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He entered the Arena with his wife on his arm and a container of holy water from Lourdes in his black leather bag. His back and hips and knees ached. That was the disease, they told him. His ears rang and his stomach turned and his hands and feet were dead. That, they said, was the cure. Each step he took brought a rattle from his bag. Twenty-four tablets of Advil were usually enough to get him through the day.
He braced himself. No doubt someone would approach him this evening, pump his hand and say it. Strangers were always writing it or saying it to him: "We're pulling for you, Vee. You can do it. Nobody thought you had a prayer against Houston in that national championship game in '83, and you pulled that off, right? Keep fighting, Vee. You can do it again."
No. Not in the same breath. Not in the same sentence, not in the same paragraph, not in the same magazine or book could the two be uttered: a basketball opponent and a cancer eating its way through the marrow and bone of his spine. A basketball opponent and death. No. In their fear of dying, people didn't make it larger than it was. They shrank it, they trivialized it. Vee versus metastatic adenocarcinoma. Vee versus Phi Slamma Jamma. Go get 'em, baby. Shock the world, Vee.
No. No correlation, baby, he longed to tell them sometimes. None.
The cameras, the reporters, the microphones awaited him inside the Civic Center in Tallahassee. A brand-new season. Iowa State at Florida State, 46-year-old Jimmy Valvano's first game back as an ESPN college basketball analyst since he had learned last summer that he most likely had a year to live.
He tried to quicken his pace. His left leg wouldn't let him. Four or five times each day he dabbed his finger in the holy water and made the sign of the cross on his forehead, his chest, his back, his hips and his knees. Then he poured a little more into his palm and rubbed the water deep into his hands and feet.
When he was coach at North Carolina State, Vee used to pause at this point, just as he entered the arena. Having delivered his pregame talk, he would leave the locker room on the lower level of Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, mount the steps that led to the court, and stand on the top one, still unseen by the crowd. For a moment he would not be an actor at the heart of the drama. He would be a spectator absorbing the immensity, the feeling of it all—the band blaring fight songs, the crowd roaring, the cheerleaders tumbling through the air, the players taking turns gliding to the glass for layups. And he would think, God, I am lucky. What do other people do when they go to work? Go to an office, sit at a desk? I get this!
Yes, here was Vee's gift, the gift of the select, to be in the swirl and at the very same moment above it, gazing down, assessing it, drinking in all of its absurdity and wonder. It enabled him to be the funniest man and most fascinating postgame lounge act in sports; it enabled him to survive the scandal at North Carolina State that stripped him of his reputation and his job. Even during his most harrowing moments, part of Vee was always saying, "God, in a year this is going to make a great story." Exaggerate this detail just a little, repeat that one phrase four or five times, and it's going to have 'em howling. Even in the darkness after he had been forced to resign, he looked down at himself lying in bed and thought, Boy, that poor son of a bitch, he's really taking a pounding. But he'll be back. Give him time. He'll be fine.
That was what cancer had stolen. The fear and the pain and the grief swallowed a man, robbed him of detachment, riveted him to himself. "I can't do it," he said. "I can't separate from myself anymore."
He tightened his grip on the black leather bag and walked under the lights.