"Sounds like you're not good enough. Are you good enough?"
"Sure, I'm good enough."
"Then show him. Coach isn't stupid. He wants to win as much as you do."
Rocco knew this because he was a basketball coach himself, a highly successful high school coach. Jim had played for his dad and had learned how to listen to him. Rocco would soon see his son star in Madison Square Garden for Rutgers in the 1967 semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
"My father was a romantic. He was very corny about certain things, like the role sports could play in people's fives," Valvano says of Rocco, who died in 1985. "He was just being true to his nature. If you are good enough, you will prove it, and society will recognize that and reward you. It was impossible not to see some of that in Vinny's situation. Vinny and I were not the most heavily recruited players in the world."
N.C. State first checked out Vinny early in his senior season at Suffield Academy, a prep school just across the Connecticut line from Springfield. He scored easily against the namby-pamby competition in Suffield's league, and Dick Stewart, one of Valvano's assistants, didn't know quite what to make of Vinny at first. But Stewart saw something—"A bounce to his game," he says now—that he instinctively liked, and another N.C. State scout visited later in the season for a second look. By now Connecticut, Cincinnati, even DePaul and Kentucky had been around, but as the season wore on, the Wolfpack felt it had a good shot.
Working in N.C. State's favor was the paesano factor. On Vinny's visit to Raleigh, Angelina Valvano, Jim's mother and Rocco's widow, cooked a big Italian meal. During Valvano's return visit to Springfield, the Del Negros took him to Nini's, a restaurant owned by Vinny's cousin Michael. Then Valvano gathered the Del Negros together in the living room of Vinny's prep school coach, where he played an audio tape of N.C. State play-byplay man Garry Dornburg calling a tricked-up "ACC title game." Vinny won it at the buzzer for the Wolfpack.
As the tape faded out, Valvano ran over to the couch and hugged Vinny. It's part of the Valvano method. "After we've answered all the questions about graduation rates and student-teacher ratios, I want to see how a kid reacts to a hug like that," Valvano says. "If he thinks it's childish, he shouldn't come play for me. At some point every year we practice cutting the nets down. We practice it. Can you see yourself doing this? Where does the dream end and reality begin? Fantasy, that's what sport is."
Vinny signed with N.C. State that night. But his first two seasons in Raleigh were hardly the stuff of fantasy. "I figured freshman year would be a learning experience," he says. "I could accept it, playing behind Spud [Webb] and Nate [McMillan]. They're both in the NBA now. But the second year it got a little tough. You go through that time when people back home are saying, 'Oh, you've got to transfer.' "
When Vinny began his junior season without a starting spot, his regular calls home took on more urgency. Vin and Vinny still talk on the phone five, sometimes six, times a week. "When I call after a game, I'm surprised if the phone rings twice before someone picks up," Vinny says. During those dark days in the fall of 1986, the telephone was Vinny's lifeline. "My dad knew how much I worked and cared and wanted to play," Vinny says. "He didn't want me to get to that low point and get mad and give up."