For the Love of the Game

The greatest tournament ever played lives on 20 years later

by Published: Apr 3, 2013

Harry Vardon, the golf­ing pride of the United Kingdom in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was a man of pro­found words. His poetic wis­dom lives on in few men in sports today.

One of those men graced the world of col­lege bas­ket­ball dur­ing the 1980s, an Italian man by the name of Jim Valvano. Valvano coached the North Carolina State Wolfpack to a national title in the 1983 season.

It wasn’t the title so much as the cir­cum­stances behind the cham­pi­onship run that defined why this is the great­est story in the his­tory of March Madness, and one of the most touch­ing in sports history.

Finishing the reg­u­lar sea­son 17–10, the Wolfpack needed to win the ACC tour­na­ment to get a chance to make it into NCAA Tournament.

They stared Michael Jordan and North Carolina straight in the face, took them to over­time, and won. They faced adver­sity again against Virginia in the cham­pi­onship game, and the seem­ingly myth­i­cal tal­ent of Ralph Sampson.

Though touted as the best team in the coun­try, Virginia fal­tered while Valvano willed his team on to victory.

Valvano, though can­cer stricken at the time, con­tin­ued to tell his team, “Survive and Advance,” and they did. The Wolfpack sur­vived and advanced, gritty win after gritty win.

Playing against future Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler of Houston, the team known as “Phi Slamma Jamma” would see the full force of Valvano’s team and the strength of their character.

Fighting to the end, lead­ing scorer Dereck Whittenburg launched a 30-footer that fell short. Forward Lorenzo Charles leapt into the air and put in a buzzer beater over Olajuwon to win the National Championship.

Valvano would hold prac­tices dur­ing which his team would rehearse cut­ting down the nets. He sin­cerely believed he could will his dreams into the minds of his team. His team finally bought in.

As Valvano’s body dete­ri­o­rated from the aggres­sive can­cer, his spirit remained, and if at all pos­si­ble, strength­ened. He preached to the nation in his 1993 ESPY Speech to live every day with rag­ing opti­mism, to laugh and cry, and live every moment with enthusiasm.

He touched the lives of mil­lions that night at the 1993 ESPY Awards, 10 years after that tri­umphant season.

The story con­tin­ued to the 10-year anniver­sary gath­er­ing at NC State, where Valvano returned to speak to his school.

“They taught me and the world many impor­tant lessons,” Valvano said. “Number one, hope that things can get bet­ter in spite of adver­sity. The ’83 team taught me about dream­ing, because noth­ing can hap­pen if not first a dream, and per­sis­tence, about never quit­ting. Never give up, don’t ever stop fighting.”

He told each one of his team mem­bers that he loved them. Love is not some­thing often talked about or shared in sports.

But for the love of the game, and for the love of his team, Valvano fought on until his death on April 28, 1993.

“To play well you must feel tran­quil and at peace. I have never been trou­bled by nerves because I felt I had noth­ing to lose and every­thing to gain,” Vardon said.

Love what you do, love your com­pe­ti­tion, because time is pre­cious. There is only so much time allot­ted to do what you love.