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Vin, Vinny and Vindication
Alexander Wolff
January 18, 1988
Where Vin Del Negro, talented but unguided, once failed, his son, well loved, has persevered and triumphed
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January 18, 1988

Vin, Vinny And Vindication

Where Vin Del Negro, talented but unguided, once failed, his son, well loved, has persevered and triumphed

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One lazy afternoon that summer, as Vinny shot hoops in the driveway, Vin called his son aside. Weeks before, Dennis Kinne, the coach at Suffield, had written Vin to inquire whether Vinny would consider a boarding-school education. Vin had filed Kinne's letter away and thought no more of it, but he had come upon it while cleaning out a desk drawer. "My dad initiated it," Vinny says. "He wanted to give me the opportunity to make that decision. He never had the same chance."

When he met the coach and saw the campus, Vinny knew instantly he wanted to try Suffield. Vin assured his son that he need not worry about the cost. Vinny assured his father that he could cope with leaving Cathedral and his buddies. In the car back from the campus, Vin voiced the one difficulty they both knew remained: "What are we going to tell your mother?"

Peg cried for days when she heard. That fall, during Vinny's first weeks away, she slept in her absent son's bed.

Lebo doesn't take Vinny's dare. He won't foul him, at least not here, not now. As Vinny leaves Lebo behind, turning the corner and negotiating the left baseline not far from the basket, North Carolina's 6'11" Joe Wolf comes down the lane to attempt to stop him. Vinny is now between the baseline and the backboard; he squares up to the basket, springs into the air and double-pumps the ball into a thicket of arms. There's a whistle. Wolf has fouled Vinny over the back.

After the play, Vinny notices NBC commentator Al McGuire standing up. "I'm looking toward the sideline," Vinny recalls, "trying to think about something else, to relax." Vinny's eyes meet McGuire's for an instant charged with urban-ethnic telepathy. Over the air, McGuire says, "Vinny just looked over here and made a positive sign. In my world, that means he's going to make these foul shots."

Just as Rocco Valvano once rehashed games with his son in the living room—overplaying the armchair, screening the bridge table—so has Vin. always had postgame advice for Vinny. Often now his words of wisdom must be dispensed over the phone, after Vin has played back his videotape of the game several times. "At first when he did that, I'd want to say, 'Give me a break,' " Vinny says. "Now I can handle it better. And what he says, we usually end up working on in practice the next day."

In the fall of 1985, a year after Vinny's arrival at N.C. State, a kid from Woodstock, Va., named Walker Lambiotte hit Raleigh carrying a gaudy portfolio. He was the Most Valuable Player in the McDonald's All-American game, the most prestigious of the showcases for high-school talent. People who studied such things called Lambiotte the White Tornado and "the next John Havlicek." Vin heard that one on TV. "I used to run over to Boston to see John Havlicek play," he says. "I'm hearing that and wondering."

Lambiotte, the son of a well-to-do lawyer, was a fine prospect. And an even better teammate—he was likable and bright. He and Vinny roomed together and became friends even as Lambiotte, much as Vinny had, faded in and out of Valvano's good graces. For a while during his first two seasons with the Wolfpack, the 6'7" Lambiotte was playing out of position—sometimes at Vinny's position—in the backcourt. But toward the end of last season, Vinny was on the floor while Lambiotte sat and watched. In the ACC title game, Lambiotte didn't play at all, and a few months later he announced he would leave N.C. State.

Valvano wishes Lambiotte only the best. Indeed, he smoothed his way to transfer to Northwestern, where he'll play next season for Bill Foster, the same Bill Foster who once coached a young guard at Rutgers named Jim Valvano. But Vinny was crushed by Lambiotte's decision.

"I wanted Walk to do what was best for him," Vinny says. "I also wanted him to be happy. But it took two and a half years before the coach saw that I had it in me. I'm a lot better now—stronger, more mature. It's not, 'Oh, I did this in high school.' It's not that easy. When I called home, I heard, 'Get your ass out there and show him your ability.' And that's what Coach V's father said to him. If Walk's father had said the same...."

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