Former men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano died April 28, 1993 after a long battle with cancer. While Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of his death, he will always be remembered by Wolfpack fans for his life and perseverance.
After a five-year stint as the head coach for the Iona Gaels, the New York City native was hired in March of 1980 to take the reins as head of the Wolfpack.
Despite having large shoes to fill in the wake of former head coach Norm Sloan, Valvano never lost sight of his ultimate goal: winning the NCAA Championship.
Valvano envisioned this goal to the point where he would set aside one practice out of the season to cut down the net, a tournament tradition.
The Rutgers alum struggled in his first year at the helm, leading the Wolfpack to a 14-13 overall record and a 4-10, seventh place ACC finish.
Valvano would reach the postseason in the 1981-82 campaign as a 22-10 record gave State an NCAA bid. However, The Pack was defeated by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, putting Valvano’s dreams of a championship on hold.
Valvano’s team entered the 1982-83 campaign hardly a championship contender, especially since it belonged to the same conference as the reigning national champions, the North Carolina Tar Heels.
State entered the 1983 ACC tournament tied for third in the conference with Maryland, but with an 8-6 conference record, it was unlikely the team would receive an NCAA tournament bid.
“For us, it was a do-or-die ACC tournament,” former Wolfpack guard Derrick Whittenberg said. “Coach made us aware that if we didn’t win at least two games, it was very possible that we would not make it to the NCAA tournament.”
It was at the tournament in Atlanta that the phrase “Cardiac Pack” was born. The philosophy of the mantra was simple: Survive and Advance.
“It’s a simple concept really,” Valvano explained in his autobiography They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead. “Just win the game you play as opposed to building toward something down the road.”
After earning comeback wins over Wake Forest, UNC and Virginia, Valvano finally earned the right to cut down the nets at the ACC tournament.
“Obviously we were very happy and excited, but we weren’t surprised,” Whittenberg said. “We had talked about being in this situation, and that makes the difference.”
The Wolfpack’s shining moment came on April 4, 1983 when, after surviving close calls against Pepperdine, UNLV, Virginia and Georgia, they defeated the highly praised “Phi Slamma Jamma” crew from Houston on a last-second slam dunk by Lorenzo Charles to win the NCAA Championship, 54-52.
“Coach Valvano really set the focus and the tone for us,” Whittenberg said. “People are still talking about that championship 30 years ago.”
Valvano became a tournament icon, rushing up and down the court looking for someone to hug. Finally, he had his championship.
Valvano continued to coach the Pack until 1990, when he was asked to resign due to multiple academic-related allegations that forced the university to be placed on probation, barring the team from the 1990 NCAA tournament.
After leaving State’s basketball program, Valvano broadcasted for ESPN and ABC Sports and worked closely with Dick Vitale, earning the duo’s nickname, “the Killer Vees.”
Valvano worked in broadcasting until 1992 when the former coach was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
In the weeks leading to his death, he delivered two speeches that have defined his fight with cancer.
The first took place at Reynolds Coliseum on Feb. 21, 1993 with members of the 1983 championship team celebrating its 10th anniversary.
“We did not think Jim was ever going to step foot in the gym after leaving here on such a sour note,” Whittenberg said. “For him to come back to the arena and still be a part of N.C. State, I thought that was very, very special.”
In that address, he spoke the words that would forever ring in the hearts of Wolfpack nation: “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
His last and most memorable speech came just eight weeks before his death, at the inaugural Espy Awards.
Valvano said everybody should take time to laugh, to think and to cry. He also said that it is important to know where you came from, where you are and where you want to be.
He also announced that, with ESPN’s support, he started the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization that has since raised more than $120 million.
“Cancer can take away all my physical abilities,” Valvano said, closing his Espy Award speech. “It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
Though his body has been buried at Oakwood Cemetery for two decades, his spirit, his enthusiasm and his never-give-up mentality has been alive ever since he stepped foot onto N.C. State’s campus.