Jim Valvano had a Haggard look. He had just watched Chucky Brown's three-point shot bounce off the rim, allowing North Carolina to hang on for an 84-81 victory over his North Carolina State Wolfpack last Saturday afternoon in the Dean Smith Center.
"This was just like all the games we play over here," said Valvano, who lost for the ninth straight time at Chapel Hill. "We played hard, they played hard. They built leads, we came back. They won, we lost."
But Valvano's pained expression was not merely a consequence of the frustrating loss to the Tar Heels. For two weeks Valvano had been at the center of a storm that threatened to uproot the N.C. State basketball program. "This has been the worst experience of my entire life," he said. "My only consolation is that my father's not here to see it."
Valvano's troubles began on Friday, Jan. 6. That evening he received a call from The News and Observer of Raleigh, asking him to comment on a story scheduled for the next morning's paper. The newspaper informed Valvano that it had obtained the dust jacket of an upcoming book entitled Personal Fouls—The Broken Promises and Shattered Dreams of Big Money Basketball at Jim Valvano's North Carolina State.
January 30, 1989
The jacket copy—which the publisher, Simon & Schuster, subsequently said was not final—stated that the Wolfpack program was riddled with corruption, that large sums of money had been given to players, that positive drug tests had been covered up and that, to keep the players eligible, grades had been altered. The book, which is scheduled for publication next month by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, was written by Peter Golenbock, who had previously coauthored best-selling autobiographies of former New York Yankees Sparky Lyle and Graig Nettles.
Six days later The News and Observer reported that Golenbock's major source was a former N.C. State basketball student manager, John A. Simonds Jr. (Two writers, including the author of this story, had been contacted by a representative of Simonds offering information on the N.C. State program.) Valvano had dismissed Simonds after the 1986-87 season, blaming him for the decision by guard/forward Walker Lambiotte, then a sophomore, to transfer to Northwestern. Valvano and his assistants believed that Simonds had repeated to Lambiotte their often unflattering appraisals of his ability.
Simonds left N.C. State in December 1987 and is now attending Florida State. In an interview aired by NBC during halftime of the North Carolina-N.C. State game. Simonds confirmed that he had provided Golenbock with information, but said that "several other players and faculty members" were also sources. Simonds also claimed that, while at N.C. State, he had been "offered cars, cash, apartments and money," though he did not explain why a student manager would reap those rewards. Simonds told NBC that after his role in the book was revealed, he received a phone call from someone who said, "You have a fat mouth, and fat mouths can be closed permanently."
While Valvano and school officials were denying each of the dust-jacket allegations, the North Carolina media followed up with fresh attacks on the Wolfpack program. First, a former head of the N.C. State phys-ed department, Richard Lauffer, told a Greenville, N.C., television station. WNCT, that during the 1985-86 season he had discovered that failing grades received by sophomore center Chris Washburn, who is now with the Atlanta Hawks, had been improperly changed to passing marks. Lauffer, who is now retired, said that when he approached chancellor Bruce R. Poulton about the grade changes. Poulton told him that it didn't matter because Washburn was going to turn pro at the end of the season. Poulton has denied the charge, and an internal investigation by the university has found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Then on the morning of the North Carolina game, The Charlotte Observer reported that former Wolfpack players Charles Shackleford and Teviin Binns, who had lost their eligibility in the fall of 1986 because of poor grades, suddenly had their eligibility restored after they signed contracts in which they pledged to work hard and keep a "positive mental attitude." In return, the documents, also reportedly signed by Poulton and Valvano, obligated the university to provide Shackleford and Binns with tutors.
Valvano defends the contracts. "What we were saying to these kids was, 'We're making a commitment to you, and we expect you to make a commitment in return,' " he says. That leaves unanswered the question of why the two players hadn't routinely received such a commitment—and whether N.C. State wasn't bending its own rules in restoring their eligibility.
The sincerity of Valvano's commitment to his athletes became an issue this fall even before Bookgate broke. In November, Valvano told N.C. State's faculty senate that the graduation rate among his players was 86%. When the senate asked for more specific data, it turned out that, of the 42 players Valvano has recruited for State since his arrival in Raleigh in 1980, only 11 have been awarded degrees. Twelve of the 42 are still undergraduates at State (one, Byron Tucker, dropped off the team earlier this year), and four are currently enrolled at other schools. In short, 11 of a possible 25 players—44%—have graduated.
"The graduation rate for the student body [at N.C. State] after five years is 55 percent," Valvano says. "Considering that we are taking many athletes who have much lower board scores and grades than the rest of the student body, we aren't doing that badly."
But surely it doesn't speak well for Valvano that since the beginning of his reign at N.C. State, 14 players have left the school before completing their eligibility. By comparison, the total number of eligible players leaving the other four ACC schools whose coaches have served for eight years is 19.
Preoccupied over the past two weeks with defending his program, Valvano has lost his sense of humor. Yet his team has been playing superbly, and arrived at Chapel Hill with a 12-1 record. Few—including Valvano—gave State much of a chance to contend in the ACC this year. But with Brown, a 6'8" senior, inside, and superb sophomore guards Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe outside, the Wolfpack is quick, talented and, right now, playing for a cause.
"It upsets us to hear all these things being said about Coach Valvano," Corchiani said. "It isn't something we've talked about, but there's just a feeling that we want to go out and really perform for him."
While trying to concentrate on ways to stop the Tar Heels' J.R. Reid, Kevin Madden and Scott Williams, Valvano received a call from NBC on Thursday, informing him that the network had taped an interview with Simonds. Would he care to respond? No thank you, said Valvano.
By Saturday he had changed his mind. When NBC showed Valvano the edited tape of its interview with Simonds, he answered, at length, and now NBC had a problem. In order to present both Simonds and Valvano at halftime, and still honor commercial commitments, the network would need four extra minutes. So the coaches were asked if they minded extending halftime.
"I really don't like the idea of changing the rules of the game," Tar Heel coach Dean Smith said. "But if it will help Jimmy, O.K."
So the intermission lasted 19 minutes instead of 15. Perhaps the extra four minutes cooled off the Wolfpack, because after leading 46-45 at the break. State missed seven of its first nine second-half shots and dropped behind 60-51. But Monroe finally nailed a three-pointer, then made a steal and hit a jumper to cut the lead to 60-58. Still, though it was to pull within two points three more times, the Wolfpack could not regain the lead. With six seconds left and the Tar Heels ahead 84-81, State wanted to foul quickly. But before it could, Carolina's Scott Williams, after taking an inbounds pass, turned and threw a pass right to a startled Chucky Brown.
"He looked at me, then threw the pass." Brown said. "I could see his eyes go wide when he threw it, like he couldn't believe what he had done. I was pretty shocked myself."
Not so shocked that he didn't think to step back far enough to release a three-pointer. But the ball glanced off the rim as the game ended.
"Actually, I'm glad Chucky missed," Valvano said. "I don't think I could have taken another five minutes."
That was as close to a joke as Valvano has been able to manage the last two weeks. Innocent or guilty, he is clearly suffering.
"Usually I talk to my wife [Pam] when things go wrong," he says. "But she's so upset about all this, I can't talk to her. So, I just go crazy. I sit here, and I think that there's going to be a book going out all over the country that says I have no integrity.
"There's no place I can go to escape it, and nothing I can do to stop it. It's going to happen. I never thought after 22 years in this profession that my whole life would be changed by a manager and a writer whom I've never met. The funniest thing about it is all the times I've had people come to me and want to write a book, and I said no because I figured, Who wants to read a book about me? Guess I had that one wrong.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience, that I'm floating around watching all this. I'm not dealing with it well at all. I used to be the guy who wanted to talk to everyone. Now, I only want to be with close friends. This isn't temporary, either. I think this will change me for good."
Since N.C. State won the NCAA championship in 1983, Valvano has become a very rich man through his off-court ventures, and has talked often to friends about leaving State. Would he be interested if the Los Angeles Clippers were to offer him a job?
"I'm just going day-to-day," he says. "Right now, my players are my salvation, and I'm not going to do anything to hurt what they're accomplishing under very difficult circumstances."