Jim Valvano in a scene from the ESPN 20 For 30 documentary, "Survive… (ESPN )
"Survive and Advance," which premieres Sunday on ESPN as part of its excellent "30 for 30" series of sports documentaries, is a sweet and moving depiction of the sweet and moving story of the 1983 North Carolina State men's basketball team, the Wolfpack, and its colorful coach, Jim Valvano. You will need a handkerchief or two to get through it, unless you are some sort of soulless, inhuman monster.
Directed by Jonathan Hock ("Unguarded"), it is a tale of great deeds, inspiring speeches, comical sound bites and big, long hugs in what was a legendary time for college basketball — the days when Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing were still in school and players tended to stick around for three or even four years of play rather than taking off early for the pros: "The games were better," says University of North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. "The players were better."
The film begins in summer 2011, with the accidental death, at age 47, of former Wolfpack forward Lorenzo Charles, who scored the dramatic final point in the team's improbable drive to the NCAA title, prompting teammate Dereck Whittenburg, whose short shot Charles made good, to reflect, "There's a saying, as athletes get older their accomplishments get greater and greater as the years pass by. But the truth is they just get further and further away."
Says Whittenburg, on whose shoulder we ride into the film, "After the funeral, I told my team, I said, 'Guys, if we don't get together at least once a year we will only be coming back to each other's funerals.'"
And so there is a lunch, and former teammates of various shapes and sizes, who seemed to have aged all at different speeds, sit down to remember events and thoughts three decades old, moving in great detail and as if in slow motion from play to play.
Though not expected to get anywhere near the Final Four, that year's team made defying expectations a habit, with a knack for coming from behind in the last minutes, even seconds of a game, which earned them nicknames the Team of Destiny and the Cardiac Pack. As pictured here, they were fueled by good spirits, affectionate teamwork and a coach who was not afraid of a risky move or the word "love."
Valvano, who died in 1993, less than a year after being diagnosed with bone cancer, was a voluble Italian out of the Northeast, whose cheery brashness did not at first sit well with his Southern rivals. He could seem as much comic as coach: "For the first time in 16 years we had a bed check," he said on the eve of the Final Four adventure that would pit his team against the dunking machine that was the University of Houston Cougars, "and I want everyone to know, all the beds were there." And later: "My mother … she took Houston and gave eight points. I'm telling you, very disappointing."
Hock threads Valvano's own story with that of his winning team. It comes to a head at ESPN's first ESPY Awards, less than two months before his death, with an address as famous in its way as his team's great victory:
"There are three things we all should do every day," he said there. "Number one is laugh; you should laugh every day. Number two is think — you should spend some time in thought. And number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. Think about it: If you laugh, you think and you cry that's a full day, that's a heck of a day. "
This film will take care of that.
'30 for 30: Survive and Advance'
When: 6 and 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: Not rated
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