Jimmy V. was going to die. Soon. It was bone cancer. Everyone knew. It was time to say what he needed to say.
March 4, 1993, the ESPY Awards.
The night is a celebration of achievements by the world's greatest athletes, but it turns out to be a celebration of life, a celebration of the life and heart of one man: Jim Valvano.
The introduction of the coach brings down the house. The physically weakened Valvano walks to the podium to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, helped up the stairs by his friend Dick Vitale. When he reaches the podium, the crowd is standing, giving him the ovation of a lifetime.
When he is finally able to speak, he doesn't talk about his coaching career at North Carolina State or about the miraculous 1983 NCAA title the Wolfpack captured or being forced to leave N.C. State in the aftermath of NCAA violations. He doesn't talk about the poignant scene just after the Wolfpack's championship game, when he ran around the court in circles, his arm dangling, not knowing what to do, whom to hug, where to go, a scene that lives forever in sports highlights.
He doesn't reference the pain he is suffering, how difficult it is to know you're going to die, how difficult it is to leave a wife and three daughters behind. Instead, in a stirring nine-minute, 36-second speech, this dying man tells us how to live, how to relish every breathing moment, every second of every day:
"We should do three things every day of our lives. Number one, laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is that you should have your emotions moved to tears.
"If you laugh, if you think and if you cry, that's a heck of a day," he says. "You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
The teary-eyed crowd cheers. Valvano did those three things every day of his life, when he was a gym rat growing up in New York, when he coached at Bucknell, Iona, and N.C. State, and when he became an ESPN college basketball analyst, where he proved to be a natural in front of the mike, dissecting game plans, even when cancer infiltrated his mind and body.
He continues: "Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. But it can not touch my mind and it can not touch my heart and it can not touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever."
The crowd roars. Motioning for the crowd to quiet down, Valvano goes on to talk about the importance of playing basketball and coaching the game he loves so much, how much he learned about life and people. He talks about the privilege of knowing his wife and three daughters, the joy of embracing them every morning. He talks about the privilege of watching a sunrise and a sunset.
He says we should all know what we want in life and to be concerned with where we are headed in life, to avoid mistakes.
He's leaving with only memories. Great memories. He knows he's going to die, in a month, maybe in two months, maybe in three. But he isn't going to die quietly. He's going to exit The Valvano Way. He vows to fight cancer until the end. He vows to laugh every day, until the very last moment, until his last breath.
He has laughed every day, though the best and worst of times. He told friends that when a doctor showed him the black spot on his X-rays, indicating he had cancer, he quickly snapped back, "You forgot to use the flash."
He tells sportscasters and sportswriters, producers and editors, that when the inevitable happens, when he's breathed his last breath, to make sure they use a good picture of him, and to make sure they don't mourn his life, but instead celebrate it. Have a party, he says, in his honor.
Since he can't save his own life, he says, he will lend his name to a cause that might save the lives of his children. Of your children. Of anyone's children. Thus the V Foundation is established.
He laughs when the teleprompter screen in front of the stage informs him that he has to leave the podium in 30 seconds. "Like I care about that screen right now, huh?" he says with a huge smile and a laugh. "I got tumors all over my body. I'm worried about some guy in the back going '30 seconds'?"
There is no pain in his voice. Just joy and humor and love and laughter. He shifts every few seconds, ever so lightly on his aching feet. He gestures with his painful arms, hands and fingers.
Then he speaks the words of encouragement that will live on forever: "Don't give up! Don't ever give up!"