SI Vault
 
As Time Runs Out
Gary Smith
January 11, 1993
Gravely ill with cancer, Jim Valvano is fighting for his life the same way he coached basketball, by learning all he can, talking up a storm and insisting on the last shot.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 11, 1993

As Time Runs Out

Gravely ill with cancer, Jim Valvano is fighting for his life the same way he coached basketball, by learning all he can, talking up a storm and insisting on the last shot.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

What could he say? "Hangin' in there," he usually replied. "Hangin' in there."

The crowd at the Civic Center caught sight of him now. The Florida State band rose to its feet, waved a sign—Welcome Back, Baby!—and chanted, "JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE!..."

It was a Friday night. On Monday morning, as he did every two weeks, he would walk into the basement of the oncology center at Duke and sit with a hundred people who stared into the nothingness, waiting hours for their turns. His name would be called and a nurse would say, "Veins or port?" and he would say, "Port," which meant that his veins had collapsed from being pierced by so many needles, and that the four vials the doctors needed today would have to be drawn from the lump over his left breast, where a plastic access valve had been surgically inserted. He would remove his shirt, and a nurse would swab the lump with disinfectant and squirt it with ethyl chloride to numb it, flush out the tube inserted inside his superior vena cava with saline solution, take his blood and send him back to the waiting room while the lab ran tests on the blood. He would wait another 45 minutes, murmuring something now and then to Pam or a word of encouragement to nearby patients; then he would go to the office of a doctor who tried to be cheerful but who saw 40 cancer patients a day; and then he would be sent to the third floor to lie down again and have Velban, a cell killer, pushed into his veins through the port in the hope that it would kill as many cancer cells as healthy cells. Finally he would limp out clutching Pam for support, his body bent as if beaten with a bat, and you could count on it, somebody would ask him for his autograph, and you could count on it, he would smile wanly and say, "Sure."

"...JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE! JIMMY VEE!" He put the headphones on and turned the sound up so he could hear the producer's cues over the ringing that was always in his ears now, and then he stopped onto the court to tape an introduction to the game. He could feel it now, surging up through the hardwood, into his deadened feet—the thump, thump, thump of basketballs as the two teams pounded through layup drills. Everything had a beat, a lovely chaos with an old, familiar rhythm. The players were grinning and slapping five with him, the fans were waving paper and pens at him, the band was blaring the theme song from Rocky, the cheerleaders were tumbling through the air, and Vee's right foot was tapping. In one breath he looked into the ESPN camera and told the audience how Iowa State would have to use its speed and stick the jump shut to win, whereas Florida State would have to pound it inside. In the next breath he turned to the boom mike and the interviewer on his right to answer her question about the cancer consuming his spine, and with the horn section and the backflips and the crowd's roar all around, he fell into that same easy metaphor and delivered it in that same hoarse, hyped voice. "I'm not happy to be here. I'm just happy to be! Even as we speak the good cells are going after the bad cells. You gotta encourage 'em. Good cells.... Go get 'em! That's what's going on right now!...It's hoops time! Let's play some hoops!"

"I'm helpless! I make no decisions! I have no control! I'm totally at the mercy of the disease and the treatment! I'm not a dad! I'm not a husband! I'm a freak! I can't do anything! I just lie there and they stick needles into this lump in my chest and pour poison in my body, and I don't believe in it. I'm a freak!"

He couldn't cry that into a microphone to the million and a half people listening at home and watching in bars, but it was right there, at the back of his tongue, at the base of his brain, welling up and wanting to spill. It did, sometimes. There was no reason to hide it, no reason anymore to hide anything. There were days, now and then, that he passed huddled in his bathrobe in front of the television, flinching from the pain, curling up in sorrow and wondering how in God's name he would summon the strength again to make the quip that would put everyone around him at ease, to tell the world in that hoarse, hyped voice, You gotta get it into the middle, it's the only way to heat a trap defense! as if there were a hundred thousand more tomorrows. There were days when Jamie, who had taken off her junior year at N.C. State to help him through this horror, would shout, "Get up! Go talk to your doctor! Go see a priest! Don't just lie there! You've given up! Get up! Yell at somebody! Yell at me!"

"Can a doctor or a priest take the cancer out of my body?" he would ask.

"I don't know! I just want you to do something! Yell, fight, punch! Even if it's all for nothing. So we can say, 'There's Dad.' "

The old Dad, The Charge of the Light Brigade Dad, son of a man who had a booming voice and an ear-to-ear grin and a yellow-pad list of things that Vee's team needed to get right to work on...but didn't they understand? How could Vee allow himself to hope? If Vee liked a movie, he saw it five times. If Vee liked a song, he transcribed every word, memorized it, sang it 20 times a day and talked his kids into singing it with him a half dozen more times on the way to the beach. Vee couldn't throw half or three quarters of his heart into anything; he had to throw it all. Didn't they know how dangerous it was for a man like him to throw all of his heart into a hope as slender as this? Vee was a dreamer. Vee had no life insurance. A man whose lows were as low as his highs were high couldn't hope too hard, couldn't lean too far, because the next downturn in his condition or the next darting away of his doctor's eyes could send him whirling down a shaft from which he might never escape.

Besides, where were the hooks to hang his hopes on? Doctors couldn't even find the origin of his cancer—they were guessing the lungs, even though he had never smoked more than an occasional cigar. With his kind of cancer, there were no tumors to X-ray, no reliable way to chart the course of the disease. "You'll know when it's getting worse," they told him. "You'll know by the pain." So he would wake up each morning and ask himself the terrifying question: Is there more pain?

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8