Escape in ACC quarters launched NC State's miracle run
One defensive stop in the 1983 ACC quarterfinals launched NC State's miracle title run and transformed Jim Valvano into Jimmy V, Pat Forde writes.
The scoreboard read North Carolina State 70, Wake Forest 70. Less than a minute remained in an Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinal game that, on a Friday afternoon in March 1983, hardly augured the start of something big.
Nobody in The Omni in Atlanta could have known that the events in that final minute would alter the course of college basketball history, the course of Jim Valvano's career -- and, ultimately, the course of his impact upon society.
But before the Wolfpack coach could become everything he would become -- the national championship coach, the prominent ESPN basketball analyst, the passionate orator who delivered the most famous sports speech since Lou Gehrig, the national face of the fight against cancer; Jimmy V -- his team had to survive that moment.
"If we don't win that game," said State point guard Sidney Lowe, "we're done."
If NC State doesn't win that game, an NCAA Tournament berth disappears. The Wolfpack had come into the game 17-10, 8-6 in ACC play -- as on-the-bubble as it gets. They were one loss from the NIT, and at least a couple of wins from the Big Dance.
And Valvano, at that point, was just a third-year coach at NC State with a quick wit and an unspectacular ACC record. He was 18-25 in league play, and his only NCAA Tournament win had come as the coach at Iona three years before. Now, he was on the verge of missing the tournament with a veteran team.
With the NCAA inviting only 48 teams at that time, the Wolfpack was trying to play its way in from the outside.
Now, on the court in Atlanta, NC State unexpectedly was fighting for its tournament life against a Demon Deacons team it had routed by 41 points six days earlier to end the regular season. Wake got the ball with 4:25 left, score tied.
Those being the days before a shot clock, the Demon Deacons simply held the ball for nearly four minutes. Wake coach Carl Tacy called timeout with 30 seconds left to diagram a play for the last shot.
"No question," said Lowe, now the coach of the Wolfpack. "We were up against the wall."
Valvano decided he couldn't let his team be a passive participant any longer. He put his players in their "22-trap" defense, double-teaming the ball.
The ploy worked perfectly, as Lowe was able to intercept a weak pass out of a double-team, deflecting it into the hands of teammate Thurl Bailey. After an NC State timeout with 10 seconds left, Lowe fed a bounce pass to forward Lorenzo Charles, who was fouled with three ticks remaining.
The freshman badly missed the first free throw but made the second -- by no means his final heroic play that season. The Pack walked off the court with a 71-70 victory, never suspecting that the ultimate Cinderella run had just begun.
"That's where it started," Lowe said.
It would not end until a manic April Monday in Albuquerque, when a former bubble team shocked the socks off America and mighty Houston, 54-52, to win the national championship.
"If ever there was a team literally one basket away from not getting in a tournament they ultimately won, that was it," said Valvano's brother, Bob, a former coach and current ESPN radio host.
And that razor-thin margin between being famous and being forgotten illustrates the beauty of March Madness. It begins with the conference tournaments, where every team starts over with a chance. Every dream is in play.
You must be defeated on the court. No computer and no group of voters will eliminate you from title contention. It can be done only by another team, head-to-head on a 94-by-50 rectangle, until only one team remains.
And the last team standing has never been more unlikely than the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack.
The Wake Forest win began an unparalleled run of remarkable escapes from elimination. Of NC State's nine conference and NCAA tournament victories, six came by three or fewer points.
It was in the course of this run that Valvano popularized the term, "survive and advance."
After Wake, the Pack survived a long Sam Perkins jump shot that rattled out at the buzzer of regulation in the ACC semifinals, sending the game into overtime, where the Wolfpack upset North Carolina, 91-84. That was defending national champion North Carolina, ACC top seed North Carolina, national top-five North Carolina, Michael Jordan's North Carolina.
"I watched it at home with my parents, and I did have a feeling," Bob Valvano said. "The Carolina game was unbelievable. They just kept coming and kept coming and kept digging and kept digging. That's when I did think they were something special."
Full of confidence and playing fearlessly, State then finally turned the tables on Ralph Sampson and No. 2 Virginia. The Wolfpack had lost all six times to the Cavaliers under Valvano but won this game and the ACC tournament, 81-78, assuring their berth in the NCAAs.
"We weren't talking about the NCAA Tournament," said Lowe, who was named MVP of the ACC tourney. "We were talking about that tournament. We played each game like it was our last game."
As it turned out, State had six more games to go. The dramatic finishes were only beginning.
Down six with a minute to play against Pepperdine in overtime in the first round of the NCAAs, State needed 84 percent foul shooter Dane Suttle to miss a pair of front ends of one-and-ones before it could rally and eventually win in double OT. In the second round, against sixth-ranked UNLV, State rallied from a 12-point deficit with 11:40 left, got help from another key missed free throw and won by a point on a Bailey fadeaway with four seconds left.
After blowing out Utah in the Sweet 16, NC State faced Virginia and Sampson for the fourth time that year. Sampson had come back for his senior season to win a national championship, and the Cavaliers took a lead into the final minutes. But State rallied once more, and Charles -- a 63 percent foul shooter -- made the two free throws with 23 seconds left that ended Sampson's college career, 63-62.
By the time State got to Albuquerque for the Final Four, Valvano's wit and coaching acumen had thrust him to center stage. Yet, even after beating Georgia 67-60 in the semifinals, the Pack were considered one of the biggest underdogs in championship history against Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama.
You know how it ended.
When Charles dunked the Whittenberg 30-footer that became the most famous air ball in basketball history, Valvano had become a star. His frantic dash around the court in search of someone to hug became the ultimate video expression of the thrill of sudden victory.
"He was the person that he was before he came to NC State -- his character, his demeanor, his sense of humor; he had all of that when he got here," Lowe said. "But he didn't have NC State. I think they worked well together. He took NC State to that level that we achieved, and then NC State made him Valvano. Made him Jimmy V.
"Winning the national championship, and the way he did it, did boost his marketability and let people see who he was. He got a chance to touch more people. And once he touched you, you never forgot him."
When Valvano's coaching tenure ended amid scandal at NC State in 1990, he found a second career as a broadcaster at ESPN. Would that have happened without the miracle of '83?
"He was very good at what he did -- a very good coach, and he might still have gotten a job in broadcasting, and he would have been very good," Bob Valvano said. "But winning that title definitely helped."
Valvano was an instant success on the air and became a rising star in the network's college basketball coverage. But in 1992, he was diagnosed with a rare and virulent form of bone cancer.
And that tragedy opened the door for Jimmy V's most enduring moment: the "Don't give up, don't ever give up" speech at the inaugural ESPYS in 1992.
"[Bob] Costas believes that if Jimmy doesn't make that speech, the first year of the ESPYS, then [the ESPYS] might go away," Bob Valvano said. "Don't get me wrong, ESPN has had a lot of successes, but they've had a few strikeouts too, and maybe that would have been one of them. That speech gave that whole evening a dose of substance."
And it gave the fight against cancer a face, a rallying cry, a pep talk. Not until Lance Armstrong and his yellow bracelets came along did cancer research receive another such nationwide motivational boost.
The V Foundation for Cancer Research has since raised $56 million. You don't have to know a thing about basketball to appreciate that.
"I've heard Clyde Drexler say it -- and it might be part of not wanting to admit that you were beaten, but it's pretty insightful: He said, 'There's no way we win the game because it's all part of a broader script,'" Bob Valvano said. "Without that game there's no V Foundation, no $56 million raised for cancer research, no 'Don't give up, don't ever give up.'"
It might all have been meant to be. But if the V Foundation and the ESPYS moment needed the miracle in Albuquerque, remember this: The miracle in Albuquerque needed the escape in Atlanta to start the whole thing.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.