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Valvano Dies After Cancer Fight : College basketball: Former North Carolina State coach battled illness for last year. He was 47.

April 29, 1993|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach whose life was a bittersweet mixture of triumph and controversy, died Wednesday morning after a yearlong bout against bone cancer. He was 47.

With his family by his side, Valvano died at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., said his attorney, Woody Webb.

"We all lost a dear friend today," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. "Jim was a dreamer, motivator and a fighter. He did all those things to the last day. Our hearts go out to his beautiful family, whom he loved to the utmost. What Jim has done during the past year in fighting cancer has been truly remarkable. I am sure his fight will someday lead to us beating this dread disease."

Valvano's death came 10 years after North Carolina State's improbable NCAA championship, an event Valvano once called "the happiest day of my professional life."

It was on that April night in Albuquerque, N.M., that the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Charles plucked teammate Dereck Whittenburg's 30-foot desperation shot from the air and slammed it through the hoop in the final seconds, giving North Carolina State a 54-52 victory against favored Houston.

Captured on national television for all to see was Valvano, rushing frantically onto the court, searching for someone . . . anyone, to embrace. The moment seemed to define his personality and, in the process, transformed the son of a teacher and basketball coach from Queens, N.Y., into a national celebrity.

"It really, more than anything, was just pure emotion, pure joy," he said years later. "It was the fulfillment of every boyhood dream. It was why we all coach."

Valvano was found to have cancer last June, shortly after complaining of pain in his groin area. The cancer, metastatic adenocarcinoma, was found in his spine and would eventually spread to his back, neck, legs and hips. Doctors told him he could expect to live a year, perhaps longer, if the chemotherapy treatments were successful.

Even as his health deteriorated, Valvano continued to work as an analyst on selected ESPN and ABC college basketball broadcasts. He was considered a natural for the medium, given his spontaneity, humor and vast knowledge of the game he loved. So seamless was his delivery and ability to explain the inner workings of the sport that Valvano won a Cable ACE award in his first year as a broadcaster.

Determined to publicize the need for cancer research, Valvano started a vocal and spirited national campaign to raise funds and awareness. He established the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, whose motto is, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." Also formed was an organization known as VICTORIES: Valvano's Incredible Cancer Team of Really Important Extraordinary Stars.

At every opportunity, Valvano spoke passionately of his fight against the disease and urged others to join in.

"I look at where I am now," Valvano said in his March 4 acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Award for courage on ESPN, "and I know what I want to do. What I would like to be able to do is spend whatever time I have left, and to give maybe some hope to others.

"I want to bring (cancer research) back on the front table. We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research. It may not save my life, but it may save my children's lives. It may save someone you love."

Three days later, Valvano was back at work as a member of ABC's broadcast team for the Duke-North Carolina game at Chapel Hill, N.C. As always, he was greeted with an ovation.

Valvano, who was born on March 10, 1946, in New York City, was a three-sport star at Seaford High on Long Island.

He was Rutgers' senior athlete of the year in 1967, leading the Scarlet Knights to a third-place finish in the National Invitation Tournament.

Valvano began his coaching career at Rutgers, where he was a varsity assistant and head coach of the freshman team.

From there, Valvano took a job as an assistant at Connecticut, where he spent two years before accepting the head coaching position at Johns Hopkins in 1969. During his one season at Johns Hopkins, the Bluejays had their first winning record in 24 years.

Valvano then moved on to Bucknell and quickly earned a reputation as a coach with a future. His methods were unconventional. For example, his on-campus radio show began with "Theme from the Godfather." And during pregame warm-ups, Valvano could be found in uniform, taking part in layup drills or the like.

Despite a 43-51 record during three seasons at Bucknell--the Bison managed a winning record during his last season--Valvano was hired by Iona in 1975. During his five seasons at the school in New Rochelle, N.Y., Valvano created a regional power. Thanks in part to the play of center Jeff Ruland, the Gaels won 51 games during Valvano's last two seasons.

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