DENVER — Jim Valvano, the effervescent, always on-stage coach of the North Carolina State basketball team, launched his rapid-fire praise of the St. John's team even before his Wolfpack gained the right to meet the Redmen today for the NCAA West Regional title.
Once the match was made, he reminded anyone within earshot of the undying respect he has for Lou Carnesecca, coach of that top-seeded St. John's team.
And with the regional final just around the corner, Valvano gushed: "I think everybody already knows the kind of special feelings I have for Coach Carnesecca. He's kind of a special person in basketball and he's special to my family.
"The first game he ever coached was against my dad. My aunt helped deliver his daughter.
"When I was coaching in New York (at Iona) we used to talk all the time. . . . New York likes to call him their own, but he's internationally known.
"So this is a special game for me. This business is the kind of business where you shake hands before the game and say 'good luck,' but if you don't win you wonder why the basketball god has turned on you. This happens to be a game that, yeah, I want to win. I want to be in the Final Four. But if we don't win, there is nobody I'd rather see win than Louie."
As for the St. John's team that is going in to the game with a record of 30-3?
Valvano said: "I think Louie's club is great. It fits like a glove. They have an awfully nice blend of players, and the addition of Walter Berry makes them a great team."
In response, Carnesecca peered over the top of his half-glasses, paused to shake his head a bit and said, in that soft, controlled tone: "He's blown enough smoke to cover an entire fleet going through the Panama Canal."
Some expected Carnesecca to take offense at the way Valvano was heaping on the pressure, stressing even before St. John's faced Kentucky in the first round here that St. John's was the overwhelming favorite, the team to beat.
But Carnesecca said no. No problem.
Carnesecca, at 60, takes these things very much in stride. He knows that his 39-year-old counterpart has a motormouth. So what?
"I think our relationship is based on mutual respect," Carnesecca said. "I consider Jimmy a very, very dear friend.
"He's really turned the program around. He's multi-talented. If he quit coaching tomorrow, he could make a million dollars."
Valvano is already nurturing a television career, appearing regularly on "The CBS Morning News" and doing some color commentary. He started winning hearts with his contagious enthusiasm two years ago when he ran to and fro all over the court looking for somebody to hug after his "Cardiac Kids" won the national title with an upset of that Phi Slama Jama Houston team.
Valvano says that not a day goes by that he does not remember that moment. And Lorenzo Charles, the Wolfpack's 6-7 power forward and the man who made the dunk that beat Houston, says: "You don't forget a great moment in sports like that. You don't win the national title every day."
North Carolina State is a whole lot closer to another national title than anyone thought it would be after Chris Washburn was suspended from the team this season.
Washburn, one of the premier recruits in the country, was caught breaking into a dorm room to steal a stereo. The loss of Washburn hurt the Wolfpack, and the embarrassment the team felt is now being discussed in terms of "adversity."
But North Carolina State rallied. The Wolfpack finished at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, tied with North Carolina and Georgia, and have a 23-9 record. This rally cannot be compared to the way the team rallied two years ago after the loss of Dereck Whittenburg.
"Two years ago, when Whit broke his foot, that was the easiest motivational tool there was," Valvano said. "Here we have the best scorer on the team, a senior, go down in a game. It was a great opportunity to sit him at the end of the bench where I could point to him and say, 'Win one for the Whit.' We'd get the timing just right for him to walk in the locker room on crutches. It's the kind of stuff you'd see in a Grade B flick at 3 in the morning. John Wayne is playing in that sucker.
"For that one, the media is all supportive. Everything is positive. With this, every time I walked out of the house it was socko-manno. I would have taken alleys to work, but there are no alleys in North Carolina."
It was right after the loss of Washburn that N.C. State met St. John's in the ECAC tournament and lost, 66-56.
They have worked their way back, though, led by Charles, who averages 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. Another key player is 5-7 guard Spud Webb, who is second is scoring. Webb has a 42-inch vertical jump and has scored on 12 dunks this season.)
"This team is better right now because Spud Webb is playing better," Valvano said. "If we don't shoot well from outside, forget it. St. John's can go man-to-man with us and take away our inside game."
North Carolina State will also need good shooting from Terry Gannon and Nate McMillan. "Our front court kids are pretty consistent," Valvano said. "We're only as good as our backcourt lets us be."
Conceding the overall superiority of the St. John's team, led by Wooden Award winner Chris Mullin, highly complemented by 1983-84 junior college player of the year Berry, and anchored inside by 7-foot center Bill Wennington, Valvano said: "We'd hope we might slow the tempo. "The less possessions they have, they less chance they have of pounding you."