April 28, 2009



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

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.

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
. 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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2009 6:43 AM
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