On the Road with Jimmy V and Other Memories of 1983 Miracle Season

Jim Valvano hit the peak of his coaching career with a national championship in 1983. He passed away from cancer 10 years later.SI.com/Vault

Tony Barnhart

During this period without live sports, one of the things I and my partners at TMG decided we wanted to do was take advantage of our combined 185 years of sports writing experience to tell stories from our lives and careers that folks may have not read before.

So here we go.

In another lifetime I covered ACC football and basketball for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record newspaper, where I spent 7 ½ years (1977-1984) before going to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The 1980s, and particularly the 1982-83 season, was a great time to be writing about the league.

Dean Smith and North Carolina, with Michael Jordan, were the defending national champions. Virginia had the player of the year in Ralph Sampson. Some guy named Krzyzewski was finishing up his third season at Duke (11-17) and we didn’t know if he was going to make it or not.

 Turns out he did okay. 

Lefty Driesell was at Maryland and the following year he would finally win the ACC Tournament. Bobby Cremins was in his second year at Georgia Tech and the future looked promising.

Then then there was James Thomas Anthony Valvano, who had posted four straight winning seasons at Iona College before taking the reins at N.C. State. The 1982-83 season would be his third in Raleigh.

We all know how that season would end for N.C. State as a dunk by the late Lorenzo Charles beat mighty Houston 54-52 in one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. The image of Valvano running around the floor in Albuquerque will live forever. I was there and it’s easily in the Top Five moments I have covered.

With no NCAA Tournament this March, I started searching my memories of that miracle season. Here are just a few:

**--As early as Jan. 9 I thought N.C. State could probably be a good team after I covered the Wolfpack’s 57-52 loss at Missouri. The Tigers, with All-Americans Jon Sunvold and Steve Stepanovich,  won 26 games, a Big Eight championship, and was 17-1 at home that season.

“I was impressed with the weapons N.C. State had,” Sunvold, now a basketball analyst for the SEC Network, told me last September. “They looked like a team that could do some damage in the ACC.”

**--During the 1982-83 season the ACC was one of a handful of conferences that experimented with a three-point line that was only 17 feet, nine inches away from the basket (today it is 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches) . It was made for N.C. State guard Derek Whittenburg. 

On Jan. 12 Whittenburg made seven three-point shots and scored 27 points in the first-half against No. 2 Virginia and Ralph Sampson. I was sitting in Reynolds Coliseum, only a few feet away from Whittenburg when he took another three-point shot from the corner and came down on the foot of Virginia guard Othell Wilson. After the game we were told it was a broken foot. N.C. State’s 16-point lead couldn’t stand up and the Wolfpack lost 88-80.

**--Whittenburg would eventually return to the team but the results were mixed. At 17-10 in the regular season, there was no way that N.C. State was going to the NCAA Tournament without winning the ACC Tournament at The Omni in Atlanta.

And that’s exactly what they did beating Wake Forest (71-70), No. 5 North Carolina (91-84 OT), and No. 2 Virginia (81-78), which had already beaten the Wolfpack twice. My fellow writers from the Greensboro paper and I thought we’d be headed home shortly after the ACC Tournament final. We expected N.C. State to lose. Now we had one of the hottest stories in the country. All of us crammed into one hotel room and wrote all night.

**--It was a 52-team NCAA tournament back then and N.C. State was a No. 12 seed that opened against Pepperdine (coached by Jim Harrick) on March 18 in Corvallis, Ore. Our newspaper had a columnist there but the game was so late that there was no way he could make the deadline. So my job was to sit in the office and write the game off of television (rabbit ears and no cable) so that we could get something into the next morning’s paper. N.C. State won 69-67 in double overtime when Dane Suttle, an 83.5 percent free-throw shooter and one of the best players Pepperdine history, missed the front end of two one-on-ones.

On March 20 N.C. State would beat UNVL 71-70 to advance to the West Regional semifinals in Ogden, Utah.

**--The following week I was in Syracuse for the East Regional championship game between North Carolina and Georgia at the Carrier Dome. The day before N.C. State would play Virginia for the fourth time in the season for the West Regional championship. There wasn’t room in the bar at the Hotel Syracuse for all the North Carolina writers who wanted to watch the game. So the hotel staff brought a TV out into the middle of the lobby and served us drinks while we watched N.C. State pull off another miracle finish 63-62. So N.C. State had crashed the Final Four. Would North Carolina join them?

Nope. Hugh Durham’s Georgia team beat North Carolina 82-77 for its first-ever trip to the Final Four.

**--At the Final Four in Albuquerque, N.M.,  N.C. State beat Georgia 67-60 in the Saturday's first semifinal. The working press room was actually outside the arena so I didn’t get to see most of the dunk-fest that was Houston’s 94-81 win over Louisville. But I did hear the crowd. They were going nuts with every dunk.

One of my lasting memories on the morning of the championship game was the late Caulton Tudor, a veteran writer from the Raleigh News & Observer, scouring the lobby of the Albuquerque Marriott trying to find somebody—anybody—who thought N.C. State had a chance to win. I didn’t think they could keep it close.

**--I had a calm, professional reaction when Lorenzo Charles made the dunk hear ‘round the world. I jumped out of my chair and said:

“Son of a ………!

They did it!”

I had 40 minutes until my next deadline.

**--In May I spent a day with Jim Valvano during his victory tour of the Wolfpack Clubs around the state. I met him in Raleigh at 10 a.m. and, after three stops in Lexington, Kannapolis, and Concord—each highlighted with a master monologue by Valvano--we arrived back at his home at McGregor Downs Country Club about 1 a.m. The time had flown by.

“Be back here at 6:30 a.m. and we’ll do it again tomorrow,” he said.

Not a chance.

Jim Valvano had 10 more years to live. They were not all happy ones. There would be an NCAA investigation. He would resign as athletics director in 1989 and as coach in 1990. He would try television and, of course, was great at it. Then the cancer was diagnosed in June of 1992. On April 28, 1993 he was gone.

His legacy is the V Foundation, which has raised more than $200 million for cancer research.

The Foundation’s motto is “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

Given the crisis we now face, my memories of Jim Valvano this March are a little more meaningful.


Tony Barnhart