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It flooded through him when he walked onto a basketball court—the jump shots with crumpled paper cups he took as a little boy after every high school game his dad coached, the million three-man weaves, all the sweat and the squeaks and the passion so white-hot that twice during his career he had rocketed off the bench to scream...and blacked out...and five or six times every season the backside of his suit pants had gone rrr-iii-p! He wore Wolfpack red underwear just in case, but it didn't really matter. A guy could walk around in his underwear at home; Vee was at home. Maybe here, for two hours tonight, he could forget.
He looked up and saw a man striding toward him. It was the Florida State coach, Pat Kennedy, who had been Valvano's assistant at Iona College. Kennedy leaned toward Vee's ear and opened his mouth to speak. Those who had been in a bar at 1 a.m. when Vee was making people laugh so hard that they cried, those who had seen him grab the deejay's microphone at 2 a.m. and climb on a chair to sing Sinatra, those whose hotel doors he had rapped on at 3:30 a.m. to talk about life and whose lampshades he had dented with his head when their eyelids sagged ("Had to do something to wake you up! You weren't listening!")...they could not fathom that this was happening to him. Vee was a man with an electric cable crackling through his body; he might walk a couple of dozen laps around an arena after a big win to let off a little hiss, or wander the streets of a city until dawn after a loss. He was the kind of guy you wanted to cook dinner for or show your new house to, because that would make it the alltime greatest dinner, the alltime best house, terrific, absolutely terrific—and Vee meant it. And now Kennedy's mouth was opening just a few inches from Vee's ear, and there were a thousand thoughts and feelings scratching at each other to get out—"Every day with you was an exciting day. Every day you had 10 new ideas. Every day you left me with a smile on my face, saying, 'Boy, that Valvano's something else.' And you left me thinking I could do more with my life than I'd ever thought before. Certain people give life to other people. You did that for me"—but no words would come out of Kennedy's mouth. Instead he just kissed Vee.
This was what Valvano missed most after his coaching career ended in April 1990. Nobody kissed a TV analyst, nobody hugged him, nobody cried on his shoulder. Vee used to astonish the directors who hired him to give those dime-a-dozen, $50-a-pop guest speeches at their summer basketball camps in the Poconos back in the '70s. The directors would look back as they strolled to their offices after introducing him, and they would see a guy in a floppy Beatle haircut pulling a white rat—a real white rat, gutted and stuffed by a taxidermist and mounted on a skateboard—toward the microphone and roaring to the kids, "What kind of a greeting is that? Look how you're sitting! I come all the way here and what do I get? A coupla hundred crotch shots? I'm supposed to stand up here and give a good speech staring at a coupla hundred sets of jewels? Whadda we have here, a bunch of big-timers'? I want rats! Let's try it again. You only get out of life what you demand! I'm gonna come to the microphone all over again, and this time I want a standing O, and once I get it you can bet I'm going to give you the best damn speech I possibly can!" The camp directors would look back again and see a couple of hundred kids on their feet, cheering wildly. Look back a few minutes later and see them crying. Look again and see them carrying Valvano from basket to basket to cut down the nets and chanting, "VEE! VEE! VEE!" And for the rest of those camps, the directors and counselors would have to peer in every direction each time they opened a door or walked down a path, because Vee had convinced a few hundred kids to leap from behind walls and bushes in front of them, to sacrifice their bodies like True Rats, to shuffle in front of the big-timers and take the charge!.
He didn't recruit kids to his college program; he swept them there. He walked into a prospect's home, and 15 minutes later he had rearranged the living-room furniture to demonstrate a defense, had Mom overplaying the easy chair, Dad on the lamp, Junior and his sister trapping the coffee table. Where the hell else was the kid going to go to school? In the 30 games Vee coached each season, the 100 speeches he eventually gave each year, the objective was the same: to make people leap, make them laugh, make them cry, make them dream, to move people. "Alive!" he would say. "That's what makes me feel alive!"
And then one day last spring he was playing golf on a course in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean in the north of Spain. He had weathered the scandal at N.C. State. He had won an ACE for excellence in cable-television sports analysis. He had turned down an offer to coach at Wichita State and signed contract extensions with ABC and ESPN. He had time, finally, for long dinners with his wife, for poetry readings and movies with his 12-, 20- and 23-year-old daughters. He had an assignment to do sideline commentary on a World League football game in Barcelona; he had a tee time on the course just north of the city. "How beautiful it was that day," he would remember. "How happy I was...." And then he felt an ache in his testicles. That's how death comes. A pang in the crotch when a man's standing in the sun gazing across the green hills and the bluest goddam sea in the world, deciding between a three-wood and an iron.
He laughed at all the inevitable aching-testicle jokes; the doctor was almost sure it was just an infection or perhaps referred pain from the lower backache Vee had been feeling. He was still laughing while in the MRI tube last June at Duke University hospital, joking through the intercom with the nurses about the heavy-metal music they were pumping into his headphones as they scanned his spine to see if he had damaged a disk, when the radiologist glanced at the image appearing on his screen, and suddenly the laughter stopped and the nurses fell silent. And the dread, the sick dread began to spread through his stomach as the radiologist quietly said, "Come with me, Coach." And then: "Let me show you a picture of a healthy spine, Coach.... Now look at yours."
The vertebrae in his were black where the others were white. And the dread went up Vee's chest, wrapped around his ribs and his throat, but he squeezed out another joke: "You forgot to use the flash."
No laughter. "Coach, this is just how we see it in the textbook.... Coach, I'm 90 percent sure this is cancer."
The world spun, and he asked a dozen questions that couldn't be answered yet, but the look on the radiologist's face said this was bad, very bad. Vee walked into the waiting room and told his wife, Pam, and they held each other and cried and drove home, where his oldest daughter, Nicole, was helping his middle daughter, Jamie, with a Music 100 class project. They were banging on a piano key, beating a wooden spoon against a pot, a pencil against a wine bottle and two candlesticks against each other when the door opened and their dad said, "I've got cancer. I'm going to die.... I don't want to die.... I'm sorry.... I'm sorry."
It was still incomprehensible five months later. His sockets were a little deeper, his olive skin wrapped a little more tightly around his skull, but the 35 pounds he had lost made his body seem fit, trim. His hair, against all medical logic, had survived massive chemotherapy. He lived in a land where people vanished when they became terminally ill. Most people who saw him walking through airports, stepping in front of cameras and cracking jokes about his plummeting weight ("Hey, I'm the quickest analyst in the country now—there's not an announcer who can go around me!") assumed his cancer was in remission. It was not. "How you doin', Coach?" they would call.