Caldwell: Best sports stories about more than a game

Published 12:38 am Sunday, December 11, 2016

Being in the heart of Wildcat country, I don’t have to tell anyone that, more often than not, the most powerful sports stories don’t even occur on the field or the court.

Although it may not involve our beloved Kentucky team, that is exactly the case when it comes to basketball coach Jim Valvano.

The former North Carolina State coach had a storied career capped by winning the 1983 NCAA Basketball Tournament, shocking the heavily favored Houston Cougars. The video of Valvano hopping around the court, running around looking for someone to hug has become an iconic symbol of beating the odds and overcoming adversity.

Valvano’s more impactful legacy came 10 years later during ESPN’s annual awards ceremony. It was there, 23 years ago, that Valvano gave a powerful speech that had a huge impact on me, which I have written about several times over the years.

Most importantly, it led to an effort to battle cancer that continues today. The Jimmy V Foundation was created, built on the motto of “Don’t Give Up . . . Don’t Ever Give Up.”

Last week, ESPN and its affiliated networks celebrated the 10th annual Jimmy V Week for Cancer Research, marking another successful year. With 100 percent of all direct cash donations benefiting cancer research, the V Foundation has awarded more than $170 million in cancer research grants and is always ranked among the highest-rated nonprofits by Charity Navigator.

Valvano was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 46. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself or use his time selfishly. He chose to use his celebrity status and final days on this earth trying to make a difference for others who he knew would one day face the same fight.

His ESPY speech remains just as powerful more than two decades later.

“When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives,” Valvano said to the crowd of professional athletes and celebrities.

“Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. 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.”

The coach continued to build on his motivational message, resulting in something that was likely more powerful than any real locker room speech he ever gave.

“How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. You have to be willing to work for it.

“ … I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,’ to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems, whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.”

The end of Valvano’s speech remains just as powerful as when he delivered it in 1993.

“Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”

If you have never seen it, I urge you to visit tinyurl.com/jimmyvespy to watch the entire 11-minute speech.

Jim Valvano died less than two months later but his legacy lives on in the thousands of people whose lives have been improved — or even saved — by the V Foundation’s funded cancer research.

Try measuring that on some scoreboard.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Winchester Sun and Winchester Living magazine. He can be reached at 759-0095 or by email at mike.caldwell@winchestersun.com.