancer building at Duke, it's a
packed house! If it means more doctors, more space, more money, we've
got to get it, because millions of people are going to find out that
this is one hell of a way to go.''
The basketball game was nearly over now. Valvano's mind and tongue
were still flying, the jokes still crackling, but a deep fatigue was
coming over his body. He looked across the court and saw his wife
speaking to a woman beside her, saw his wife smile. And he thought:
It's so good to see her smile, but how many times have I seen her
crying lately? What's going to happen to her? Will she be all right?
He would take a deep swallow of air the next day as he remembered
that moment, that look across the court at her as the coaches shouted
and the players panted and the fans roared. ''You see, I had it all
planned for our 25th anniversary, last August 6. I was going to give
her three gifts: the deed to four acres where she could build her
dream house, a big diamond ring, and a nice trip, just the two of us
on a beach. She'd lift me up when she heard it and I'd cut the nets,
a standing O. . . . Goddam. What did she get instead? A sick husband
in a hospital bed getting Mitomycin, Cisplatin and Velban dripped
into him. She got to clean me up when I vomited. That's love. I'd
told her, 'We're going to get old together, Pam.' Probably the nicest
thing I'd ever said to her. 'We're going to get old together'. . . .
Goddam. . . . Goddam.''
The game ended, and then he did something he had never done
before. He thanked the hundred fans who had gathered to wish him
well, said no to the coaches who asked if he would like to go out . .
. and went back to his hotel room with his wife. She fell asleep, and
he lay there at 1 a.m., alone, hungry for food and wine, hungry for
conversation he was missing, and the laughter. He ordered a pizza,
stared at the TV and cried.
He jumped from his seat one day not long ago. The backside of his
pants didn't rip -- they weren't that tight anymore. A paragraph had
jumped into his eyes from a book he was reading. ''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
''That's it!'' cried Vee. ''That's why we strive! That's the value
of sports! All those games, they mean nothing -- and they mean
everything!'' His fist clenched. He hadn't poured himself into
emptiness for 23 years, he hadn't devoured Justus Thigpen's stats for
nothing, he hadn't. The people who compared his upset of Houston to
his fight against cancer were right!
''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!''
In early December, when the pain grew so fierce he had to call off
a weekend of studio work for ESPN, he had a local shop print up 1,000
small cards. He had hundreds of people across the country calling
him, writing him, encouraging him, but he needed more. VICTORIES it
said on each card. ''Valvano's Incredible Cancer Team of Really
Important Extraordinary Stars.''
''See?'' he said. ''I'm going to make a team. I'm going to give a
card to everyone I meet as I go around the country doing games. On
the back of each card are the requirements of my players. One, they
have to say, 'Jimmy Vee, you will make it.' Two, they have to say it
out loud -- it's important to verbalize. They can call my office
number and, if I'm not there, leave a message on my answering
machine: 'Jimmy, don't give up!' And three, they have to do something
to improve their own health, whether it's mental, spiritual or
''My own team -- everybody can join. This is it, baby, my ultimate
pregame talk. I need this one, gotta have it. Gotta have so many
people calling my answering machine each day that they can't get
through. Gotta have people all over the country opening their windows
and shouting it out: 'JIMMY VEEEEEE! DON'T GIVE UP!' ''