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March Madness Brings Memories of Jim Valvano

Never to be forgotten, Jim Valvano’s underdog North Carolina State making March Madness history by shocking Phi Jama Slama Houston

A shot, a pass, it didn’t matter when Derrick Wittenburg shot from long range and Lorenzo Charles converted

By Arnie Leshin | March 24, 2017 Photo by V Foundation

There are three things we should do every day.

No. 1 is “laugh”. You should laugh every day.

No. 2 is “think”. You should spend some time in thought.

No. 3 is you should have emotions moved to tears, whether it 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 several times a week, you’re going to have something special — JIM VALVANO

. . . And don’t give up, don’t ever give up!

I didn’t know Jim Valvano very long. And cancer ended his life too soon.

But I can never forget him, especially when it comes to March Madness and the year he danced at midcourt looking for someone to hug. That was 1983, the championship game at the arena known as the “Pit” in Albuquerque, N.M., ala the Bob King Court.

Sports Illustrated named it as the greatest college basketball moment of the 20th century. It was an North Carolina State team that barely made it to the  NCAA tournament and then turned April 3rd into a shining moment.

And anyone who thought Valvano was just plain lucky, had best think again. He knew this team better than anyone. He pulled out all the stops. He called time outs when things weren’t going well and made changes that worked. And he was the motivator, the one who lit the spark.

The finale against top-seeded Houston was unforgettable, brought that signature moment. It was 52-52 with just under a minute to go. No shot clock and the Cougars just holding the ball when Valvano told his team to foul freshman Alvin Franklin. It did, he missed, and now North Carolina State had the ball with 0:48 showing in regulation.

But Houston switched from man-to-man to a pressure zone. It confused the Wolf Pack as they passed the ball around looking for a shot. With time running down and the clock at 0:4, Derrick Wittenburg hurryingly flung the ball up from center court, from about 30 field out.

Was it a shot, was it a pass? The ball fell short and Lorenzo Charles just grabbed it and stuffed in it as Houston watched. The final score 54-52, the celebration was on.

When the champions returned home, there were crowds at the airport,  thousands lining the side of the roads, others on bridges, other waiting on campus. Before they even departed for the tournament, there were 5,000 at practice and 8,000 at the pep rally.

The Wolf Pack knew it had to win the ACC tournament to get in. They had to come from behind in almost every game, winning some at the buzzer, they watched free throws failing to fall for the other teams. And they believed in the words of their head coach, Jimmy V.

And so with already 10 losses, NC State began the conference tournament against a Wake Forest team it blew out 130-89 in a previous meeting,

but this time it took 6-foot-11 senior Thurl Bailey tapping in a missed shot with time running down for a 71-70 win.

Next came 7-4 All-America Ralph Sampson and Virginia. It breezed past the  Wolf Pack in the regular-season, but this time the big guy picked up his fourth foul, and after a 38-38 tie at halftime, NC State found its way to a 81-78 win on a 3 from the 6-4 Wittenburg nine seconds before the final buzzer.

Then there was down-the-road rival North Carolina, the defending national champion. The Tarheels won 98-81 in the previous game between the two. They had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, and legendary head coach Dean Smith, and when they went up by seven midway through the second half, Valvano called a quick time-out and told his team to foul, just foul, get them off their game, not let them go into their four corners offense.

Not only did NC miss four-straight foul shots, but Jordan fouled out, it was 79-79 after regulation, and here, too, Valvano’s believers came from behind and won 91-84.

After all these tournament games finished, Wittenburg made a habit of rushing over to hug Valvano.

Placed in the West Regional, the first round was against Pepperdine in Cornallis, Ore., NC State was the 6th seed and again had to make up a deficit in game one. When Pepperdine committed three-straight turnovers, it came down to foul shots for 6-7 junior Charles with 0:2 on the clock. He missed the first, made the second, and it was his team winning 69-68. (Charles passed away at age 47 via a bus accident).

Against a feared UNLV team coached by Jerry Tarkainian, the man who chewed the towel to keep calm. This followed on the path of the others, with 6-3 senior Sidney Lowe converting a pair of foul shots in the final seconds to pull out a 71-70 victory.

The Regional was played in Ogden, Utah, and for the third time, it was 2nd ranked conference rival Virginia waiting. When Sampson kept getting the ball inside and slamming it in, Valvano called a time-out and switched to a triangular and two defense in an attempt to contain Sampson. It worked, it forced blocks, turnovers, the Cavaliers were confused and the Wolf Pack were victorious, 63-62.

One more step to take. And for once NC State had a laughter, winning going away, 75-56 versus 7th seeded Utah in front of 90 percent Utah fans.

On to the Land of Enchantment.

I had covered several college games in New Jersey, namely Princeton, Rutgers, Saint Peter’s and Jersey City State, so I applied for media credentials for the Final Four. It was a lot easier than it is now. Soon after, I was confirmed with a phone call and even had to sign when the credentials arrived.

My interest in heading for Albuquerque came from a neighbor who graduated from the University of New Mexico and who always bragged about the Pit, its steep ramp, and the way the stands hung down to bring the crowd closer to the court and noisier. He also told me I would like the food, the sites, the scenery, the people, and face a higher attitude.

To flash back, I first met Valvano in 1974 at the Elizabeth Armory in northern New Jersey. I was covering the state basketball tournament and he was scouting in his second year as head coach of Iona College in New York as the youngest skipper in the nation.

We were introduced by Ed Barmakian, a sports writer with the Newark Star-Ledger, and it was funny how Valvano just continued to comb his sleek dark hair in front of a huge mirror while we spoke.

He named me “Augie.” He referred to me as Augie while he combed his hair, called me Augie when we later took off for a nearby dinner, and the jokes never stopped coming from him, the Italian with the pointed nose, the perfect accent, and excitement in his voice. Sounded like a native Nu Yawker.

As a backcourt player with Bob Lloyd for a good Rutgers team, he wanted to let us know that he led the nation in steals his senior year, but they hadn’t included steals in the statistics yet, so we took his word.

He told of taking over as the Rutgers freshmen coach with absolutely no experience. He was great at getting your attention because of his sense of humor and excitement in his voice.

After he finished his desert (Apple pie and vanilla ice cream), he drove his 1972 Red Ford Mustang back to the Armory where Barkmakian and myself would get to our cars, said good by to Barkmakian and myself (Augie?), and the coach would head for the George Washington Bridge and back to New York.

That was it. Two years later surprisingly found Valvano as head coach at North Carolina State, still young and full of dreams, thoughts, energy. When he got to Tobacco Road, he told the school he was going to bring it a national championship. He told the players, even his family and his biggest fan, his father, who prayed a lot.

He said that when he was packing his bags for a first visit to NC State, his father said he was also going to do that. “Why?” Jimmy asked.

“I’m packing,” said his dad, “to follow you to the national championship, son.”

Funny, yes, except that the ACC school wasn’t ready for the younger Valvano, but it did need a coach. Long-time head coach Norm Sloan had resigned with late notice. So two of the players, than sophomore guards  Wittenburg and Sidney Lowe, tried to coax their former legendary head coach at DeMatha High School in northern Virginia, Morgan Wooten, to take the job. It was said that Wooten figured if he made one visit there to check out the scene, he would agree, so he never went.

So they brought Valvano south, and it brought mixed feelings regarding his hire. Some said he didn’t seem like a coach, more like an entertainer. Some called him a young upstart, especially the other ACC head coaches. Others thought he was something new, but they weren’t sure what.

But just like at Iona, his Wolf Pack made the NCAA tournament his first two times and lost. But his dreams never went away. He still thought that a national title was going to come his way.

The players began to adopt him, except him. They began to be believers, for him to lead them to the winners circle, the promised land of hoops.

He thought he had a talented squad with a now senior backcourt of Wittenburg and Lowe, a front court with Bailey and Charles, and a smart junior guard in 6-1 Terry Gannon. Off the bench came 6-11 junior Quintin McQueen, 6-4 sophomore forward Mike Warren, and 6-5 freshman guard Ernie Myers.

Valvano had his own personal, unprecedented strategy and he didn’t care what anyone thought.  He ran the show his way. He even had his players cutting down the basket nets after each practice. At first, it was funny, but the players than got used to it, even had fun.

The team started well by winning seven of its first eight, than lost five of its next six. It was the first year of 3-point shots and Wittenburg was overjoyed because of his long range. He was among the best in the land in 3s, but five weeks into the season, down he went with what was thought of as a sprained ankle, but was than found to be a broken foot. The team lost Wittenburg and the game, 88-80. A double dip.

He was missed. After playing well, the record had fallen to 9-7. When he returned at 70 percent, the team lost a game that had Wittenburg yelling at his teammates and coaches all the way to the locker room and into the bus. He was still upset when they got back to school.

There was more. The Wolf Pack blew a big lead at North Carolina, and played poorly in losses to Maryland and Notre Dame.

But they came together, managed to squeak out three wins in the conference tournament at the Omni Arena in Atlanta. They were stepping out to the Big Dance and got past Pepperdine, UNLV, Virginia and Utah. Four schools were left and there were Jimmy V’s believers as one of them from an opening field of 55 schools.

On to Albuquerque, both of us. When I got there, I was told by the tournament media that NC State had arrived in the morning and went to practice. Except that practice for all four teams did not allow the presence of the media.

It was 4th seeded Georgia (24-9), the top 1 seeds Louisville and Houston, and the Wolf pack. They all ate well, feasted in fact, took in some sights, and all were in quest of the championship. NC State and the Bulldogs were to play the opener, and the Cardinals and Cougars the closer.

Those were the “name” schools in what could be considered the feature attraction. Louisville was the “Doctors of Dunk,” Houston the “Phi Slama Jama.” And Georgia was good, an SEC team with size and a stout defense.

Wittenburg took the floor at the press conference and declared it was time for him to do what his All-America cousin, David Thompson, did as the NCAA tournament MVP carried NC State to the school’s only hoops title in 1974.

This Wolf Pack bunch had now won eight in a row. They needed two more. At one of the press conferences, Valvano walked pass me and I said. ‘Hello coach.’ He turned towards me, and before he said a word, I said, ‘We once met back in New Jersey,’ to which Valvano backed up and said, “Augie?”

He just shook his head, smiled, and gave me a hardy hand shake. and I was truly surprised how he remembered being with me nine years ago.

Then his team came on to hang a 79-70 setback on the Bulldogs. It played well and was a true team triumph Valvano told his team afterwards.

While I took my media seat as Louisville (32-3) and Houston (27-2) were in pre-game practice, Valvano came behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. One thing, he was a nice guy, could coach, but he wasn’t very good at remembering names, namely mine.

But I knew who was playing, so did he. These were two serious teams ready to rock and roll, stuff and dunk, race down the court, and when all was said and done, it was the high-flying Cougars dealing the Cards a 91-84 setback.

There they were. The 7-2 dunking Akeem Olijajwon, the 6-8 Clyde (the Glide) Drexler, the 6-6 (highlight film) Benny Anders, 6-2 stellar, crafty guard Michael Young. and a cast of run and gunners and dunkers. That was their game, that was why they were here.

For the huge underdog from Raleigh, it was a huge task. Valvano even said jokingly that his mother bet on Houston and gave eight points. Two rows behind the State bench sat his father and uncle.

Now it was serious time, and the next night brought game time, the huge underdog Wolf Pack matching up with big, bad Houston coached by Guy Lewis. It was April 3rd and Valvano had made it the final stop of his dream.

NC State got away to a good start. Wittenbug tossed in two outside shots, Bailey stuffed in a basket, but before long, NC State could not make a bucket in 10 tries, but the Cougars weren’t doing much better and were behind 33-25 at the half.

When it woke up from this nightmare first half, Houston made a 10-0 run, inched in front 35-33, increased it to 42-35, and when up 52-48, Wittenberg tossed in back-to-back 3s from the baseline to knot the score with 1:30 left.

The rest was history. Valvano’s dream was realized as he raced to the court at the final buzzer, looking for Wittenburg to hug, anyone, before leaping onto a pack of Wolf Packs.

. . . On June 18th, 1992, bad news arrived when Valvano was told he tested positive for cancer. He was informed he could maybe have a year left, but as down and out as he felt, he told his doctors he’d be willing to try any treatments.

He had first told his close friend Dick Vitale that he wasn’t going to attend the ESPY Awards that he was invited to as a special guest and speaker. But another friend, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t give up and even sat next to Valvano on the flight to California, with their wives in the next row and Pam Valvano supplying the bag every time her husband threw up.

I have watched him being helped up the stage by Vitale many, many times. But he was poised to speak, say goodbye, become emotional, and was going to speak as long as he was able to. That’s what he said, even when the producer signaled the count down.

“Look at this guy,” he said, “I’ve got tumors all over my body and he’s got the cue card on me, flashing 30 seconds. Fanabli. I don’t know how much time I have left in me, so I’m going to try and stand up here until I’m done.”

And he did. Six months after he spoke at the ESPY Awards and said he was starting the Jimmy V Cancer Fund, he passed away. He was larger than life, which is why I’m happy for all this space.

He didn’t just walk the walk, he talked the talk. He made his team into America’s team. They were the calamity kids, a team of destiny. And I was Augie.



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