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It was getting late on Christmas night when the three wise men in red polyester pants finished their meal and prepared to leave the hotel dining room. Jim Valvano beckoned airily to a waiter for the check, once again thinking to himself how good it was to be back in New York City. In March he had given up the head coaching job at little Iona College in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y. to become the coach at North Carolina State, a national power. It had been an important move for Valvano, a born and bred New Yorker who had been coaching in the East for 12 years. Now here he was on the eve of the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, in charge of one of the most esteemed basketball programs in the country, trying to persuade a New York waiter to let him sign for dinner. A classic confrontation. Valvano signed the check. The waiter asked for cash. Valvano showed his room key. Cash, said the waiter. Valvano turned on the charm, identified himself as the coach of the North Carolina State-By-God-Wolfpack and told the waiter not to worry.
"He thought I was trying to stiff him," Valvano said later, after having to surrender most of his cash to the underawed waiter. "I've signed for meals in hotels all over the country, and this is the first time anybody ever thought I was trying to pull a fast one on them. He didn't even believe we were coaches. What did he think? That I'd called up two friends and said, 'I've got a great idea. Let's dress up in red pants and white Wolfpack sweaters, then get a lot of 6' 8" guys to follow us around and call us "coach" so we can get a free Christmas dinner down at the Statler'?" Valvano shook his head, and with just the slightest trace of a drawl he muttered, "Only in New York."
If those final words seemed awash with irony, they were meant to be, for there are few more devoted New Yorkers than the 34-year-old Valvano. Before he came back to the city last week he had spent nine months adjusting to life in North Carolina, and found he was loving the Wolfpack meetings, where everybody dresses up in red clothes, and the pig pickin's (barbecues, to Yankees), where "every time I open my mouth I get a hundred bucks." Valvano says he has already learned that "beating North Carolina is not life and death, it's more important than that. If Carolina played the Russians, half the state would be rooting for the Russians."
Raleigh is a world away from Times Square, and now and then Valvano enjoys letting his new constituents in on the difference between the two places. "I do a radio show in Raleigh," he says, "and one day they asked me to do the traffic report. When I went on I told 'em, 'I've been here six months, I'm not gonna kid you. There's no traffic. Good news again, folks.' They get a little stirred up if the light on Six Forks Road doesn't change fast enough, but I mean, unless you've sat on the Long Island Expressway for six hours, you've never been in traffic."
Last July, Valvano drove up to New York to do a little recruiting, using one of the two new cars the school had provided him with when he signed. His hubcaps were stolen. Not to be trifled with twice, Valvano flew into the city last week for the Holiday Festival. "When I got off the plane," he says, "I asked a guy what time it was, and he said to me, 'What do I look like, a clock?' That's when I knew I was home."
Home. Only in New York. James Thomas Anthony Valvano—second son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano—grew up in the Corona section of Queens. "I didn't know there was anything but Italians until I was 14," Valvano says. "We had no pretensions in my family. Every sentence when I was growing up began, 'Ayyy....' When I was 14 we moved out to the suburbs, where we played zones. All I remember is a lot of little white guys with their hands up."
Valvano's father coached high school ball in and around New York for 25 years. When Lou Carnesecca, now the head coach at St. John's, coached his very first game at St. Ann's Academy in the Bronx 31 years ago, the other team was coached by Rocco Valvano. When Jimmy Valvano, who had grown up thinking that to play at St. John's would be "something special," came of an age to go to college, a St. John's scout looked at him and decided the kid wasn't good enough to play there. Last Saturday night the Redmen met North Carolina State in the tournament's championship game. What goes around comes around.
When young Jimmy V. was told he couldn't play for St. John's he enrolled at Rutgers, made the basketball team as a walk-on and became a star. "I had a scholarship from the Dime Savings Bank," he says. "It took me seven years to pay it back. When I left home to go to Rutgers, which is 40 miles from New York, my mother packed me food. That's true. When I left, my whole family came—everybody was crying, there were long phone calls, and when we drove over we packed blankets in the car in case we had to sleep on the way. And this was to go to New Brunswick, N.J."
Valvano had never been away from home, and it was a dramatic experience. "The first fair-skinned girl I saw, I married," he says. Valvano did, in fact, marry a knockout blonde with green eyes named Pamela Susan Levine. "She saw my big nose and thought I was Jewish," Valvano says. "I saw her last name and thought it was Levini. It was three years before we figured out we had a mixed marriage."
Valvano stayed on at Rutgers as an assistant coach, then became head coach at Johns Hopkins for a season, spent two years as an assistant at Connecticut and three years as head coach at Bucknell before taking over at Iona in 1975. The Gaels had gone 4-19 the year before Valvano arrived, and putting them on the basketball map wasn't easy. During a game at Columbia in his first season, Iona rallied from 17 points down before finally winning in double overtime, and Valvano got so excited during the comeback that he keeled over at courtside, blacking out for a moment.