Sporting Heroes: Jimmy Valvano, the Cinderella coach

 

Jimmy Valvano is a name not widely known this side of the Atlantic. In America, he is revered as an extraordinary inspiration.

It was as a college basketball coach of NC State Wolfpack that the brash Italian-American made his name. After 10 years’ coaching, “Jimmy V” arrived at State and told anyone who would listen he would win the National Championship. State had won the title only once, seven years before, and were struggling. In their first practice, Jimmy told his team: “If I can get you to see what I’m seeing and to dream what I’m dreaming, then we will win the championship.”

His first two seasons did not go well, and at the start of the third, in 1982, expectations were low. In the first game, State’s best player Dereck Whittenburg broke his foot. After a very average season the only way to reach the National Tournament was to win their Conference in three knockout rounds. Jimmy’s phrase “survive and advance” became the mantra.

Whittenburg returned; the Cinderella story began. Behind in every game in the fourth quarter, State always found a way back. In the semi-final, they beat Michael Jordan’s North Carolina and in the final they upended Virginia, the No 2 ranked team in the country.

Heading into the National tournament, the players began to believe Jimmy’s prophecy. Match after match State fell behind, yet after winning nine games in a row against the best teams in the country, the underdog was crowned 1983 NCAA champion.

In 1992, Valvano was diagnosed with cancer. Three months before his death in April 1993, he launched the Jimmy V Foundation, which has raised over $100m in the fight against cancer. He was 47 when he died. NC State have never won another National Championship.

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