As Time Runs Out: Gravely ill with cancer, Jim Valvano fights for his life
This story was originally published in the Jan. 11, 1993 issue of Sports Illustrated.
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.
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 again.''
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 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.
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 stepped 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 shot 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 beat 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?
Get up! Yell! Fight! Punch! He tried. He refused to put on the gown when he checked into the hospital every sixth week for massive doses of chemotherapy. He refused to take the prescription pain pills. He talked to God out loud. He marched into the salon and ordered them to buzz off all of his hair—he would take it off, not the chemotherapy. The same way, in the last minute of a tie game when the other team had the ball, he flouted convention and ordered his players to foul and risk handing the opponents the game-winning free throw—Vee wanted the rock at the end, Vee wanted the last shot. He refused to sit there, cringing on defense, waiting for fate to happen to him.
But the joke was on him. The hair grew right back and never fell out. Every tactic in this new war came back at him turned upside down. Every stoking of his fever to live increased his horror of death. And he would remember that astonishing flood of emotional letters that dying people had written to him after N.C. State had shocked Houston nine years earlier, people thanking him for giving them a reason not to give up, and he would sit there, shaking his head. Could he explain all that during the next timeout? Could he let everyone know that he only had to see his three daughters walk in the house in order to cry now, that a TV commercial showing a dad accepting a bowl of cereal from his little girl, hugging her and saying, ''I must be pretty special for you to bring me bran flakes,'' brings tears to his eyes because they're just so goddam happy and lucky?
Iowa State guard Justus Thigpen's jump shot was descending a good foot in front of the rim, a fine opportunity for Vee to say, as he had with a slow, stupefied shake of his head two days earlier at home, ''Justus Thigpen! Can you believe it? Who knows how much time I have left, and I've been sitting here poring over Justus Thigpen's stats in the Iowa State basketball brochure. I'm sitting here reading, and I quote, that 'Justus Thigpen was twice selected Big Eight Player of the Week' and that 'he scored 11 points at Kansas and 17 points in ISU's overtime win on ESPN versus Colorado.' What the hell am I doing? The triviality of it just clobbers me. You get this sick and you say to yourself, 'Sports means nothing,' and that feels terrible. God, I devoted my whole life to it.''
He might say that to a million and a half people. He could say that. He was a man who converted feelings to thoughts and thoughts to words with stunning ease—solid to liquid, liquid to gas; it was beautiful and terrible, both. Sometimes he would look at his daughters or his wife and say, ''God ... I'm going to miss you,'' and it would rip their hearts in half. What were the rules after you had dragged out of the doctor the fact that only a few patients with metastatic adenocarcinoma diagnosed in its late stages, like Vee's, lived more than two years, and most were gone within a year? Did you tell the people you loved all the things that were banging at the walls of your heart, or did you keep them locked inside to save your family the agony of hearing them? Nobody taught you how to do this; what were the rules?
Maybe it was time now for the TV camera to focus on his hands, the left one balled and the right one wrapped around it, desperately trying to squeeze some feeling into it as Bob Sura zinged in a 21-footer and Florida State's lead swelled to 50-31. Perhaps Vee should tell all the viewers and listeners, even if it wasn't what they had tuned in to hear: ''I'm being deprived of my senses. I can hardly taste food anymore. I can't hear. I can't feel. My wife will have to button my shirt soon because I won't be able to feel the buttons between my fingers. It's got my feet and my hands and my ears ... but it doesn't have my mind and my heart and my soul. And it's not going to. I'm going to fight this as long as I can. I'm going to keep doing what I love.
''I'm going to have to miss some games because of chemotherapy. I don't think you're going to see John Saunders in the studio saying, 'Live! From room 401 at Duke University Hospital, it's Jimmy Valvano!' because I'm going to be at the sink throwing up. I don't want to be wheeled to the microphone to do games, but I will. I'll keep doing this until my mouth doesn't work, until my brain doesn't function.''
Maybe he should tell them what he does some days at home in Cary, N.C., how he removes his shoes and walks barefoot in the grass. Just to feel. How he puts his hands around the trunks of the pine trees and closes his eyes. Just to feel.
Here was a story he could tell. Goddam it, the Seminoles were up by 21 at halftime, let him tell it. It was the one about a 23-year-old coach at Johns Hopkins University who was on a bus ride home from Gettysburg, Pa., with his players, exuberant over his squad's 3-0 start. A 23-year-old coach who had plotted his life on an index card: five years, high school head coach. Five years, small-college head coach. Five years, university assistant coach. Five years, small-university head coach. Ten years, big-time university head coach. A 23-year-old who didn't know he was going to compress the first 20 years of the plan into 13, who didn't realize he was going to have his dream, live his Pocono camp speech, cut the NCAA title nets at 37 ... who didn't know his life might already be half over. His players called him to the back of the bus. ''Why is winning so important to you?'' they asked. ''We've never seen anything like it. You're irrational.''
''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 ball 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. ''But it went on and on, that insatiable desire to conquer the world. I was an arrogant son of a bitch. But it wasn't just arrogance. I kept thinking of those lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ''Do I dare?'' and, ''Do I dare?''
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')
''I wanted to dare. I wasn't afraid to show my bald spot, my vulnerability, by trying new things. I'd go to bed after watching TV on a Saturday night, and my mind would be saying, 'I should be the host on Saturday Night Live. I can do that.' I look back now and I see the truth in the Icarus myth. You know the story about the boy who's so proud of his wings that he flies too close to the sun, and it melts the wax and he falls and dies? What enables us to achieve our greatness contains the seeds of our destruction.
''Every season I had bronchitis, bad colds; twice I had pneumonia. The night we won the NCAA, I was sick as a dog. I was the Mycin Man all season—erythromycin, clindamycin. I wouldn't rest. I'd just pop the antibiotics and keep going. Who knows? Maybe I put my body in a position to get this. I've been reading books about cancer. They say it often occurs if your immune system is lowered, and then you have a trauma ...''
Yes, a trauma. To hell with that basketball game; it was going to end just as it began, a Florida State blowout. Here was a man who lay awake every midnight, chewing on mortality—let him talk. Let him wonder out loud if a book published in 1989, and the 15 months of investigations and media barrage it set off, was his bullet ... and then try not to wonder, try to shut that midnight whisper down and ignore the connection between cancer and personal trauma, because otherwise he would have to blame a few people—a writer, a local managing editor—for this nightmare he was living, and he would have to hate, and hatred and blame were the worst detours a man could take when he was locked in mortal combat to live. ''I can't do that,'' Vee would say. ''I've got to fill these days I have left with love and laughter and forgiveness. But I wonder ...''
Jan. 7, 1989, the first headlines. A book entitled Personal Fouls, by Peter Golenbock, was about to appear, accusing Valvano and his staff of fixing grades, hiding drug-test results from authorities, diverting millions of dollars from the alumni club to the players and paying the players off with automobiles. One publishing house rejected the book; another one bought it, and the hammer blows began in earnest, usually starting with the Raleigh News and Observer and then ringing throughout the country, banging at the core of who Vee was. He called press conferences, he dug up graduation statistics, he demanded hearings by the North Carolina State Board of Trustees. But the Icarus arc was now at work—his glibness becoming proof, to his critics, of his guile; his gargantuan appetite for life proof of his greed.
The NCAA investigation lasted eight months. In the end the investigators found no million-dollar diversions, no automobiles, no grade-fixing, no hidden drug tests. They found two punishable violations—players had sold complimentary tickets and complimentary sneakers—and the NCAA placed N.C. State on two years' probation, declaring it ineligible for the 1990 NCAA tournament. Dave Didion, the lead investigator, wrote Valvano a letter. ''I wanted to let him know that he had cooperated with me more than any coach I had ever worked with,'' said Didion, ''and that not everyone thought he was ; evil. I wanted to let him know that if I had a son who was a prospect, I would be proud to have him play for Jim Valvano. He wasn't the smart-ass egomaniac I'd anticipated. Yes, the graduation rate of his players was not good ... but no one cared to look at the overall graduation rate at N.C. State. Yes, he probably shouldn't have recruited some of the kids he did. But if he hadn't, he'd have ended up playing against them and getting his brains beaten out by them, because everybody else wanted those same kids.''
Then came the final blow: allegations of point-shaving a few years earlier that involved former N.C. State forward Charles Shackleford. No one believed Valvano had knowledge of it, and nothing would ever be proved, but the hammering had to stop. In April 1990 he was forced to resign. ''The pain of that—having my mother, my brothers, my wife, my children reading the things that were written about me,'' he said. ''I felt physical pain. There were things I should've done differently, but I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. The insinuation that I didn't care about the kids ... I hated that. To be lumped with coaches who cared only about winning and nothing about education ... I hated that. I majored in English, not P.E. I had two daughters on the dean's list. All but perhaps two of my players at Johns Hopkins, Bucknell and Iona graduated. I didn't change. I'll take responsibility, but that's different from blame. I didn't admit the kids to N.C. State who didn't graduate—our admissions office did. In hindsight it's easy to say who shouldn't have been recruited, but who knew beforehand? Sometimes kids from worse backgrounds, with worse high school grades, did better than kids from decent homes, with decent grades.
''Maybe I trusted the kids too much. The school wanted me to force education down their throats, and I wouldn't do it. They wanted me to say, 'You don't go to class, you don't play. I take away ball.' What does that tell a kid? That ball is more important than education! My approach was, If you don't study, you pay the consequences. You flunk out. I tried to excite them about learning. I had Dereck Whittenburg read King Lear and then go to the chalkboard and do a pregame talk on it. I wasn't one of those coaches telling them to learn but never reading a book myself. I lived it. They saw me reading Shakespeare on buses. They saw me trying things outside of sports all the time. ''I guess I was unrealistic to think I could change kids. I should've said , to them, 'I love you, but I don't trust you yet. You have to do this and this your first two years here, and then I'll trust you.' And there's no way around it—I didn't have as much time to give them after I became athletic director. I tried to do too much. They couldn't just walk into my office at any time of the day, like before, and talk. It was a little less each year, especially for the 13th, 14th, 15th players. But each time, the change was imperceptible to me. It happens without your realizing it.
''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 a way 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.
''My own team—everybody can join. This is it, baby, my ultimate pregame talk. I need this one, gotta have it. Gotta have so many people calling my answering machine each day that they can't get through. Gotta have people all over the country opening their windows and shouting it out: 'JIMMY VEEEEEE! DON'T GIVE UP!' ''