Life Lessons From A Middle-Aged Cinderella

In 1983 I was ten years old. That year, my only real interest in sports was meeting up with my friends at the Friday night high school football game (which we had no intention of actually watching) and giving my Granny grief during the Dallas Cowboys/Pittsburgh Steelers game each year. (Danny White was a distant cousin and she had a deep love for America’s Team. Me? Not so much.)

It would be another three years before I discovered my die-hard devotion to the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird, and another five years before I would begin watching Sean Elliott and the Arizona Wildcats as they made their way to the Final Four, making me a UofA fan for life (or until I learned that in order to attend UofA, you actually had to live in Tucson. Once I realized that, the hated Sun Devils didn’t look so bad after all.)

But in 1983, I wasn’t paying attention to NCAA basketball. So later in life when I would hear about the great run of the North Carolina State basketball team to win the national championship, I didn’t get too worked up. I mean, I’m sure it was great and all, but it fell into the same arena as The Beatles and the signing of the Magna Carta. All were a part of history and all were things that I didn’t care that much about. I certainly didn’t know or care who Jim Valvano was. Even into my twenties and thirties, I vaguely knew he had been a coach and was known for running around the court looking for someone to hug after his team won it all in 19…something. I also knew he died of cancer and had started the V Foundation to raise money for cancer research. But again, I didn’t pay that much attention. He was a figure from another era who, sadly, probably died before his time.

I should also mention that at that point in my life, I also hadn’t lost my own mother to cancer.

But today, in 2013, I have lost my mom. And so maybe that had something to do with the split second decision I made as I was flipping through the channels last night and came across Coach Jimmy Valvano speaking in front of some group, giving a motivational speech. Normally, I would have kept right on surfing the channels…but I didn’t. I stopped and listened to what he was saying, and low and behold, the guy was quite funny and extremely motivational. I put the remote down and kept watching. And what I watched was a documentary of the magical run of North Carolina State in that 1983 season, told through the rememberances of Coach Valvano’s players.

What prompted the making of this documentary was the death of one of the team’s stars. In fact it was the guy who scored the winning basket at the last second. When he passed, the other players commented that if they didn’t get together regularly, the only time they would see each other was at each other’s funerals. So they planned a reunion. And ESPN got wind of it and sent a film crew to capture the event on tape. And it was fascinating.

To a sports fan like me, the memories of each game was interesting, but what really made the show special was seeing the love these players had for their coach. And learning what kind of things had done to earn that love and devotion.

Coach Valvano wasn’t the tough love kind of coach. He genuinely was a motivational speaker who knew a thing or two about basketball. At the beginning of each season, and several times during, he would hold a practice where the players never touched a ball or ran the length of the court. What they would do was practice cutting down the nets-the ritual that all champions engage in once they have won their coveted prize. He told them that in order to achieve their goal of winning a championship, they needed to know what it felt like to see it happen. The players said it was weird and awkward at first, but after doing it a few times, they got into it…and more importantly, believed it could happen for real.

He trusted his players. Even if they made stupid mistakes, he trusted them with the opportunity to make it right.

At several points during the documentary, they showed him speaking. In one clip he quoted one of his idols whose name I did not catch, but the quote went, “God must love ordinary people, because he sure made a lot of them. But each and every day, ordinary people do the most extrordinary things.” I don’t know why, but that touched me. It touched me deeply.

Another clip showed him years later, after he had been diagnosed with cancer and could hardly walk on his own. He attended that year’s ESPY Awards and was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. During his speech, he said something I believe is nothing earth shattering, but at the same time, profound. He said there are three things we ought to do every day. The first is laugh. The second is think. Give ourselves some time to think with no outside influences pushing us. The third was to have our emotions move us to tears. He said if a person does each of those things in one day, what an amazing day. A little later in the same speech, he encouraged everyone to enjoy their life. That’s a total cliche thing to say unless it is coming from a man who has no idea how many days he has left. When he says it, there is nothing cliche about it.

At the end of the documentary, it was well past the time I should have been in bed, but I didn’t care. I thought I knew how the story ended. NC State won the tourney in 1983. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The story has no end. In 1993, NC State invited the team back for a 10-year celebration during a half-time of one of their games. What was impressive was that Jimmy Valvano came. He was beyond not well. But he came. And he showed once again that he loved those players. And they in turn loved him back. They loved him because he cared and he believed in them and never let them doubt that he believed in them. That impact will be with each of those men forever. It will be with their families because that belief changed the course of each life it touched. Belief in each other is powerful.

As I turned off the TV, I couldn’t help but think of my mom. I don’t want to cheapen what I’m trying to say by making this a pitch for my book, so I will not do the big, THIS IS WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT thing at the end. But to me, this story of a coach, my mom and the book that I wrote are all interconnected.

I’m an ordinary guy. I’m beyond ordinary, in fact. I was bald before I was thirty. I live fifty miles from the house I grew up in. And whether or not I show up for work on a given day has very little impact on socity at large.

But my mom loved me. And my mom believed I was great-that I could do great things. I miss her terribly. As I sit here writing this, I’m getting my daily dose of being moved to tears. And because of her, and her belief in me that she emphasized from the time I was little, I achieved something extraordinary.

I can honestly say, only one thing in my life has been harder than writing my book, and that was going on a mission. I’m a homebody and those two years, while unbelievably rewarding, were difficult for me. But writing this novel was easily the second hardest thing I have ever done. There were several times I was ready to give up. There were times when I was convinced the whole thing was no good and not worth finishing. But my mother (and my father as well) raised me not to quit. I haven’t always lived up to that teaching, but I try. And I told my mom a long time ago that I was going to write a book. Because of her belief in me, I knew I had to finish. And I did. And if it never experiences success in the wordly sense, it doesn’t matter, because I know I accomplished something extraordinary. And for my ordinary little life, that’s what does matter.

So thank you, Mr. Valvano. Thank you for the opportunity to learn your story. Thank you for the opportunity your story gave me to reflect upon my mom and my experiences with her. Thank you, Mom, for being the type of parent who instilled the confidence to help me achieve my dream. I only wish you were here to share this whole experience with me.

The Reluctant Blogger is lovingly dedicated to Alberta Lee Rapier.

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