When the name Jimmy V comes up in sports circles, one things comes to mind. The speech. The acceptance pledge that the late Jimmy Valvano made on stage at the ESPY’s to a crowd of athletes, sports minds, analysts, coaches, and colleagues over 22 years ago. Those words echoed around the world and still resonate today as the video shows. Emotions stir through you, and tears build up and fire brews in your stomach. Jimmy V’s words did that.
Valvano had tumors all over his body at the time and was fighting off cancer like the disease was Joe Frazier in his prime stalking him around the ring. Before he left us, Valvano took the stage where he received the Arthur Ashe Courage award. Those 10 minutes will go down as the best in sports history. I can remember the words like I heard them when I was 11 and watching the TV.
“You got to do three things in life. Laugh. Think. Cry.”
Valvano shared a funny story about his first college basketball coaching gig at Rutgers University when he was just 21. He loved Vince Lombardi, read the legendary Packers coach book and wished to echo the man’s speech in his pregame speech. Hearing him tell the audience how he nearly broke his arm and said “Packers” instead of “Rutgers” at the end of his speech is still funny, but it’s bittersweet.
You see, Jimmy was a people’s person. He could talk to anyone. Watch any clips of him around the court, shouting, teaching and caring. He was a player, coach and broadcaster and he gave his life to the game of basketball and for the most part, the game gave back as much as it took. Valvano was as much a family man as he was a savant for the sport.
Speeches can hide things when it comes to some people. They cover up a facade of fragility or ill advised weakness. That wasn’t the case with Jimmy. When he spoke, you listened. That speech still makes me listen years later. “Never give up…don’t ever give up.”
Those words sparked a fight in many cancer patients across the world. That night, ESPN and Valvano started the Jimmy V Foundation. Before that night, cancer research wasn’t as fiery and potent as it is today, where cures aren’t out of the question. Back then, there was 10 times as much AIDS research funds as cancer research funds. It didn’t all happen that night, but Valvano started something that still goes strong today.
It was powerful as ever last summer when Stuart Scott climbed the stage to receive the same award Jimmy did. Before he could leave the stage, Scott, who passed away in January, referenced the speech and told people to never give up. Scott’s fight with cancer and his help from ESPN and around the world got started with Jimmy back on March 4th, 1993.
We all love to give speeches. It’s a commanding moment. All eyes are on you. The nerves start to tingle. Words come out wrong or they stream out. Valvano’s words are as powerful today as they were back then. When I see him on that stage, I see my late friend, Troy Siade, who died before his 40th birthday from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I see all the cancer fighters I’ve known throughout the years. I look down at the two bracelets on my wrists that display the 24/7/365 fight that comes with cancer.
Just imagine if we could display the courage Jimmy did that night. His life slipping away as he spoke and the lights starting to dim. The man reached his pinnacle on that stage. People might say it was just a speech, but they are wrong. It was a call to arms. A march. A will. Valvano changed things that night and he did so with a smile, laughter, some tears and a story.
Less than two months later after the speech, on May 1st, Valvano died. 22 years later, his words still live on.
Watch the speech below and try not to feel every kind of emotion sink into you.