It's been 40 years since one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament basketball history, when North Carolina State University beat the highly favored University of Houston and future Hall-of-Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon in the title game. It's been 30 years since the coach of that championship team, Jim Valvano, delivered his famous ESPY Awards speech. Valvano died of cancer the following month.
I felt connected to that team back in 1983 because the starting backcourt, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, were a year behind me at DeMatha Catholic High School outside of Washington, D.C. Pulling for that team was one thing; expecting them to win was quite another. With Whittenburg injured for much of the year, North Carolina State's regular season record was not good enough even to get them into the tournament. They would have to win the ACC tournament to get a bid. To do that, they had to beat Michael Jordan's University of North Carolina and Ralph Sampson's University of Virginia. They did. And they would go on to beat Virginia again in the NCAA tournament.
To help his team imagine the improbable, Valvano started the year with a ceremony of cutting down the nets. He exhibited the kind of confidence that inspired his players to do much more than they likely ever would have thought possible on their own. They repeatedly overcame deficits in the tourney, and they did so in part through a highly unorthodox strategy of deliberately fouling teams to test how well opponents would shoot free throws under pressure.
In the championship game against Houston, they managed to keep the game close and won it on a last second tip-in of a half-court heave, actually an airball, by Whittenburg.
On that evening, seeing Valvano run joyfully onto the court in celebration, his arms extended as if to embrace his whole team — the whole sport — at once, no one could have anticipated that a mere decade later, at 47, he would succumb to cancer. His ESPY speech was not just a plea to fight cancer. It contained a remarkable depth of wisdom about how to lead a meaningful life.
In the key part of the speech, Valvano said this:
"To me, there are three things that we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is to 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. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
What Valvano says about laughter as contributing to a good life is the most obvious item in his list. Laughter eases burdens, brings joy and connects us to others. In his ESPY speech, it's clear that his sense of humor was a source of strength even as he faced death.
The experience of tears might not seem so desirable. Formed by his Italian origins, Valvano describes being moved to tears and not just by sorrow but also by happiness or joy. One of the afflictions of our time, particularly in the post-COVID world, is lack of affect, an absence of emotion. Teachers across the country and at every level report encounters with students who are suffering from a kind of emotional malaise. To be moved greatly is part of what it means to live a fully human life.
Whatever we think of tears and laughter, we cannot help but be surprised at a basketball coach listing thinking as a crucial activity. But Valvano, who majored in English at Rutgers University and was known as an avid reader, was onto something. We struggle with difficulty focusing, with the inability to pay attention or think in a sustained way about any one thing. Meanwhile, our political discourse is infected with chronic thoughtlessness. Unreflective, reactionary attacks are prized above all else.
To give ourselves to sustained thought, in conversation about important matters, or in reading a novel, frees us from the tyranny of the present moment. It reminds us that we are creatures born with a capacity to wonder. We can marvel at many things, as Valvano himself clearly did — everything from excellence in athletics to what it means to lead a flourishing human life.
I'll never forget the March Madness Cinderella story of 1983. Our nation should not forget the lessons from the visionary coach who made it possible.