Jim Valvano: The Fighter

By in Sports Leaders

By TJ Schwannecke Wagner '17

“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up” – Jim Valvano

Just eight weeks before Jim Valvano died of Cancer, he gave an inspirational speech at the 1993 ESPY awards. In his opening words, he said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that is a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”  At the end of this prominent speech, he announced, with the help of ESPN that he would be dedicating the rest of his life to cancer research, known as The V Foundation. Since 2012, The V Foundation has raised 120 million dollars toward cancer research. Jim Valvano started as a basketball coach who won a national championship, but is better known for his character, inspirational ESPYs speech, and creating The V Foundation after being diagnosed himself.


James Thomas Valvano was born on March 10th, 1946 in Queens, a borough of New York City. He attended high school in nearby Seaford, Long Island where his father was the head basketball coach.  Jim’s love for sports came naturally, as did his speaking and jovial manner. Meanwhile, Valvano displayed acts of maturity, throughout life but first during high school when he listed his lifetime goals on an index card and carry them around with: play basketball in high school and college, become an assistant coach, move to head coach, win a game at Madison Square Garden, and cut down the nets after winning a national championship.  Later in his life, he added the goal – to throw the first pitch at Yankee stadium. Valvano would accomplish all of his original goals, but would come up short on two, throw the opening pitch, he was too ill and lastly, beat cancer, in which his wife found in his suit pocket just after he passed away.

Major Accomplishments

 1993 ESPY speech, first annual ESPYs– There’s not a family or person who has not been touched by cancer. And every year thousands fall victim to this disease and must find the will to fight the battle against cancer. Many continue to find inspiration from the words of Jim Valvano, alluding to when he delivered one of the most inspirational and unforgettable speeches in sports history, during the 1993 ESPY awards, just weeks before cancer claimed his life. The mere presence of Valvano that night was heart fulfilling and embodied his spirit that will live on. Many say this particular speech is one of the most inspirational speeches ever given. However, if you were to ask any athlete who has ever played for him, they would say, “he delivered speeches like this multiple times a day, at practice, before games, during halftime, and so on.” Listen to speech here: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=8684465

Lessons in Jimmy V’s Speech:
1) Cherish time, treasure the moment 
2) Out-dream yourself
3) Make a habit of wild enthusiasm
4) Believe in something passionately
5) Think, laugh, cry
6) Don’t ever give up
7) Live the big picture  

Jimmy Valvano at the 1993 ESPY awards

The V Foundation– A sudden unexpected victim of Cancer with a limited amount of time left to live was true for Jim Valvano. During the first annual ESPYs, Valvano announced to the world that he would be dedicating his life to cancer research in order to save others from this deadly disease during the time he had left. Little did he know, due to his leadership qualities left behind, his foundation would “sky rocket.” Since the start of The V Foundation, 120 million dollers has been raised, establishing it as the leading research foundation for Cancer.


Coaching career- Valvano’s final goal was checked off the index card he created in high school when he defeated top ranked Houston in the 1983 national championship in Albuquerque, NM. His excitement would not go go unnoticed as he defined the moment of victory, leaping off the bench with a whoop and running wildely down the court looking for someone to hug.


North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano, 1983 NCAA National Championship

Following in the coaching footsteps of his father, after playing for Rutgers, Valvano spent a year as an assistant coach there before becoming head coach at Johns Hopkins in 1970 at the age of 22. After leading them to their first winning season in 24 years, he spent two years as an assistant at Connecticut and three as head coach at Bucknell before moving to Iona. He capped his five years at Iona with two stunning seasons, including their first NCAA tournament appearance. His success led to his job with North Carolina State (NC State). Valvano departed along with all five starters from the 1979-80 Iona team. Three years later he would accomplish his dream of a national championship.

The map above is known as North Carolina’s research triangle and has developed into one of the best in the nation. It is home to multiple companies and organizations, multiple outstanding institutions, and the center of North Carolina’s government. What stands in the middle is three schools: North Carolina, Duke, and North Carolina State. Yet, NC State has fallen off the “radar” when compared to Duke and North Carolina’s basketball programs. However, this has not always been the case. Before duke was in the picture, all eyes were on NC State and UNC, and their first meeting was on the football field on Oct. 12 1894 in which UNC won 44-O. Despite the score, this was the start of an in state rivalry. During this time, NC State was called North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and would not change name to North Carolina State until 1963.

You make ask yourself what happened to the NC State vs UNC rivalry? Mike Kryzewski (Coach K) is the answer to the question when he was hired as head basketball coach for Duke University on March 18th, 1980. Since the signing, Coach K has won 4 national titles and has sent multiple players to the NBA, establishing himself as one of the greatest college basketball coaches ever. Therefore, another competitive team was added to the “triangle.”


Coach K’s Relationship

He never gave up, he never has given up” -Mike Krzyzewski

coach k and valvano


During Valvano’s fight against cancer he was placed in the hospital at Duke University, Where Coach K would visit hime three times a week. During a broadcast of the show, Mike and Mike in the morning Coach K joined to promote The V Foundation and also talked about his relationship with Valvano. Kryzcewski said, “When we were coaching against each other we were okay, friends. We were competitors. Once he got out of coaching we became unbelievable friends. Obviously during the last year of his life we were very special friends.” He also mentioned visiting Valvano in the hospital while he was brainstorming the idea of the foundation and “building a team” to run it. Furthermore, toward the last days Valvano had left, when Coach K would come to visit, they would kick everyone out of the room and laugh and cry. This relates to one of Valvano’s most memorable quotes. Lastly, Coach K was at Valvano’s side the moment he passed away.

Note: Valvano, had an ability to make the ones around him feel better about themselves and every moment spent with him was a learning experience that paralleled with life. He left many lessons behind him and I believe is a small piece of Coach K’s success.

Leadership lessons to take from Coach Valvano

Vision-  All leaders need a vision. Therefore, one particular practice each year, Coach Valvano held a practice with no basketballs. Instead his team practiced how to celebrate WHEN they won the national championship, not if but WHEN. They did this by climbing up a latter and cutting off a piece of the net off the rim, which is a traditional ceremony for the national champion. Due to Valvano’s vision, he was able to install the idea of winning a championship into his players, making them believe the only outcome to their season would be a national championship. Despite the odds, in 1983 NC State played the role of “cinderella” and triumphed over top ranked Houston to be crowned champions.

Openness- Leaders do not just teach, they learn from the ones they are teaching. At a 10-year reunion of the of the championship team, Coach Valvano told the crowd that his 1983 team taught him four essential things, and when these four things happen, you can accomplish miracles:

1) Hope- circumstances will get better despite adversity
2) Dreaming- nothing will happen without a dream
3) Persistence – Don’t give up, don’t ever give up
4) Love- love each other 

In the closing words of his speech and after mentioning the last thing the 1983 team taught him (love each other), he told the crowd, “if you ask me what was said between me and my players a second ago, it was the words “I love you.”

Valvano’s relevance

In relation to the American dream, Valvano is the example. Son of italian immigrants who faced adversity, doubters, and controversy but would overcome all odds with hard work, metal toughness, heart, and vision. Valvano displayed that anything is possible by not only accomplishing many goals he set out to, but also his 1983 national championship run. This accomplishment marked a prominent goal and was something he strived for since he was in high school. Perhaps, this was point when he reached his American dream.



Assumptions about Valvano, yet investigators did not find any signs of recruiting or financial Improprieties:

1) Players had their grades changed so they could remain eligible. 2) Entrance requirements were lowered, or waived, to allow academically unqualified athletes to be admitted to the university. 3) Players sold tickets for their own benefit. 4) Also sold sneakers for their own benefit. 5) Players took drugs which Valvano knew about, as did he know about false drug tests. 6) Valvano lost his position as athletic director, but remained head coach while facing two years of probation. Then would resign in 1990 due to the charges and the program would not make an appearance in the NCAA tournament from 1991-2001.

However, a school investigation revealed Valvano’s athletes did not perform well in the classroom, only 11 players he coach prior to 1988 had maintained a “C” or better. 


valvano grave

About the Author

Sports fanatic born and raised in Michigan. Came to New York for the city of opportunity and to broaden my knowledge at  Wagner College, thanks to a track scholarship that made this all possible. Inspired by successful individulas and their stories as well as their leadership qualities that make them who they are. Jim Valvano is only one example, but a very inspirational one and I hope one day some student will be researching my story for inspiration as I did  Coach Valvano’s.


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