Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Coach Looks at 40

I mentioned on Twitter the other day on what would have been Jim Valvano's 68th birthday that I had written a story about him when he turned 40. A couple people asked about that story, so here it is. It's kind of weird that I wrote this at 20, half the coach's age at the time, and I'm now looking back at it at 49, which is two years older than the coach when he died in 1993. Three months after this was written, Valvano was named NC State's athletics director. Some would say athletics at the school haven't quite been the same since.

© NC State Student Media 1985

Jim Valvano wants to throw a party for himself.

He’s getting ready to turn a big corner that every man must face, and he wants to cut loose by having a throw-down with the student body.

Yep, Little Jimmy V is turning 40 years old – the Big Four-Oh – on March 10, 1986. And it’s scary.

“I’m shocked,” he says in anticipation of that most dreaded of all decades. “I did not think it could happen to me. I keep going around asking everybody ‘Do I look 40?’ I can’t. I feel like I could go over to one of the frats and say, ‘Hey, I’m Jim Valvano from Rutgers, a member of the Beta House. I wanna stay with you.

“It’s just amazing to me that I’m going to be 40 years old.”

Well, it’s only 106 more shopping days until V-Day, so preparations are necessary. But what does one do for someone who does everything?

At Operation Basketball in Greensboro, Coach V told Atlantic Coast Conference media members that he wanted to have a party – a big party.

“It’s either going to be at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City or a Moose Lodge somewhere in Raleigh,” he said. “Everyone is invited. Even those who write bad things about me. Even those who say I do too much.

“But bring your own booze. I’m not feeding you.”

Since that Sunday three weeks ago, Valvano seems to have changed his mind.

He now wants to party with the student body at State. What better way to keep one’s youth than to slam with the best young partiers in Raleigh? No stuffy old banquets. No tuxedos. Just break out the cut-offs and the national championship T-shirts.

“Maybe we’ll have it right here on campus,” he said. “The entire student body is invited to my birthday party. Maybe I’ll have it at the Brickyard.”

Uh, nice thought, but, uh, that’s not quite possible, Coach. [Note: The Brickyard was completely torn up at the time for a renovation and expansion of D.H. Hill Library.] But, hey, there’s got to be some place on campus. If not, maybe that Moose Lodge is still available.

Seriously, Valvano would like the chance to speak to the student body, something he has not done except for an informal performance after the national championship. What better occasion than his birthday?

Unfortunately, a man of Valvano’s many talents is busy. He has an engagement planned for that day, a speech in Orlando, Fla.

“It’s already scheduled,” he says. “But as soon as I’m back, I want to have a party with the student body. I’ll bring the hats and noisemakers.”

And since the ACC tournament ends March 9, wouldn’t it be nice to have a double celebration for Coach V’s birthday and his team’s conference title?

“That would be even better,” he said, smiling.

But turning 40 doesn’t really bother Valvano. He’s still having fun. Of course, that may all change, come March 10.

“I guess I’m going to have to get serious about life,” he says, contemplating a number that before only described his jacket size. “I better figure out what I want to do in life.”

Considering he’s had a sampling of almost everything, Valvano shouldn’t have a hard time deciding. During his previous 39 years, and especially in his six years in Raleigh, Valvano’s been having a ball.

“I tend to enjoy almost everything I do,” he says.

And he tends to do everything he enjoys.

Valvano has been anything from a culinary expert and writer to a national television personality. He appeared every Monday for three months on the CBS Morning News and was a guest analyst for an NBC basketball broadcast. And for four dreamy days while working on a piece for the CBS show, he fulfilled every schoolboy’s fantasy as a Los Angeles Dodgers bat boy.

“I went with them to St. Louis, then I went with them to Pittsburgh,” he says. “The visiting team will pay the bat boy $25 a day. After I was finished, the Dodgers voted not to pay me anything. They thought I did a terrible job.”

And Raleigh’s most popular hero even got to interview a few sports greats: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, golfers Nancy Lopez and Kathy Baker, and cyclist Greg LeMond. He even talked to the man of the summer of ’85.

“I got to interview Pete Rose,” he says. “I never thought that I would get to do that. I am a tremendous sports fan, so to talk to those people is such a tremendous thrill.”

In light of all the negative press by the local media about his super-involvement, it would seem logical that Valvano would feel uncomfortable becoming a big-time journalist. Not true.

“Anytime you try to do someone else’s job, you start to gain respect for them,” he says. “Just to put together a piece for national television of four minutes is a remarkable number of hours. I have a healthy respect for journalists.

“But then they should have to do my job for a while. How’d you like to do the Carolina game at Carolina this year?”

Valvano didn’t limit himself to American thrills. This summer, he went international.

He, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino and St. John’s mentor Lou Carnesecca traveled to Italy to head an international basketball clinic for the World Association of Basketball Coaches.

“It’s a worldwide clinic that meets once a year for 1,100 coaches from 35 countries,” he says. “To just talk and share ideas about this great game to people from all over the world is kind of special, especially since it was in the land of my ancestry.”

He even got to relive a little history while he was there.

“I had people come up to me with magazines in their native tongues from their land about our 1983 national championship team,” he says. “That was really unbelievable. To have them to know the names of the players was just great.”

The fast-talking coach also secured a sense of identity on the trip.

“In America, I’m an Italian,” he said. “Down South, I’m an EYE-talian. I had to go to Italy to become an American.

“But you really appreciate this country. You get a tremendous sense of pride when you go somewhere else. I was not an Italian in Italy; I was an American and proud of the United States.”

Upon returning to the States, Valvano had to set his sights toward his team and various other activities. Like recruiting. And public appearances. Speaking engagements. And interviews. Oh, yeah, don’t forget practice.

The person with the unenviable task of keeping up with Valvano’s schedule is his secretary, Frances Lewis, who has to rate as one of the hardest working people on campus. Next to Valvano, of course. She alone probably knows just how busy the coach really is.

“In September he does a lot of clinics and home visits,” she says. “And he gives the whole month of May to the Wolfpack Club, going wherever they want him to.

“During these months, he usually doesn’t even get a Sunday off. Sometimes, he goes six or seven weeks without a weekend at home.”

But Valvano doesn’t mind. He explains that his many off-the-court activities have sort of a medicinal quality, especially during the basketball season.

“That’s how I burn off that disappointment,” he says. “It prepares myself, rejuvenates me, charges my batteries.”

If that doesn’t work, or the verbose Rutgers graduate finds himself speechless – if that is even possible – Valvano has something else to turn to.

“I’m proud of my education,” he says. “When I have trouble expressing myself, I use the words of others. I was fortunate enough to have majored in English, so I have many words to choose from.

“There is a poem I kind of like which was written by T.S. Eliot. It’s called ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.’ There is a constant refrain in there where he says, ‘Do I dare, do I dare, ascend the stair, with a bald spot in my hair?’ That feeling of inadequacy. That vulnerability we might all have.

“I’m not afraid to do something which is unconventional to someone else because they categorize what a basketball coach is supposed to be. I guess what I am saying is, I am not afraid to show my bald spot.”

Even as he approaches the age when most men are afraid of just that.

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