Phi Slama Jama, Jimmy V & a twist of fate

My wife and I watched the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, ‘Phi Slama Jama’ Sunday night. Like most of the series, it’s terrific.

I was 10 years old in 1983 when Houston and N.C. State met for the national championship. My mom, my sister (nearly four years older) and I watched every game on N.C. State’s run to the championship. We weren’t Wolfpack fans but loved college basketball. The game got in my blood early. I was going to play point guard in the ACC, no question. State was the ultimate underdog with a lovable coach. They were easy to pull for.

A rare March snowstorm hit Eastern North Carolina during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The power went out and the three of us sat around the fireplace and listened to the games on the radio. The Cardiac Pack beat Virginia and 7-4 center Ralph Sampson twice in three weeks, which seemed impossible even to someone with my lack of experience.

N.C. State kept winning, each one more improbable than the next. Then it was time for the Final Four. Houston played Louisville. There was a ball and two baskets on a court. But the teams were playing a different sport from another planet. It was fast, amazing and most certainly above the rim. Dunks and dunks and blocks and dunks.

We didn’t have cable at that time, not that they were airing anything that resembled what happened in that national semifinal. My college basketball viewing consisted of whatever ACC game was on TV each week. Raycom, Bones, Packer and Thacker, manual scoreboard in Carmichael, Sail with the Pilot.

There wasn’t a shot clock. The ACC had great players and coaches but nobody played like the Cougars and the Cardinals. Virginia and North Carolina had played a snoozer in the ACC championship game the year before. (I searched the interwebs for video footage, but luckily, thankfully, none exists. As an aside, four future Division I head coaches and three future Naismith Hall of Fame members played in the game – and they only scored 92 points!).


At some point during the second half of that one, as the Tar Heels held the ball for what, to a nine-year-old, seemed like 4,000 straight minutes, I walked outside and started shooting baskets on the goal in my backyard. Probably missed the end of the game. I didn’t miss one second of Houston – Louisville, just stared at the TV when it was over.

Two nights later, Whittenberg makes the heave, Charles dunks it and Jim Valvano runs around the court seeking someone to hug. But the part we always overlooked, over here on this side of the country, was just how close Benny Anders came to stealing the pass and rewriting the ending. As we were watching the sequence in ‘Phi Slama Jama’ my wife said something to this effect: just think if he steals that pass, his life turns out better, but because he didn’t Jimmy V won the national championship and there’s a foundation that helps so many people.

She was absolutely right. One play changed the fate of so many.

I’ve always been fortunate to be around smart ladies.

My sister, Ashley, died of breast cancer in June of 2012, four weeks after my first daughter, Kate, was born. She loved college basketball. As adults, whenever we talked on the phone this time of the year, the conversation generally turned to hoops and stayed there. Oh sure, I’d get the necessary updates on my nieces, how they were doing in school and such, but she lived in California and needed the latest scoop from Tobacco Road. I was glad to help. She’d tape games shown at 4 p.m. her time and watch them later without knowing the score. She knew basketball and loved to watch, was unafraid of good-spirited trash talk on social media. When I covered the NCAA tournament, she’d pay close attention to the televised press conferences, hoping to hear me ask a question.

This is Jimmy V Week, of course, on ESPN. There’s a doubleheader tonight in Madison Square Garden. Like so many college basketball fans, I’ve watched the famous “Don’t Give Up” speech a dozen times. It’s become a holiday tradition on the screen at our house, as familiar as The Grinch or Clark Griswold. Cancer is everywhere, and it sucks. We’ve all been affected by it. Valvano’s words will ring true forever, even to the generations that never saw him coach a game. He was authentic, charismatic, flawed but genuine. I’ve heard great stories about his early days at NC State, this Italian guy from New York traveling to small towns across the state on the booster club circuit. The fans hung on every word.

The foundation bearing his name has awarded more than $170 million in cancer research grants since 1993. A endowment handles expenses, directing every dollar donated to research. That’s not the case with other organizations.

“your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers”