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Valvano, James Thomas (“Jim”)

Valvano, James Thomas (“Jim”)

(b. 10 March 1946 in New York City; d. 28 April 1993 in Durham, North Carolina), noted college basketball coach of North Carolina State University and television commentator.

Valvano was the son of Rocco Valvano, a high school basketball coach on Long Island, New York, and Angelina Valvano, a homemaker. He played basketball at Seaford High School for his father’s team and attended Rutgers University in New Jersey, playing basketball and majoring in English and education. During his senior year in 1967, he was captain of a team that took third place in the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

After graduating, he began coaching at Rutgers, directing its freshman basketball team and assisting its varsity team for two years. Moving to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in 1969 he finished his first season as head coach with a 10-9 record. He then spent three years as head coach at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (1972–1975), compiling a winning record (14–12) in the third season. In 1975, when he was not yet thirty years old, he took the top job at lona College, just outside New York City. Over the next five years his team compiled a record of 94–47 and appeared in the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament twice.

On 27 March 1980 Valvano took the head coaching job that would make him famous, at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The highlight of his coaching career came on 4 April 1983, in the championship game of the NCAA tournament in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His team, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, was a heavy underdog to the celebrated first-ranked Houston, which was led by future NBA stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. With the game tied at fifty-two, and the clock running down to zero, a North Carolina State player named Lorenzo Charles tipped in an errant thirty-foot shot by Dereck Whittenburg, giving the Wolfpack the thrilling victory. In the excitement at the end of the game, Valvano was caught on camera in what would become a famous television shot, running around the court searching for somebody to hug.

Three years later Valvano added the post of athletic director to his list of duties at North Carolina State. His celebrity led to roles as a public speaker and television commentator for college basketball programming. But his career took a negative hit in January 1989 when the Raleigh News & Observer ran a story announcing that Simon and Schuster would publish a book alleging wrongdoing in North Carolina State’s basketball program. Two days later, the NCAA began investigating the book’s allegations.

Later that year Valvano resigned his athletic director post, and the NCAA placed the Wolfpack on probation for two years, also forbidding the team from playing in the NCAA tournament in 1990. On 28 February 1990, ABC News reported allegations of point-shaving involving Valvano’ players. Less than a month later, he lost his job as coach. His final coaching record at North Carolina State was 209–114, with two Atlantic Coast Conference championships, eight NCAA tournament appearances, and the 1983 championship. The only charge ever proven against his teams was that players sold complimentary sneakers and tickets.

In June 1993 Valvano signed a three-year contract with ABC to become a television basketball analyst. He also worked for the sports network ESPN and in 1992 won a high-profile award for his work as a sports commentator on ESPN’s NCAA Basketball.

His public image took another dramatic turn in June 1992, when ESPN reported that Valvano had been diagnosed with bone cancer. As his physical condition deteriorated, he stayed in the public eye as a broadcaster for selected games, talking about his condition on the air. He founded the (Jimmy) V Foundation for Cancer Research.

“I want to help every cancer patient I can now,” he told Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated in 1993. “For some reason, people look to me for hope. I’m feeling half dead, and they’re coming up to me in the hospital for hope. I don’t know if I can handle that, but it’s the only conceivable good that can come out of this.”

His television time decreased in the disease’s final stages as he spent more time with his wife, the former Pamela Susan Levine, whom he had married on 6 August 1967, and their three children. Valvano died of bone cancer at the age of forty-seven. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

The charismatic, high-spirited Valvano, known in sports circles as a master basketball strategist and an incomparable storyteller, lived a final decade of extreme highs and lows. He is remembered by the wider public for his role in the high-profile events of those years and for his public fight against cancer.

Valvano, with Curry Kirkpatrick, wrote the autobiographical account Valvano (1991), including stories about his life as a coach. Peter Golenbock, Personal Fouls (1989), includes allegations of wrongdoing in North Carolina State’s basketball program. “As Time Runs Out,” Sports Illustrated (11 Jan. 1993), tells the dramatic story of his fight against cancer. Obituaries are in the New York Times Washington Post (both 29 Apr. 1993).

Jeffrey A. Diamant

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