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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 627

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This is the grave of Jim Valvano.

Born in 1946 in Manhattan, Valvano grew up in Queens and then in Nassau County, a three-sport star in high school. He was recruited by Rutgers to play basketball and was a starting guard for a pretty good team that finished third in the NIT in 1967. Given Rutgers’ long-pathetic sports, this might be the greatest season in its history. After college, Rutgers hired him as a graduate assistant and an esteemed career in coaching was born.

He became the head coach of Johns Hopkins in 1969, stayed for a season, and then took a job as an assistant with Connecticut. That lasted for two years and then he got his first Division I head coaching position, at Bucknell. His teams weren’t very good though. He did pull out a winning record in his third season though, which led Iona to hire him. Those teams started out pretty rough too. But each year got better. By his third season, in 1977-78, they went 17-10. The following year, they were 23-6 and then a remarkable 28-4. The team went to the NCAA tournament in both of those years and even won a game in 1980. As a 5 seed, they defeated the 12th seed,Virginia Commonwealth, before losing to Georgetown in a very tight game. Making Iona a good team meant Valvano was off to the big time–North Carolina State.

NC St. has always been the third wheel in North Carolina basketball, behind UNC and Duke. Sometimes it’s behind Wake Forest too, such as in the Tim Duncan era. So it’s not an easy place to win. You can do fine there, but no one really expects the Wolfpack to dominate the ACC. And usually they don’t. Under Valvano they really didn’t either, but he always put together competitive teams. His first year, they only went 14-13, but he made the tournament in 1982 with a 22-10 record, going 7-7 in the ACC before getting upset in the first round by UT-Chattanooga. The next year, in 1983, they went 8-6 in the ACC, a tie for third. A solid season, but when they entered the NCAA tournament that year, no one expected NC St., as a 6-seed, to win much of anything. They only beat Pepperdine by two points in the first round. Then they squeaked by UNLV by one point in the second round to go to the Sweet 16. But there they dominated Utah and went to the Elite 8. At that point, things looked bad. Who did they have to face but the #1 seed Virginia and its legendary center Ralph Sampson. But NC St. pulled off the upset by one point and it was a Cinderella Final Four appearance. They handled Georgia in the first game but then faced mighty Houston in the final game, with their amazing duo of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, two hall of famers. In this game, the Wolfpack pulled off one of the most remarkable wins of all time and it was capped by the legendary celebration of Jim Valvano, hopping around the court in a daze, although this particular version of the video cuts that off after just a second.

The other remarkable thing about that clip is just watching basketball being played without a shot clock. Feels like 100 years ago.

Valvano’s unbelievable run and his charismatic personality made him one of the nation’s most famous coaches. But that didn’t always lead to dominance on the basketball court. The structural issues NC St. faced in the ACC were still pretty much the same, despite the title. The team only made the NIT in 1984. But even though the regular season didn’t always lead to domination, his teams were ready made for the tournament, coming back to the Elite Eight in 1985 and 1986, losing to Chris Mullin’s St. John’s team in 85 and Danny Manning’s Kansas team in 86. In 1987 and 1988, first round losses meant disappointing seasons, first to Florida and then a shocker to a 14 seed Murray State. In 1989, Valvano took the team back to the Sweet 16 and won the ACC outright for the only time in his career. But Georgetown with Alonzo Mourning took them out.

The team was just OK in 1990 and went 18-12. That might have gotten them into the tournament again as a 8 or 9 seed. But there was a problem. See, Valvano basically didn’t care if his students went to class or graduated or anything. Chris Washburn went there barely being able to read and was hardly prepared for life after college, with drug use making him one of the greatest draft busts in NBA history. Players were selling shoes and tickets. Valvano was personally cleared in the investigation, but the team faced a 2-year ban on postseason activity. Given that North Carolina wasn’t even slapped on the wrist for massive sustained academic fraud in recent years with fake classes and everything, it’s amazing that the NCAA has actually regressed in the last three decades, turning into an even more monstrous institution than it was in the 1980s when it was punishing players for actually making a little money. Anyway, Valvano had become athletic director at NC St. as well in 1986. It’s a bad idea for an acting coach to also be AD, mostly because both are too big a job to do them effectively if you have to do both, but whatever. Anyway, he did resign from that position when the team went on probation. But there was a lot of pressure on him to leave as basketball coach as well and so a deal was made and he resigned after the 1990 season.

In the aftermath, Valvano was hired by ESPN and ABC to be a color commenter on games. He was often paired with his good friend Dick Vitale. I don’t actually remember this, though I am sure I watched them work together since I was watching a ton of college hoops in these years, but the idea of seeing those two guys call a game together sounds like an exercise in assault on the ears. Who can be louder and more energetic! They even made a cameo together as a team of movers on an episode of The Cosby Show. I was messing around on YouTube and found this old clip of Valvano on Letterman. No question, the man was entertaining.

Valvano, an extremely energetic and passionate guy, also made a killing giving motivational speeches around the country. This had always been key to his coaching and now he really cashed in on it. He probably would have had a very long career as a broadcaster. Alas, he was diagnosed with a horrible form of cancer, Adenocarcinoma, in June 1992. It was a death sentence.

Now, at the same time, ESPN was looking for yet another way to promote itself. It was just starting to move into its extremely annoying phase, when everything was wink-wink meta, when every Sports Center commenter had to have a catch phrase or match each other in frat boy sarcasm. Part of this process was the creation of the ESPYs, which is perhaps the most pointless award ceremony in the entire world, an entirely made up night to promote ESPN and which ESPN then promotes as something real. Well, I guess if you like to watch your favorite sports stars on the red carpet instead of the court, this might have some appeal to you. Anyway, at the first ESPYs, the only memorable thing ever to happen in these awards came from a dying Jim Valvano, who gave his famous inspirational speech about fighting cancer and living your life the best you can to an enraptured audience, something that ESPN still plays clips of frequently when promoting its Jimmy V Foundation to fight cancer. Barely able to walk up the stairs, Vitale helped him get there after introducing him. Let’s watch it.

Valvano hoped for one last honor: he wanted to throw out the first pitch of a game at Yankee Stadium. But he was too sick when he was scheduled to do so in April 1993. He died on April 28, less than two months after his ESPY speech. Interestingly, he did not lose his rather full head of hair in the chemo treatments. He was 47 years old.

Jim Valvano is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. As always, I thank you very much. If you would like this series to visit more college basketball coaches who won the NCAA title, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Howard Hobson, who coached the 1939 Oregon Ducks to the first ever title (Go Ducks!) is in Portland and Rollie Massimino, whose 1985 Villanova Wildcats were an even more improbable title winner than Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack, is in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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