If this ain't heaven, it's close enough for Jim Valvano, who said he ran a bed check on his North Carolina State basketball players the other night and discovered, just as he thought, that every bed was in its room. "We didn't lose a damned bed," he said.
Jim Valvano is to tense as Queen Elizabeth is to rowdy. In a world of three-piece-suit psycho/coaches, the Italian kid from Long Island is the comic relief in baggy pants. Here he comes with that 5 o'clock shadow and godfathery rasp, declaring that his team's presence in the NCAA tournament's final four is, if he has to pick one word out of the millions he uses daily, "Incredible."
"I've been in college coaching 16 years, but there's still an awful lot of little kid in me. For 16 years I've been sitting in the stands for these tournament games, coaching my brains out. Every year, coaching three games in the final four, and you think, 'Wow, what would I give to be there just once?'
"I'm not embarrassed to tell you this is one of my greatest thrills in athletics."
Warming up two nights ago, Valvano finished second in a dance contest at the Hungry Bear. Dean Smith was not entered.
Anyway, why have a bed check?
"Nobody can sleep. I lie there like this."
He bugged out his eyes.
"And I ask my wife, 'Is it time to get up yet?' "
At 36 and in full laugh, Jim Valvano, the son of Rocco Valvano, an erstwhile barnstorming pro basketball player (prelims at movie houses, the House of David, et al), has reached college basketball's grandest stage with a team that will steal your heart from 25 feet.
Once moribund with a 9-7 won-lost record and Dereck Whittenburg on crutches, N.C. State now is 24-10 with an eight-game winning streak that includes two victories over Virginia and one over North Carolina, last year's national champion.
"When we won the ACC tournament, all of us felt like it can't get much better than this," Valvano said. "Our first goal (in Valvano's third season at State) was to beat Carolina a second time and to beat Virginia for the first time. Then to beat Virginia a second time, when you figure it's Ralph's last shot, that's an awesome task."
State began the season as a transitional team. That means it wanted to run at every chance. With Whittenburg out 14 games, State became a half-court offensive team. Only a few teams under a few coaches could make such a transformation in mid-season. It is a tribute to Valvano's ability that he not only rescued a season but made it unforgettable.
Until it was proven by test after test, some observers passed N.C. State's success off to luck. They saw Cinderella in sneakers. Nobody (the experts said) could win consistently from 25 feet. But State's winning streak has been built on Whittenburg's artillery shots softening up the inside for his big guys.
"We don't deserve to be called Cinderellas anymore," Valvano said. "Georgia went through and won the SEC tournament and we won the ACC. At that point, yeah, you're Cinderella. But when Georgia beat St. John's and then Carolina, you're no longer Cinderella. We beat Virginia to get here. I don't see how we can be Cinderella anymore."
The Whittenburg injury was a blessing because it gave other players time to grow, Valvano said, although he didn't much like it at the time.
"The doctor put the X-rays up and showed the break to me. He said, 'He won't be back this year.' . . . That's when I decided to go into the hospital and have my operation."
The operation Valvano speaks of would repair a hernia. At 9-7 with Whittenburg in a cast, Valvano's hernia hurt a whole lot. "At 9-7, I was begging the doctors to tell me I had to have the operation. They said I'd be up right away. I said, 'Who wants to get up right away?'
"I've still got the hernia. No operation yet. Now, I think I'll keep it. I'm waiting for a truss manufacturer to sign me up for a commercial. An Izod truss, with a little alligator on the side, huh?"
There came a phone call late one night, Valvano said. "It was another coach in the ACC. He said, 'I want to come to your operation. I want to see how they remove that horseshoe from your rear end.' "
Whatever luck came with this N.C. State team is, as Branch Rickey might have said, the residue of design. Valvano creates happy teams. When freshman Ernie Myers played well as Whittenburg's replacement, Valvano might have been tempted to stay with Myers when the senior guard came back near season's end not yet in game condition.
"But I told Ernie, 'Dereck only has two more games to have STATE on his chest.' Ernie understood."
And Whittenburg responded with a streak of long-range shooting that moved N.C. State to heights imagined, perhaps, only by the dreamer who masquerades as State's coach.
"My idol," said the dreamer, talking about a day long ago when the dreams were taking shape, "is John Wooden. I was a freshman at Rutgers, working as a counselor at Bill Foster's summer camp. I was shooting my jumpers, doing all my spins, hoping Wooden would notice and say, 'Holy cow, we could use this kid.' I'd transfer right then.
"He took an hour at lunch and sat with me, by myself, and we talked basketball. It was incredible."