Harry Vardon, the golfing pride of the United Kingdom in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was a man of profound words. His poetic wisdom lives on in few men in sports today.
One of those men graced the world of college basketball during the 1980s, an Italian man by the name of Jim Valvano. Valvano coached the North Carolina State Wolfpack to a national title in the 1983 season.
It wasn’t the title so much as the circumstances behind the championship run that defined why this is the greatest story in the history of March Madness, and one of the most touching in sports history.
Finishing the regular season 17-10, the Wolfpack needed to win the ACC tournament to get a chance to make it into NCAA Tournament.
They stared Michael Jordan and North Carolina straight in the face, took them to overtime, and won. They faced adversity again against Virginia in the championship game, and the seemingly mythical talent of Ralph Sampson.
Though touted as the best team in the country, Virginia faltered while Valvano willed his team on to victory.
Valvano, though cancer stricken at the time, continued to tell his team, “Survive and Advance,” and they did. The Wolfpack survived and advanced, gritty win after gritty win.
Playing against future Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler of Houston, the team known as “Phi Slamma Jamma” would see the full force of Valvano’s team and the strength of their character.
Fighting to the end, leading scorer Dereck Whittenburg launched a 30-footer that fell short. Forward Lorenzo Charles leapt into the air and put in a buzzer beater over Olajuwon to win the National Championship.
Valvano would hold practices during which his team would rehearse cutting down the nets. He sincerely believed he could will his dreams into the minds of his team. His team finally bought in.
As Valvano’s body deteriorated from the aggressive cancer, his spirit remained, and if at all possible, strengthened. He preached to the nation in his 1993 ESPY Speech to live every day with raging optimism, to laugh and cry, and live every moment with enthusiasm.
He touched the lives of millions that night at the 1993 ESPY Awards, 10 years after that triumphant season.
The story continued to the 10-year anniversary gathering at NC State, where Valvano returned to speak to his school.
“They taught me and the world many important lessons,” Valvano said. “Number one, hope that things can get better in spite of adversity. The ’83 team taught me about dreaming, because nothing can happen if not first a dream, and persistence, about never quitting. Never give up, don’t ever stop fighting.”
He told each one of his team members that he loved them. Love is not something often talked about or shared in sports.
But for the love of the game, and for the love of his team, Valvano fought on until his death on April 28, 1993.
“To play well you must feel tranquil and at peace. I have never been troubled by nerves because I felt I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Vardon said.
Love what you do, love your competition, because time is precious. There is only so much time allotted to do what you love.