"And now I'm fighting to live, and the irony of having people think of me as a man who cared only about winning and athletics...it overwhelms me. I'm looking for a reason to hope, a reason to live, and the only thing that helps me do that is my education, my mind. If I survive this, or even if I just wage this battle well, it will be because of what I grasped from reading, from understanding the world and my place in it, from learning to ask the right questions and to grasp all the alternative treatments for this disease—from academia, not from athletics. People think a sports background helps you fight death. Are you kidding? Athletes and coaches are taught that they're special. You're nobody when you're a cancer patient. You're nobody.
"I want to help every cancer patient I can now. For some reason, people look to me for hope. I'm feeling half dead, and they're coming up to me in the hospital for hope. I don't know if I can handle that, but it's the only conceivable good that can come out of this. If the Clinton Administration wants someone to raise money for cancer research, I'm here. If I survive, I'm going to work with cancer patients one-on-one and help them find a way to hang on, like so many people are trying to do for me. Half a million people die of cancer every year in America, one out of every four of us will get it, and there's no moral outrage; we accept it. I'm all for AIDS funding and research, but how can the government give 10 times as much per AIDS patient as per cancer patient? Barbra Streisand isn't singing for cancer, Elizabeth Taylor isn't holding a celebrity bash for cancer, and yet every time I go into that cancer building at Duke, it's a packed house! If it means more doctors, more space, more money, we've got to get it, because millions of people are going to find out that this is one hell of away to go."
The basketball game was nearly over now. Valvano's mind and tongue were still flying, the jokes still crackling, but a deep fatigue was coming over his body. He looked across the court and saw his wife speaking to a woman beside her, saw his wife smile. And he thought: It's so good to see her smile, but how many times have I seen her crying lately? What's going to happen to her? Will she be all right? He would take a deep swallow of air the next day as he remembered that moment, that look across the court at her as the coaches shouted and the players panted and the fans roared. "You see, I had it all planned for our 25th anniversary, last August 6. I was going to give her three gifts: the deed to four acres where she could build her dream house, a big diamond ring, and a nice trip, just the two of us on a beach. She'd lift me up when she heard it and I'd cut the nets, a standing O.... Goddam. What did she get instead? A sick husband in a hospital bed getting Mitomycin, Cisplatin and Velban dripped into him. She got to clean me up when I vomited. That's love. I'd told her, 'We're going to get old together, Pam.' Probably the nicest thing I'd ever said to her. 'We're going to get old together'.... Goddam.... Goddam."
The game ended, and then he did something he had never done before. He thanked the hundred fans who had gathered to wish him well, said no to the coaches who asked if he would like to go out...and went back to his hotel room with his wife. She fell asleep, and he lay there at 1 a.m., alone, hungry for food and wine, hungry for conversation he was missing, and the laughter. He ordered a pizza, stared at the TV and cried.
He jumped from his seat one day not long ago. The backside of his pants didn't rip—they weren't that tight anymore. A paragraph had jumped into his eyes from a book he was reading. "That is why athletics are important," wrote a British sportswriter named Brian Glanville. "They demonstrate the scope of human possibility, which is unlimited. The inconceivable is conceived, and then it is accomplished."
"That's it!" cried Vee. "That's why we strive! That's the value of sports! All those games, they mean nothing—and they mean everything" His fist clenched. He hadn't poured himself into emptiness for 23 years, he hadn't devoured Justus Thigpen's stats for nothing, he hadn't. The people who compared his upset of Houston to his fight against cancer were right!
"It's what I've got to do to stay alive," he said. "I've got to find the unlimited scope of human possibility within myself. I've got to conceive the inconceivable—then accomplish it! My mom's convinced I'm going to get better. My mom's always right!"
In early December, when the pain grew so fierce he had to call off a weekend of studio work for ESPN, he had a local shop print up 1,000 small cards. He had hundreds of people across the country calling him, writing him, encouraging him, but he needed more, VICTORIES it said on each card. "Valvano's Incredible Cancer Team of Really Important Extraordinary Stars."
"See?" he said. "I'm going to make a team. I'm going to give a card to everyone I meet as I go around the country doing games. On the back of each card are the requirements of my players. One, they have to say, 'Jimmy Vee, you will make it." Two, they have to say it out loud—it's important to verbalize. They can call my office number and, if I'm not there, leave a message on my answering machine: 'Jimmy, don't give up!' And three, they have to do something to improve their own health, whether it's mental, spiritual or physical.