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Friday, April 04, 2008

25 years after his greatest triumph, a visit to Jimmy V's final rest

"Trees will tap dance, elephants will ride in the Indianapolis 500, and Orson Wells will skip breakfast, lunch, and dinner before State finds a way to beat Houston."

-- Dave Kindred
writer for The Washington Post
April 4th, 1983

It became, and remains to this day, the defining sports moment of the modern era.

It was twenty-five years ago tonight, on April 4th, 1983, that North Carolina State won the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, in what has become regarded by many as the single greatest basketball game ever played and one of the biggest upsets in the history of athletics.

It also produced some of the most memorable sports images to be ever televised or photographed.

What can be said about that game that hasn't already over a quarter-century? Nobody was expecting the Wolfpack of NC State to take down Houston. Guy Lewis's Cougars - dubbed "Phi Slamma Jamma" - boasted Hakeem Olajuwon and Clive Drexler. The entire team was already playing like NBA pros. They were ranked #1 in the nation. And after crushing Louisville in the semifinals of the 1983 NCAA Tournament, the Houston team was practically being laureled by most sports reporters as national champions even before tipoff. Writers like Kindred of The Washington Post were stepping all over themselves trying to describe the inevitability of Houston taking it all.

But nobody cared to tell any of this to a scrappy team from Raleigh, North Carolina that had been nicknamed the "Cardiac Pack". Nor did it seem that anybody thought to pass the word along to a cetain Italian kid from Queens.

Long before the start of the 1982-83 basketball season, North Carolina State's head coach Jim Valvano was telling his players that they possessed a lot of talent, and that they had the potential to bring home a national championship. Valvano believed it. The team believed it too. In spite of a rough regular season, the Wolfpack persisted and won the 1983 Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

And then NC State went to the Big Dance. The Wolfpack kept winning. Against Pepperdine, UNLV and Virginia the 'Pack achieved victory only within the last minute of each game after trailing for most of the time. And it wasn't long before everyone started to stand up and take notice of NC State and its sensational coach...

So it was that events converged on a showdown in Albuquerque, New Mexico - appropriately enough at The Pit, legendary for its hostile design - on the night of April 4th. Jim Valvano's North Carolina State versus Guy Lewis's Houston. Cardiac Pack against Phi Slamma Jamma. Irresistible Force meets Immovable Object.

The whole world was watching. Including a certain young boy in north-central North Carolina, who had been cheering for State since he could remember and was tuned-in to the game on WFMY along with his family. And truth be known, as much as we have always been faithful NC State fans, we were wondering how they could pull this off, too.

Most of y'all know how this went, and if you don't or if you need a refresher tonight ESPN Classic is running a half-hour special about the 1983 NCAA Championship game. In the final minute Derek Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe brought State within sight of victory by bringing the score to a 52-52 tie (after gaining a comfortable lead at halftime only to watch Houston sap away at the margin). State's Thurl Bailey passed the ball to Whittenburg, who with seconds left in the game threw what became the most televised air ball in history.

The ball was short, and that would have been the end of it for State. Except that sophomore Lorenzo Charles swooped down from seemingly out of nowhere and slammed a dunk with two seconds left before the buzzer.

The final score: North Carolina State 54, Houston 52.

The Pit went wild with pandemonium! To say nothing of what was going on in countless homes and restaurants across the country. Millions of people had watched the impossible: Phi Slamma Jamma had been defeated at its own game.

And Jim Valvano could not control himself: he leaped from his seat and began a frantic rush up and down the court, looking for somebody, anybody, to give a hug to. It has became the most iconic moment in the history of college basketball, and one of the most famous ever in sports.

Here it is, courtesy of YouTube: the final glorious moments of the 1983 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship game... and the first wild moments in the birth of a tradition that would come to be known as "March Madness":

It's hard to believe that it was twenty-five years ago today that all of this happened...

And it's even harder to believe that this month marks fifteen years since Jim Valvano was taken from us at the all-too-young age of 47, after a year-long battle with bone cancer.

Jim Valvano was one of my all-time personal heroes, for more reasons than I can possibly relate in this space. And it's one of the greater regrets of my life that I never got to meet him. Valvano was always larger-than-life and after the Wolfpack won the championship in 1983 he became an inescapable presence. He went on David Letterman's show and even appeared along with friend Dick Vitale in one of the final episodes of The Cosby Show (Valvano was one of the "V and V Movers" in the episode where Cliff is trying to move a grandfather clock). After his time at NC State, Valvano also became a well-respected commentator for ABC Sports and ESPN.

But in spite of all of his new-found fame and the thrill of victory, Valvano never lost sight of the things that mattered most. And his animated personality never diminished, even after receiving the prognosis in 1992: "Hey doc, you forgot to use the flash", Valvano joked the moment he saw the cancerous dark tissue on his x-ray.

It was a humor that Valvano maintained during the length of his battle. During his speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, he dismissed a teleprompter's notifying him that he had 30 seconds left to wrap things up. "They got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen," Valvano said on live televison. "I got tumors all over my body and I'm worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds?"

The day he passed away, a lot of people cried. Including me. And I've always wanted to go pay my respects to the man and all the good things that he stood for.

So since this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the greatest moment of his career, yesterday afternoon I set out for Raleigh...

On a good day, it's about an hour and a half's driving time between Reidsville and Raleigh. I like going there, but given how gas prices have been soaring lately it's become harder to justify going out that far. But this is something that I'd made the choice many months ago to do, and as it happened I had some free time yesterday to make a short day trip for this.

I left Reidsville at 12:30 yesterday afternoon. For early spring it has been unusually cool this past week, and I had to wear a long-sleeve shirt and jacket. My route had me getting onto Interstate 40 in Burlington, then heading east toward Raleigh. I stopped at the new Lowes Foods in Burlington (the one near the new shopping center with the Target and Best Buy) and found just what the occasion required: a single red rose, adored with lilies. The girl at the register said that my wife was "going to love this!" I had to tell her that "actually it's going on a gravesite", and I shared with her what I was doing.

"You're driving all the way from Reidsville, as high as gas is? That's sweet!" she told me.

I got onto I-40 just after leaving Lowes Foods. And according to the directions I pulled off the Internet, it would be another fifty miles before I left the interstate. But it turned out that the directions were off a bit, and I ended up bewildered somewhere in Cary (I think it was Cary...). I stopped at a gas station and asked for directions toward Glenwood Avenue, and the guy told me to take a right and keep going and "it's only two miles away."

I never found Glenwood Avenue. But I can't help but think now that maybe it was providential, because I wound up driving through the campus of North Carolina State University. After going through downtown Raleigh on New Bern Street, I stopped at a pharmacy and asked if anyone knew where Oakwood Avenue was.

"Go back down New Bern, take a right onto Raleigh Boulevard, and then a left right there at Oakwood. You can't miss it," a woman told me. She also asked "Are you looking for anything in particular?"

"A cemetery," I told her.

"Okay well you'll definitely see that," she replied.

I followed her directions. And it turned out that I wasn't too far away from St. Augustine's College where I took my Praxis II test several months ago.

Finally, at around 2:30 yesterday afternoon, I arrived at Oakwood Cemetery...

Founded in 1869, with a large amount of acreage devoted to thousands of Confederate veterans who are buried there, Oakwood is easily one of the most magnificent and beautiful cemeteries that I have seen in this part of the country. It is also wonderfully maintained, and the staff there was glad to help me find the spot I was looking for. "Jim Valvano is buried up there. Take a left and look for a large black marble marker," one of the groundskeepers told me.

It had already started to rain by the time I approached Raleigh. It had begun to fall even harder. The rain was washing the pollen out of the air and from the surfaces, leaving a sickly yellow residue to drain away. By this time the thermometer in my car was registering an outside temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

And finally, in the Cedar Hill Section of the cemetery, there it was...

The groundskeeper wasn't kidding: Jim Valvano's grave is positively big. But it's not necessarily ostentatious. One of the things that I thought when I saw it for the first time was that even his grave marker, in its own way, spoke volumes about the man that it served to honor.

I took those photos from one of the little roads that criss-cross the cemetery. By the way, if you ever visit Oakwood please be very careful and alert, because the driveways within the cemetery barely accommodate one vehicle, much less two at a time. And the only entrance to the place is large enough for one car at a time, period. So as you approach the entrance on Oakwood Avenue, be aware of any cars trying to leave the cemetery too.

Along with the rose that I'd bought on the way, I had something else that I wanted to leave at Valvano's grave...

It's, I guess it's called a "graveside note": something that I created in Photoshop yesterday morning. At the top of it is a color photo of Valvano surrounded by his players, taken moments after North Carolina State won the national championship in 1983. And then there was something that I wrote that was inspired by Valvano's words at the ESPY Awards, and which are also engraved on his tombstone:

Dear Coach V,
You made us laugh. You made us think. You made us cry.

And you made us proud.

On the 25th anniversary of your greatest victory, from all of us who will remember that night for the rest of our lives ...

Thank you.

I then placed the note and the rose on Valvano's grave...

The rain was falling harder by then. I finished up with my personal honoring of Valvano's memory, and then started to leave. Here's one last picture I took...

And then I said my goodbye to "Coach V" and left. I felt immensely satisfied that I was finally able to do this, and honor the memory of the man who inspired so many with both his witty humor and profound wisdom.

I know of no better way to wrap this up, than to post the video of Jim Valvano's speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, along with perhaps the most famous words he gave from the podium that night...

"To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. 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."

"Don't give up. Don't ever give up!"


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to Valvano, Chris! +10

Unknown said...

Super tribute to a great coach and person. Thanks Chris

Chad said...

A very moving tribute, Chris. Although the ESPY speech gets a lot of attention and air play, my favorite is the speech he delivered in Reynolds Coliseum at halftime of a game in 1993 when they honored the 10th anniversary of the 1983 team.

With his cancer already at an advanced stage, he led the crowd in the fight song, addressed each member of the championship team individually and spoke the word that have come to be his legacy, "Don't give up. Don't ever, ever give up."

Unknown said...

Thank you Chris for sharing this very good read. Visit Coach V's grave site is something that I have always wanted to do. A lifelong NC State fan and man I loved Jimmy V
I was in the 8th grade in 1983 and can remember that moment better than any moment in my life. Watched the 30/30 on ESPN many many times and say every time that I'm going to get to Jimmy V's gravesite and I never do. But you have inspired me to make it a priority. I know it will be another special moment in my life. Thanks again for sharing your story. "Don't give up, don't ever give up"
Go Pack!
Jason Beck