Jim Valvano, national champion basketball coach at North Carolina State, will get the ESPN treatment Wednesday night when the station airs “The Speech,” a documentary on his famed 1993 ESPY speech delivered less than two months before Valvano succumbed to cancer.
Valvano’s speech has become arguably more famous than his 1983 NC State Wolfpack’s historic run to the NCAA national championship, which received its own ESPN treatment in the 30 for 30 installment “Survive And Advance.” The speech is synonymous with courage, and the Jimmy V Foundation he launched that night has transformed funding for cancer research.
In remembrance of Jimmy V’s speech and his incredible career, here are five notable statistics (plus one bonus stat) ranging from historical sports betting odds to cancer treatment to high school graduations.
BONUS STAT: 2024 March Madness might very well be the first in which sports betting in North Carolina, including betting on college sports, is legal. It could also feature ESPN’s new betting product ESPN Bet.
+2500 odds to win the tournament
The odds Vegas gave North Carolina State to win the 1983 NCAA men’s college basketball tournament before the start of the first round were +2500.
At that time, the tournament included 52 teams – expanding to 64 in 1985 – and the +2500 odds were the longest ever for a 52-team field and the third-longest for a 64-team field. The only eventual champions to face longer odds at the start of the tournament were the 1985 Villanova Wildcats (+3500) and the 2014 UConn Huskies (+9500).
Many notable obstacles marked NC State’s odds-defying run to the national title, but the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers may have been the biggest – literally and figuratively.
The No. 1 team in the country with 7-foot-4-inch Ralph Sampson posed a massive barrier for NC State not once but twice on its championship run.
The Wolfpack were not assured a spot in the NCAA tournament and most likely wouldn’t have made it in without winning the ACC tournament. That meant beating Virginia in the ACC title game, which they did by three points.
Worth noting was that the ACC was one of a few conferences that used a three-point line during the season. That inclusion gave the smaller NC State team an advantage against Virginia, which played most of its offense down low through Sampson.
However, when NC State faced Virginia for the second time in the regional final of the NCAA tournament, it had to beat the Cavaliers without the benefit of the three-pointer. Which it did, by a point.
+7.5 spread in the national title game
When NC State eventually made it to the national championship game, it faced off against No. 1 seed Houston Cougars. NC State’s +7.5 spread made it the fourth-largest underdog to win since the tournament expanded to 52 teams. The only larger underdogs:
- 1988 Kansas Jayhawks (+8)
- 1985 Villanova Wildcats (+9)
- 1999 UConn Huskies (+9.5)
NC State faced a Houston team that included two future NBA Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They were famously dubbed Phi Slama Jama by Thomas Bonk, a Houston Post writer, for their unconventional slam-dunk offense. At the time, the practice was looked down upon by college basketball bluebloods.
Like Virginia, Houston towered over NC State, and the experts predicted that a high-flying, fast-break Houston offense would put the 1983 national championship out of reach early.
NC State’s buzzer-beater win, ironically, came via an alley-oop slam dunk by Lorenzo Charles, which Derek Wittenberg, who threw/shot the ball, alleges was intentional.
Whatever the intent, the outcome punctuated one of the most improbable runs in sports history. It gave us the term “Cinderella team” that gets applied every March Madness to the team fans hope will provide some of that Jimmy V and NC State magic.
Hundreds of wigs
That’s how many Valvano collected in preparation for the inevitable hair loss accompanying his chemotherapy.
When he was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma in June 1992, he planned to shave his head and eventually lose all his hair.
In a 1993 Sports Illustrated article, Valvano talked about the wigs he would wear while working on-air for ESPN.
“One of the wigs had hair down to the shoulders, like a rock star’s,” Valvano recalled to Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith. “One was a crew cut, another one had a ponytail, another one made me look like the Beatles. I thought, God, wouldn’t it be great? People could turn on their TVs one night and I’d be Steven Seagal, with the ponytail. The next night they’d turn it on and I’d be a Marine sergeant. The next I’d be a rocker, and the night after that, I wouldn’t wear one at all and be Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3, and then …”
Despite Valvano’s protean ambitions to fight cancer by weekly redefining himself on air, he never lost his hair.
When he stepped up to the microphone for his 1993 ESPY speech, his hair didn’t look much different to the dark-brown coiffure that flopped wildly atop his head during his mad dash across the floor after the 1983 title game.
Nine minutes, 59 seconds
That was the duration of Valvano’s speech on March 3 at the 1993 ESPYs, in which he accurately touted, “I’m going to speak longer than anybody else who’s spoken tonight.”
The occasion for the speech was Valvano’s reception of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for his fight against cancer and the launching of his charitable cancer-fighting organization, the Jimmy V Foundation.
At 6 minutes, 15 seconds into the speech, Valvano received a 30-second remaining cue from the prompter, which he famously responded to by saying, “And that screen is flashing up there 30 seconds, like I care about that screen right now. I got tumors all over my body, and I’m worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds.”
He spoke for another 3 minutes, 44 seconds, then walked off the stage to a standing ovation.
Jimmy V started that morning in a hospital bed unsure whether he could physically make the trip to Madison Square Garden for the ESPY Awards. The production team at ESPN, when Valvano showed up, planned to let him deliver the speech from his chair, but Jimmy V wouldn’t let them.
Dick Vitale, sitting next to Valvano, helped him take the steps up to the stage to receive his award and then back down again. In those moments, people could see the fatigued and unstable figure fighting through pain.
In the intervening 10 minutes though, that figure transformed, in the same protean manner Valvano expected his wigs to transform him, into the vibrant, enduring person we associate him with today.
In my previous life, I was a high school English teacher. The final unit of my teaching career ended with Jimmy V’s 1993 ESPY speech.
My students were seniors, and I felt that this speech would be a good thing to carry with them as they set off in life.
I only taught the speech once to one senior class, and that senior class had one valedictorian. In his valedictorian speech, that student closed with one piece (three parts, really) of advice.
That advice came straight from Jimmy V:
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. If we do this every day of our life, you’re going to … What a wonderful … Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears. Could be happiness or joy, but think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
On ESPN and ESPN+
ESPN airs “The Speech” tonight, July 12, at 7 p.m.
ESPN+ will also carry the documentary after its debut.
Image: AP file photo