Like most people in his profession as a college basketball coach, Jim Valvano was challenged every step of the way in life.
But the greatest fight in Valvano’s life came off the basketball court. In 1992, the former head coach and ESPN commentator was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Less than a year later, he appeared at the 1993 ESPYs ceremony where he presented a 12-minute speech with one simple message: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Now 23 years later, Valvano’s fight continues postmortem. Through the formation of The V Foundation, which was announced during his memorable ESPYs speech, and the start of the annual Jimmy V Classic college basketball tournament two years later, funds continue to flood in for cancer research in Valvano’s memory.
The 22nd annual Jimmy V Classic takes place Tuesday night to continue the week-long initiative hosted by ESPN to spread cancer awareness and receive donations.
What is the Jimmy V Classic?
Valvano died from metastatic cancer less than two months after his ESPYs speech. At that time, the V Foundation was in its infancy. Two years later, the Foundation received a lift of support with the debut of the Jimmy V Classic.
The Classic features three games each year – two on the men’s side, one on the women’s – between some of the most recognizable programs across the nation. Throughout the games’ national broadcasts, viewers are given tidbits of information on Valvano’s life and foundation and are encouraged to donate to the cause.
In addition to the time spent during the games spreading awareness, ESPN has dedicated this whole week from Nov. 30-Dec. 9 as the 10th annual “Jimmy V Week” where there has been additional programming and highlights that look at Valvano’s life as well as other cancer survivors’ inspiring tales.
This outreach expands beyond college basketball and will also be included in NBA broadcasts and this week’s NCAA Championship events across all divisions.
This year’s men’s matchups include No. 5 Duke vs. No. 21 Florida and No. 18 Purdue vs. Arizona State. On the women’s side, No. 1 UConn already defeated No. 17 Texas 72-54 in their ranked battle on Sunday.
The first set of games took place in Meadowlands Arena in 1995 – close to Valvano’s alma mater Rutgers – where Temple topped Kansas in overtime and Massachusetts outlasted Georgia Tech. Meadowlands Arena would be the host site of the event from 1995-2002.
In 2003, the Jimmy V Classic moved its home to the “World’s Most Famous Arena” in Madison Square Garden. That’s been the site ever since, including for Tuesday’s matchups.
The Women’s Jimmy V Classic debuted in 2002 and began with a similar two-game series before moving to one game in 2005.
With this year’s slate, 51 different schools have now participated in the Men’s Jimmy V Classic. Of this list, Memphis has the most appearances (four) while nine other teams have been in the Classic on three occasions.
UConn leads all women’s programs with nine games played, including six straight appearances ranging back to 2011.
Last year’s games included Virginia’s 70-54 win over West Virginia and Maryland’s 76-66 win over UConn. UConn women defeated Notre Dame 91-81 in their contest.
Jimmy V’s life and legacy:
Valvano’s basketball accomplishments are worth marveling at. Raised in Long Island, New York, he was a local product for Rutgers where he finished his four-year stint as the university’s 21st highest scorer with 1,122 career points.
He didn’t waste any time getting into coaching, fitting perfectly into the role with his high basketball IQ and infectious personality, and took his first head coaching job at Johns Hopkins the next year. Here, he took the Blue Jays to their first winning season in more than two decades.
After brief stints at Bucknell and Iona, Valvano then landed with North Carolina State and once again excelled. That success culminated in the Wolfpack’s memorable 1983 national championship run that was anything but easy.
The difficult road to the Final Four started with a strenuous double overtime win over Pepperdine in the opening round. The No. 6 seeded Wolfpack then knocked off UNLV, Utah, Virginia and Georgia – with two of those wins coming by a single point – to reach the title game where favored Houston was awaiting.
There, one of the most memorable endings in March took form.
With the game knotted at 52-52, NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg launched a deep prayer with less than five seconds on the clock remaining. The shot fell short but teammate Lorenzo Charles was in perfect position to catch the air ball and finish with the game-winning slam dunk to give the Wolfpack their first national championship in 10 years.
The broadcast panned on an enthusiastic Valvano looking around the court for someone to hug following the final buzzer. That remains one of the most compelling scenes in March Madness history.
It was during this grueling stretch of tight tournament games where Valvano coined the phrase “survive and advance,” a moniker that was used as a title for a wonderfully produced ESPN 30 for 30 capturing NC State’s improbable run.
As the whole country saw at the 1993 ESPYs, Valvano carried over his now-famous phrase to his fight with cancer.
“Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul,” Valvano said in his speech. “And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
The same energy and vigor that allowed him to captivate his countless players as a coach and millions of viewers as an ESPN commentator gave him the fortitude to reach an even bigger mass of people affected by cancer as a motivational speaker.
Valvano lived his life to the fullest before dying at 47 years old on April 28, 1993, and he encouraged others to do the same.
“If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a heck of a day,” Valvano said. “You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
Catch the two Jimmy V Classic games presented by ESPN on Tuesday night starting with the 7 p.m. matchup between Purdue and Arizona State followed by a 9:30 p.m. nightcap between Duke and Florida. To learn more about the V Foundation and to donate to the cause, visit jimmyv.org.