SPORTS ADDICT: Coach K, Jimmy V and our ongoing relay for life…
SPORTS ADDICT: Coach K, Jimmy V and our ongoing relay for life…
By Denton Ramsey / Sports Editor
Looking back at some of my previous columns I have written through the years as a sportswriter, I am inclined to look back at this column as a back-bone for how I feel about sports and writing in general.
Below is a column that was originally published last year while I was working for the Alpine Avalanche in West Texas…
As I sit here writing my somewhat weekly ‘Sports Addict’ column, it’s around 8:45 a.m. on Saturday morning, April 22, and this year’s ‘Relay For Life’ recently concluded at the Sul Ross Track.
I began reading a chapter in Mike Krzyzewski’s book, ‘Leading with the Heart,’ called “Friendship,” on Saturday morning around 7:30 a.m. And by the time I finished reading the chapter, emotions ran rampant as tears streamed down my face.
In this chapter of the book, Coach K addresses a friendship with Jim Valvano and Jim’s battle against cancer.
I find it to be very timely, almost fate, to be reading about Jimmy V and the fight against cancer in Coach K’s book on this Saturday morning. I have always looked up to Coach K as a mentor and role model. And to me, Jimmy V helped create and re-invent Coach K into the person and coach he is today.
I’d like to share those words that touched my heart early Saturday morning – I believe it will give readers a chance to look deeper into the world’s fight against cancer and will give a deeper understanding to my passion and love for Coach K, college hoops and sports writing in general.
Below is the exert from the chapter on friendship concerning Jimmy V in ‘Leading with the Heart,’ by Coach K:
… the best form of friendship I ever encountered was during the last six month’s of Jim Valvano’s life … We both were very passionate about what we did – although Jim was more outgoing and flamboyant. I was more reserved, more coat-and-tie.
Our styles of coaching were similar to our personalities, which, of course, meant that our teams played differently. And that became obvious with the 1980-1981 season when he and I both came to the Atlantic Coast Conference – Jim as the head coach at North Carolina State and I at Duke…
We were two young guys in our early thirties, the two new kids on the block – so I think Jim and I gravitated toward each other – just like we would have if we’d met on the playground when we were eight or nine years old. But while I usually wanted to be the diplomat, Jimmy always wanted to stir up a little trouble…
I remember how Jimmy used to roll his eyes at the beginning of every ACC coaches meeting because Dean Smith was always the last one to come into the room. It was like the world champ coming into the ring last. Well, one time, Valvano grabbed Cremins and me before the start of a meeting.
“Hey, listen, we’re not going to let Dean be the last one into the meeting this time. Come with me.”
So the three of us hid out in the men’s room down the corridor. We waited and we waited for what seemed like an inordinately long period of time. Finally, Dean showed up and went into the room. Then Jimmy, Bobby and I sneaked out of the bathroom and waltzed into the meeting. Valvano came in last and, with a big grin on his face, closed the door.
Jim and I always got along real well… And, over the years, we both achieved a lot of success. But it was Jimmy who had success earlier.
While I was struggling with two miserable losing seasons, he seemed to rocket right to the top. In 1983, the same year Duke was 11-17 and I was huddled at Denny’s with my staff, Valvano and North Carolina State won the national championship.
I can remember flying on a plane with him back in 1991 after Duke had won our first national title…
“I want to thank you for winning the national championship in 1983,” I said to him at one point in the conversation, “you saved my job!”
“What are you talking about?” he asked with a bewildered look on his face.
“Well, because there was so much media attention about NC State’s run for the national championship – winning so many close games, winning the ACC tournament, the whole Cinderella story – there wasn’t enough space to write about how bad Duke was.”
“So you see, Jim,” I said with a grin, “you saved my job.”
“Mike,” he replied, “we’re in our early forties now and you know what’s wrong with us? We did too much too soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were too successful too soon. And now everybody expects that all the time from us. We should have waited until we were in our mid-fifties. The other coaches, who maybe go 20-12, are not expected to win it all every year. Now, we are.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. We put the bar very high at an early age, didn’t we?”
And then Jim looked me square in the eye and said, “I don’t know if I’m going to keep doing this. Coaching, I mean.”
… Shortly thereafter, while still head basketball coach at NC State, he took on the duties of athletic director. But some people didn’t think that was such a good idea. And because Jim Valvano was not a whisperer – but a talker, almost an entertainer in some regards – a number of petty people set out to tear him down…
The subsequent chain of events began to take a toll on Jim’s life, his family, and his reputation… He became a broadcaster for ABC and ESPN and he was great at it. He knew the game, he came across well, he was passionate. All in all, Jim Valvano was terrific on television. He and I became even closer after that. I think the fact that we were no longer competing with each other had something to do with it. There were no longer any invisible barriers between us.
I’m really glad Jim followed his heart and became a television broadcaster. I’m also really glad, even though he lamented it, that he had so much early success in his coaching career. Because, unfortunately, Jim did not live into his mid-fifties.
In the summer of 1992, he began experiencing some pain in his lower back. A battery of tests revealed that he had a rare form of cancer that was based in the bones. … He was experiencing a great deal of pain, but he kept doing his job on television and would never let the viewers see how ill he really was. He was employing that old coaching maxim, “show strength, hide weakness.”
One day, I invited Jim to one of our basketball practices. Afterward, I asked him if he would like to speak to the team – and he said, “Sure.” But I had no idea how emotional and moving his words would be. They remain etched in my memory to this day.
“Fellas,” he began, “life changes when you least expect it to. Right now, my goal in life is to be able to come back and talk to you guys again next season.
“You don’t know. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’ve always been a person who’s tried to pack everything into the moment. I want to do it more and more now because the future is uncertain for me.
“Why don’t you do that?” he asked the kids. “The future should always be uncertain for you. You never know what’s going to happen next. Don’t ever think that this day doesn’t mean anything. It means a lot. Don’t think you have an infinite amount of days left. You don’t. So, seize this day, size this moment, and make the most of it.”
Jim didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. But I looked at the guys on our team and could see their eyes welling up with tears. Jim had touched their hearts with his sincerity and his eloquence.
And then Jimmy took off his jacket, loosed his tie, and began interacting with the kids. For the next hour or so, he joked with them, worked with them on some drills and techniques, shot a few hoops. He was on the playground again. He was coaching again. He was having fun.
As we walked off the court together, he was holding his jacket over his shoulder and he had a smile on his face.
I put my arm around him and said, “Thanks, Jim. That was really good for our guys.”
“That was really good for me, Mike,” he replied. “I loved that.”
Stories such as this one remind me of why I have such a passion for sports. It’s about more than just the game – it’s about life, it’s about friendships, it’s about love.
And thanks to fantastic organizations, such as ‘Relay For Life’ and the Jimmy V Foundation, we will one day defeat, what Jim calls, “this damned disease.”
Sports Editor Denton Ramsey can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org