When Jim Valvano took the stage in New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 4, 1993, the then 46-year-old was already badly marked.
The basketball coach, who won the college championship in 1983 in the memorable final with North Carolina State against the Houston Cougars with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, is likely to have had metastatic adenocarcinoma for a long time by then.
Or to hear it differently: Valvano has cancer in an extended stadium and is doomed to die.
Tonight, however, he is once again in the limelight. “You guys get me up there on stage,” he says to Dick Vitale and Mike Krzyzewski before accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
Supported by the later reporter legend Vitale, Valvano struggled step by step to the standing ovation – only to then, having arrived on the podium, first make a joke at the expense of his good friend.
Jim Valvano: A speech that gets under your skin
It is the starting signal for a ten-minute speech that gets under your skin even 30 years later.
Because she’s emotional. Because she is sad and hopeful at the same time. Because it shows the unique charm and humor that characterizes Valvano. And because its central message is absolutely timeless.
“Time,” says Valvano, “is very valuable to me. I don’t know how much of this I have left and I have a few things I’d like to say. Hopefully there will be something in the end that has meaning for other people, but that’s not in my hands.”
For him there are three things that are important and that could make every day special.
“The first thing is laughter, one should laugh every day. The second is thinking, one should take a certain amount of time to think. And the third thing,” continues Valvano, “is to let your emotions move you to tears, whether it’s joy or happiness. Think about it: if you laugh, think and cry, that’s a perfect day.”
Humor makes the speech perfect
It is wisdom that makes you think. that are both simple and profound at the same time – and that give you an idea of how he became a successful coach.
The fact that he is able to garnish his serious language with a touch of humor at any time may have been another factor.
Like the moment the teleprompter tells him he has 30 seconds left to speak.
“The screen shows me 30 seconds. As if I’m interested in this screen right now, right?!” Valvano says with a laugh: “I have tumors all over my body – and now I’m supposed to be impressed when some guy in the background is talking about 30 seconds?”
Vince Lombardi? Disgraced to the bone
Or when he reports on his first speech as a coach, back then at the tender age of 21. How he wanted to impress his protégés at Rutgers University, who were only two years his junior, with an appearance in the style of NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi – and embarrassed himself to the bone.
An anecdote that he connects directly to the lesson that where you come from is important. But it is just as important to know where you are right now – and where you want to go.
For that you need “enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal that you are willing to work for.”
Valvano’s goal for the time that was hidden from him was clear at the time: he wanted to achieve as much as possible in the fight against cancer – and reveal on stage that he, together with ESPN establishes the Jimmy V Foundation for cancer research.
Jim Valvano creates a foundation
“This may not save my life anymore, but it could save my children’s lives. It could save someone you love,” Valvano said.
The motto of the foundation: “Don’t give up. Never give up.”
Seven words that are burned into the memory of every listener. It doesn’t matter whether he was there live at Madison Square Garden at the time, watched the event on TV or years later on YouTube.
Perhaps that’s why the Jimmy V Foundation has raised more than $300 million in donations over the past 30 years in the fight against cancer.
Its namesake was no longer allowed to witness all of this. However, Valvano never wanted to understand the impending death as a defeat in the fight against the disease.
“Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. But he can’t break my sanity. He can’t touch my heart. And he can’t hurt my soul,” emphasizes Valvano at the end of his speech: “And these three things will remain forever. Thank you and God bless you all!”
55 days later, Jim Valvano succumbed to cancer at the age of 47 in Durham, North Carolina.
With his memorable performance at Madison Square Garden, Jimmy V made himself immortal.