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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.
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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.

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"Because the final score defines you," he said. "You lose; ergo, you're a loser. You win; ergo, you're a winner."

"No," the players insisted. "The participation is what matters, the constancy of effort. Trying your very best, regardless of whether you win or lose—that's what defines you."

It took 23 more years of living. It took a rampage in his office at home after a 39-36 N.C. State loss to Virginia in 1982, lamp busted, chairs toppled, papers and books shoved everywhere. It took charging through a locker-room door so hard that it knocked out the team doctor. It took the pregame talk of his life and the coaching jewel of his career, the 1983 NCAA championship upset that helped rocket the Final Four onto the level of the World Series and the Super Bowl. It took a couple of dozen Christmases when his wife had to buy every gift and decorate every tree. It took bolting up from the mattress three or four times a night with his T-shirt soaked with sweat and his teeth rattling from the fever chills of chemotherapy and the terror of seeing himself die again and again in his dreams—yes, mostly it took that to know it in his gut, to say it: "They were right. The kids at Johns Hopkins were right, It's effort, not result. It's trying. God, what a great human being I could've been if I'd had this awareness back then. But how can you tell that to any coach who has a couple kids and a mortgage and 15,000 people in the stands who judge him only by wins and losses? Do you know, that 39-36 loss to Virginia was 10 years ago, but I could never let go of that game until I got sick. Now it doesn't bother me at all.

"But I can't sit here and swear I'd do everything differently. I wouldn't trade those years. Nobody had more fun than me. How many people do you know who've had their dream come true? You're looking at one. That was my creative period, my run, my burst of energy...." Start his own company, JTV Enterprises? I can do that. Write his own newspaper column, his own championship-season book? I can do that. Broadcast his own daily radio commentary, his own weekly call-in radio program and local TV show in Raleigh? I can do that. Sell the advertising time for his own radio and TV shows? I can do that. Commission an artist to paint an NCAA championship-game picture each year and sell the prints to boosters of the school that wins? I can do that. Commission a sculptor to produce life-sized figures of the greats of sport for teams to showcase outside their stadiums? I can do that. Write a cookbook? (He didn't know where the plastic bags for the kitchen trash can were.) I can do that. Make 10 Nike speeches, 20 alumni-club speeches, 25 to 50 speeches on the national lecture circuit and a dozen charity speeches a year? I can do that. Design and market individualized robes to sports teams that have female journalists in their locker rooms? I can do that. Appear on the Carson show, the Letterman show? I can do that. Host his own sports talk show on ESPN? I can do that. Take on the athletic director's job at N.C. State as well as coach basketball? Are you sure, Vee? I can do that.

This was not for glory, not for money. There was none of either in the AD's job, for God's sake. It came from a deeper, wider hunger, an existential tapeworm, a lust to live all the lives he could've lived, would've lived, should've lived, if it weren't for the fact that he had only one. A shake of the fist at Death long before it came knocking, a defiance of the worms.

Pam Valvano: "Girls! Dad's in the living room!"

Daughter: "Which channel?"

Vee: "Live! In person! Downstairs! I'm actually here!"

Home at 1 a.m. Wide-eyed in bed at two, mind still grinding, neurons suspicious, even back then, of sleep. "Inside! Get the hall inside!" A daughter standing in the hall in her pajamas, hearing him cry it out in his sleep. Up at 5 a.m. for the two meetings before the breakfast meeting. Blowing out of his campus office at 4 p.m. to catch a plane. Day after day, year after year. "A maniac," he said. "I was an absolute maniac, a terrible husband and father. Everybody in the stands went, 'Awwwwwww, isn't that cute?' when my little girl ran across the court in a cheerleader's outfit and hugged me before every home game, but for 23 years, I wasn't home. I figured I'd have 20 years in the big time, who knows, maybe win three national titles, then pack it in at 53 or 54, walk into the house one day, put on a sweater and announce: 'Here I am! Ozzie Nelson's here! I'm yours!' I always saw myself as becoming the alltime-great grandfather. Leave the kids with me? No problem. Crapped his pants? Fine, I'll change him. Vomited? Wonderful, I'll clean him up. I was going to make it up to them, all the time I'd been away." His eyes welled. "God.... It sounds so silly now....

"But I didn't feel guilt about it then. My thinking always was, I would make a life so exciting that my wife and kids would be thrilled just to be a part of it. But I remember one Father's Day when I happened to be home, and nobody had planned anything, nobody even mentioned it. How could they have planned anything? I'd probably never been home on Father's Day before. I might've been in Atlanta giving a Father's Day speech or in Chicago receiving a Father of the Year award, but you can bet I wasn't at home on Father's Day. Finally I asked them what we were going to do, and my daughter Jamie said, 'Dad, we spent all our lives being part of your life. When are you going to be part of ours?' It hit me like a punch in the stomach.

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