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It’s 1993. ESPN is putting on the first ever ESPYs award show. A celebration of sport and triumph. An opportunity to recognize great sporting moments that will live on with us forever. But what undoubtedly stood out that year was not Michael Jordan winning “Best Male Athlete” or the Dallas Cowboys winning “Outstanding Team”, but a speech by Jimmy Valvano. Jimmy had developed bone cancer and had spent the past year knowing his time was limited. Announcing his partnership with ESPN to start the Jimmy V Foundation, whose goal would be to find a cure for cancer, Jimmy delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches in living memory. It wasn't about sports, not really anyways, but about life. It was such a simple concept, but Jimmy had a way of breathing life into words that no one else did.
“Don’t give up, don’t ever give up”
Anyone could have written it, but it could only ever mean as much as it does coming from Jimmy V. Long before his fight with cancer Jimmy had lived his life on these words. He had built a career on the idea that anything is possible. With enough hard work and belief that you could conquer anything. That’s why when he got up on that stage, not knowing if the next day would be his last, and spoke those words we all stood in awe. But it all began at North Carolina State in 1980 when the native New Yorker began his tenure as the men’s head basketball coach.
After his spells at John Hopkins University and Iona, Valvano was thrown into the stacked ACC conference with powerhouses such as North Carolina and Virginia. Taking NC State to the top was not going to be an easy task. In his first season with the wolf pack, Valvano managed a measly seventh-place finish in the ACC and failed to get into the NCAA tournament. Next season would prove more hopeful as NC State finished the season with a 22-10 record and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, they would crash out in the first round thanks to lower-seeded University of Chattanooga.
Despite two disappointing seasons, Valvano remained devoted to his goal, winning a national championship. He was known for his ability to inspire players and along the way created some very interesting methods. The most notable of these had to be the first practice of every year. There were no basketballs. No sprints or conditioning. No weight lifting session afterward. When the players arrived there was just Jimmy V, a ladder, and a pair of golden scissors. They were going to practice cutting down the nets. Jimmy wanted his players to visualize what it would be like to win the title. He felt that if he could make it feel real, he could make it feel possible.
An 8-6 record in the ACC meant that NC State was poised to miss out on the big dance. Their only hope was to win the ACC tournament and secure an automatic bid but to do that they had to take down teams like Virginia and the Michael Jordan led North Carolina Tar Heels. Things looked bleak. Valvano had to figure out a way to make the impossible seem possible if he was ever going to achieve his goal of cutting down the nets. “Survive and Advance.” This was the mantra he created for his team. Nine games stood between them and a national championship. NC State didn't have to crush everyone in their path and dominate, they just had to survive nine games. Win nine games and you go down in history, that was the name of the game.
NC State slipped by Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC tournament with a narrow one-point victory. One down. What came next was even tougher with an overtime win over Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, and North Carolina. That’s two. Next came the number one team in the ACC, Virginia. Led by three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson, everyone believed this is where the wolf pack’s run would end. Jimmy V and his squad had already lost to Virginia twice this season, but this was the championship game, and the only way into the tournament was with a win. Two halves later and NC State was crowned champions of the ACC, just slipping by Virginia 81-78. That makes three.
Next came the NCAA tournament. A double OT win against lowly Pepperdine spelled early trouble but a tight win against UNLV and a dominating performance against Utah gave the wolf pack confidence heading into the latter stages of the tourney. Just like that came wins four, five, and six. Just three games stood between Valvano’s squad and tournament glory but the fourth rematch with Virginia stood in the way of a Final Four appearance. A one point win over Virginia and a seven-point win over Georgia in the final four put NC State through to the national championship game. Anything seemed possible, but the matchup couldn’t have been more daunting. Phi Slama Jama. The number one team in the nation, the number one overall seed in the tournament, and one of the greatest teams college basketball have ever seen. The team who had to win their conference tournament to even get a shot at the title versus the team led by future NBA greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. NC State was one of the biggest underdogs ever in a title game, but that wasn’t stopping Jimmy V.
Forty minutes and a game-winning last-second dunk later and NC State had achieved the impossible. Win number nine. A national title. And so the season had ended exactly how it had begun. Jimmy V, a ladder, and a pair of golden scissors. It was the creation of the Cinderella story. A concept so vital to the magic of the NCAA tournament we know today started here with Jimmy V and the “Cardiac Pack”, nicknamed for their penchant to win games from behind at the very last minute. In fact, of their nine wins, they only led two going into the final minute. They truly embodied the idea of never giving up. Never mind the odds, Jimmy V lived by the creed of never giving up.
Less than two months after his famous speech Jimmy Valvano passed away. Thankfully Jimmy V isn’t gone. He lives on in the moments he created for us and the spirit he inspired within us. Every year we hunt for the next Cinderella story, an idea that 1983 title created. In 25 years the Jimmy V Foundation has raised over $200 million for cancer research. Jimmy may have died, but even today he hasn’t given up. Every day he inspires us to keep fighting. To keep fighting against cancer, and to keep fighting for our dreams. That is why those words live on with us to this day. Why every time March rolls around you hear clips of his speech a hundred times. Every day Jimmy V inspires us to be better. To laugh, to cry, to think.
Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.