Last night, the greatest event known to man tipped off, and for all intents and purposes, the madness truly gets underway tomorrow. I’m not even sure I can properly explain how excited I get this time every year. Not only does my favorite thing in the entire world – the NCAA Tournament – arrive, but so does spring and my birthday, both of which happen to be today, March 20. Throw in St. Patrick’s Day and spring training, and March is the culmination of all that is right in the world.
And, well, I don’t know about you, but when I when think of March Madness, one of the first images that pops into my head is legendary NC State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to find someone to hug after his team won the whole damn thing on a Lorenzo Charles dunk following a Dereck Whittenburg airball. It’s the iconic moment of the NCAA Tournament, a mainstay in the hearts and minds of college basketball fans everywhere for the past 30 years.
Furthermore, when I think of college basketball, I don’t think about John Wooden or Dean Smith, Coach K or the Fab Five. I don’t think about Jordan’s shot or Melo’s freshman dominance. I don’t think of Patrick Ewing or Bryce Drew or the 1985 Villanova squad that shocked the world. No, when I think college basketball, I think of Jimmy V at the ESPYs, delivering the greatest, most heartfelt and gut-wrenching speech in sports history and those immortal words of the V Foundation, “Don’t give up; don’t ever give up.”
Thirty years ago, Jim Valvano led the North Carolina State Wolfpack on the most improbable and seemingly impossible run the sport has ever seen, and on Selection Sunday, ESPN aired the 30 for 30, “Survive and Advance,” about Valvano and that 1982-83 Wolfpack team.
If you didn’t watch it, do yourself a favor and DVR that joint as quickly as humanly possible. Then drop what you’re doing and go watch it. Director John Hock tells the magnificent story of that team, of the hardships, the stumbles, the underachievement, and then that magical run through the ACC Tournament, defeating the seemingly insurmountable Ralph Sampson, followed by slaying the Virginia dragon again in the NCAA Tournament and winning the whole damn thing. A team that quite literally had to win out from the day it took the court for its conference tournament did just that, led by a trio of senior leaders in Dereck Whittenburgh, Thurl Bailey and Sidney Lowe, and the flamboyant coach who dreamed an impossible dream and had his players buy in.
The entire living members of the team gather for the documentary and relay their tale, together and individually, and you just feel the love this team had for each other and for their coach. But this isn’t just some fluff piece. Whittenburgh relays that when he came back to be an assistant for Valvano, the coach let the fame and adulation distract him from coaching, and Hock makes sure to mention the academic scandal that ultimately cost Valvano his job.
But the documentary was not about the troubles or even the personality of Valvano, even though his gigantic persona was impossible to ignore. The documentary was about this team “surviving and advancing.” The title of the film was not only the team’s rallying cry during that remarkable season, but it turned out to be an apt metaphor and descriptor for Valvano himself. Just as his Wolfpack squad survived and advanced time and time again 30 years ago when all logic said they could not, Valvano’s spirit and drive has survived and advanced even in his death.
Thanks to the V Foundation, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised to fund cancer research, and progress has been made on that front. Jimmy V has survived and advanced in spirit. His inspiration and zest for life give people who never got to meet him, people who never got to see him coach, people who never heard him broadcast opportunities and strength to fight cancer in all its forms.
No matter how you feel about his final years at NC State, you cannot deny the impact Jimmy Valvano has had not only on basketball, but on the world. He and his team are shining examples of all that is right in sports, all that is right with the NCAA Tournament.
Starting yesterday, there were 68 teams hoping to survive and advance. If just one of us can do the same, the way the 1983 NC State Wolfpack and the way Jim Valvano have for 30 years and counting, the world will be a better place, just as it is for being blessed enough to be graced with Jim Valvano’s presence.