Viva Valvano The Charismatic Coach Conquered Basketball. His Legacy Is To Conquer Cancer.

Posted: December 22, 1998

Each day after practice, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would stop by the University Medical Center to see Jim Valvano. The two famous basketball coaches would talk X's and O's, or sometimes just talk about life.

``Jim would be in pain, he'd be having a bad day, and Mike would come in and get him thinking about something else. And he'd get him smiling,'' said Pam Valvano, whose husband died of bone cancer in 1993.

Tonight marks the fourth Jimmy V Classic, a basketball doubleheader at the Meadowlands to honor the charismatic former North Carolina State coach and raise money for cancer research. After South Carolina plays Purdue at 7 p.m., No. 2 Duke will face No. 3 Kentucky in what is probably the marquee game of the early season.

But for Pam Valvano, the game is more personal than that. It will be the first Jimmy V Classic featuring Duke and Krzyzewski.

``It's an extra-special icing on the cake,'' Valvano said yesterday. ``They played against each other. They coached against each other. We have three daughters. They have three daughters. Mike's wife, Mickie, and I, we don't even need to tell each other what we're thinking. We've lived the same life.''

The two men played against each other when Krzyzewski was at Army and Valvano at Rutgers. They coached against each other when Krzyzewski was at Army and Valvano at Iona. They moved to the big time of the Atlantic Coast Conference and won national titles.

Their friendship grew in that hospital room.

Mickie Krzyzewski told Pam Valvano about the inspiration her family received from a Sports Illustrated article in which a dying Valvano talked about how much he had sacrificed for basketball. She highlighted the most poignant parts for her husband. Mike Krzyzewski still keeps it by his nightstand. Mickie Krzyzewski has told Pam Valvano that she still sometimes walks into their bedroom and sees her husband reading it.

``Certain things really hit home,'' Pam Valvano said. ``He realized he didn't want to miss some of the things that Jim had missed in his life.''

If Jim Valvano was down, that was not the face he showed Mike Krzyzewski in the last four or five months of his life.

``He knew he was going to die - he was trying everything in the world. He'd tell the doctors, `Try everything on me,' '' Krzyzewski said last week in a conference call. ``But his cancer was one, and at this point it's still one, we don't defeat.

``But his ability to have vision, to set up this foundation, it's an amazing thing. It didn't just happen. He planned for it to happen. I get chills thinking about it right now. After making you laugh and cry - and he'd make you do both - then all of a sudden, he'd say, `I want you to be on this foundation.' ''

When Jim Valvano was asked to cooperate for the magazine article, Pam said she was against it.

``Our life has been so public,'' she told her husband. ``Can't this sickness be personal? Can't we have anything for ourselves?''

She remembered his reply: ``I have to do this.''

And, she later realized, she had been wrong. The world was able to get a glimpse of the man she loved, who was more than a guy always joking on TV. Now she talks freely about their life. Pam said her husband wrote notes on index cards. She'd always be taking them out of his pockets at the dry cleaners. The last one she found, in his desk, said: ``Things I want to do before I die: Learn to play the piano. Learn to paint. And find a cure for cancer.''

She still has that card, and she is as active as ever with the V Foundation, which has raised $4.5 million in the last five years for hospitals and doctors doing cancer research. In addition to sponsoring tonight's basketball games, which will raise $65,000, and a yearly golf tournament, the foundation is involved with cancer fund-raising at the grassroots level, with bake sales, car washes and dribble-a-thons. One popular fund-raiser is the sale of ties featuring doodles done mostly by famous sports celebrities. The first tie produced by Stonehenge Ltd. was a reproduction of a Jim Valvano painting of a mother and baby elephant, inspired by his wife's love of animals.

``He died in April. That [previous Christmas], he couldn't sleep at night because he was in pain, so we got him an easel and he would paint when he couldn't sleep,'' Pam said.

Jim's daughter, Jamie, 26, is director of special events for the V Foundation. She took a year off from North Carolina State to travel with her ailing father while he was a basketball analyst for ESPN.

``People would come up to him and say, `You beat Houston [for the national title in 1983], you can beat cancer,'' Jamie Valvano said yesterday. ``He'd pull them aside and say, `You know this is a lot different. This is my life we're talking about.'

``He left my whole life with a mission. Every day, we would receive bags and bags of mail. We'd tell him, `You don't have to answer every one of these. They're not asking for an autograph.' He'd say, `I've got to get my message out.'

``When he got so sick he couldn't write, we got him a stamp and he'd tell me the message to write, then stamp his signature. Even after he died, we never said, `Oh, why did this happen to us?' We were so focused on his mission. He was still the coach.''

Jamie knew firsthand the sacrifices her father had made for basketball, which ended badly at North Carolina State. Valvano was pressured to resign in 1990 after a recruiting scandal there. But Jamie was talking on a personal level.

``You're so motivated to win and compete, sometimes you let the game get ahead of your family and your own health and your own needs. You're just a maniac for basketball,'' she said.

At the end, Pam Valvano agreed, her husband was still coaching, with the V Foundation his new team.

``I think the legacy he has left is just far greater than in his lifetime. He was a basketball coach, and, yes, he was fortunate to win a national championship. But this is so much bigger. I'm not doing this for Jim now - I can't help him. But I hope through the foundation I can help other people, and that will help him.''

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