It is a turquoise blue day, one month to the day after his North Carolina State basketball team won the national championship, and Jim Valvano is easing his gray Mazda off campus and onto Western Boulevard. In the tape deck is something called "Wolfpack Tracks," a recapitulation of the ACC and NCAA tournaments set to the kind of music that could grow hair on an orange.
He shifts into second, slaps his thigh to the beat, and turns the dial to the right. " . . . Cardiac Kids . . . " Buh-buh-BOOM. Buh-buh-BOOM.
Shifts into third and a little more to the right. " . . . Whittenburg from 30..." Buh-buh-BOOM. Buh-buh-BOOM.
Shifts into fourth and turns the dial all the way right, until the inside of the car sounds like an explosion. BOOM-buh-buh-BOOM. " . . . Lorenzo for the jam . . . " Buh-buh-BOOM-buh-buh-BOOM. It feels like a rocket ship, and the window glass is shaking. Buh-buh-BOOM-buh-buh-BOOM. And Valvano's right fist is a baton, his smile a comet, his voice a calliope, rising and falling like the baying of a pack of wolves, and now he's howling at the top of his lungs: "We did it! We did it!" Buh-buh-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.
Slow. Full stop.
"Who thought we were gonna win it? Not us. All season long we only had one goal--get into the tournament and advance. Not win it, just advance. Win the game we were playing. We wanted to beat Pepperdine, because that was our first-round game. Last year we lost our first-round game; we were just happy to be there, and we played like it. Bup-bup, we're gone. Cup of coffee, good bye. So, we go double OT and we win. Then we play Vegas, and we say, 'Wouldn't it be great to beat Vegas? They'd been No. 1. Let's try and beat Vegas.' And we beat Vegas. We advance. We beat Utah. Virginia. Georgia. We're still advancing. All of a sudden we're in there against Houston, and it's like it snuck up on us. Now nobody gives us a chance, which is ridiculous, because we gotta have a chance; I mean, there's only two teams left and we're one of them. UCLA got a better chance than us? Kentucky got a better chance than us? We gotta have a better chance than them, cause they ain't there. We're there. We gotta have a chance, right? And then Whittenburg's shot is short, Lorenzo goes up and jams it in, bang-bang, game over. We all looked at each other. No more games. We won it all. That's why I was running around the court like a maniac. Because we won it all!
"Now, what was the question again? You asked me what I thought people might be thinking about me now?"
"I think what they think is--ain't he having a great time?"
"The week after we win we get invited to the White House, but because of an NCAA rule the team can't go. Great rule, huh? The school isn't allowed to fund the trip, so the kids are denied a chance to meet the president of the United States. And I'm sure that if they can't go, he'll be glad to come down to our gym and see us. Yeah, Ronald Reagan will drop everything to do that because he's always talking Wolfpack basketball, right? I mean, what was the NCAA afraid of? That the president was gonna slip my kids a G under the table? I guess it would have set a bad precedent. I mean, I'm sure the next thing you know, Mitterrand will want us to fly to Paris to meet him. Anyway, I go. Look, you think the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano is gonna miss a chance to meet the president of the United States? Are you kidding me? This is one of the biggest thrills of my life. I'm never gonna be one of those people who take something like this in stride. I'm so excited that on the plane up, when the stewardess asks me if I want some coffee, I say, 'Sure. By the way, I'm going to meet the president.' I tell the cabdriver, 'White House. I'm going to meet the president.' I'm in awe of it. Hey, I'm a kid from Corona, Queens, and I'm going to meet the president. I want to take my Uncle Bruno, my brother Nick, the guys from the neighborhood, Anthony Squasoni and Anthony Rizzo; I want to go to the White House and sit on the stoop if they'll let me. So I get there, and someone comes in and tells me, 'The president will be here in five minutes.' What the hell was I gonna say? 'He'd better be, because if he's not, I'm Gonesville--I'm bolting this joint.' They could have told me, 'The president will be here in October,' and I'd have said, 'Fine, can I maybe get some food and a cot while I wait.' So I meet him, and it's great. It's fabulous. I talk his ear off. He says to me, 'Do you pronounce your name Val-VAH-no, or Val-VAY-no?' I say, 'Val-VAH-no.' Then I say, 'Is it RAY-gan, or RE-gan?' He loves it. Then, two weeks later, I get invited back to meet him again. That's twice in two weeks. Now look, if I get back to Raleigh and he calls again, I'm gonna have to tell him, 'Ronnie, I don't know about you, but I've got things to do. I mean I can't keep popping up there. I'm booked.' "
Without question Valvano was the star of this year's final four. He was not just a breath of fresh air, he was an oxygen mask. Much was made of his staying out until 2 a.m. the night before the Georgia game, winning a dance contest at an Albuquerque disco. (Historians will note there was precedent for this. Five years ago, when he was coaching at Iona and he beat St. John's to advance to the NCAAs, Valvano was found at 4 a.m. at a Chinese restaurant in lower Manhattan sitting at a table, reliving the victory with four men he'd never even met before. C'est la V.) He had always vowed that if he ever got to the final four he and his players would have as much fun there as they could. You dance with who brung you.
"We stayed in the same hotel with our fans. I let my kids talk to the press every day. I brought my kids to them; they didn't have to find us three states away. I went out every night. I'll tell you, if any other coach ever had more fun than me, it had to be sinful. And to top it off, we won. It was a triumph of sanity.
"The biggest thrill for me was practice. I mean, I knew we're in the final four, but it hadn't sunk in yet. And then I walk down the tunnel to practice, and I look up and there's 11,000 people in the gym. Eleven thousand. For practice! I look at the front row and some of the greatest coaches in the country are sitting there--Dean Smith, Joe B. Hall, Ray Meyer--and all of a sudden for the first time I realize, my God, this is the final four, I'm coaching in the final four. I try to act blase about it, but, hey, we're gonna practice in front of 11,000 people, so I at least ought to have something tricky to run. I mean, they're taking notes. I can't just throw out the balls and yell, 'Two lines for layups.' I walk down the front row and shake hands with the coaches--the giants of the game--and I spot Rich Petriccione, who was my manager at Iona and is now a grad assistant there, and I go straight for him. I put my arm around him and say, 'Rich, do you realize that right now 11,000 people are saying--Who's that guy with Valvano? He must be somebody really important. And that's why I'm here. Because right now we're blowing 11,000 minds.' Then I called my assistants to the middle of the floor and told them: 'Look around. Take a good look at all this. Holy cow, isn't this wonderful?' "
"A lot of people ask me--where were you running to after the game? Hey, you saw me. I was like a maniac out there. Well, all season long, after we won a game we would hug each other. We were the huggingest team in NCAA history. And down the stretch after each win I would run to Dereck Whittenburg, and he would run to me, and we'd hug. He was my designated hugger. So the game's over, and I look for Dereck. I know it's on national TV, and I have this thought that CBS will run this in slo-mo over and over for 100 years, me running over to Dereck and us hugging. So I run to Dereck--and he's hugging somebody else. Unbelievable. The cameras are running. And I've got nobody to hug. Live TV, and I've got nobody to hug. I grabbed a Houston fan and tried to hug him. Somebody. Anybody. I'm running around looking for somebody to hug."
From the time he was in third grade, Jim Valvano wanted to follow in his father Rocco's footsteps and be a basketball coach. And V's dream was to win the national championship.
"This happened just like it was supposed to happen, the way I thought it was supposed to happen. I can show you the card I wrote down in college. I wrote out my plan: second assistant for two years; first assistant for four years; head coach at a real small college for three years; head coach at an Ivy-type school, no scholarships, for five years; head coach at a lower major, with scholarships. Then I'd get The Big Job. And then, bang, I'd win the national championship. You know what happened? It happened. Isn't that amazing? Ha, ha, ha, ha. That's amazing. And it happened faster than I'd written down that it would. This was supposed to happen eight, nine years from now."
And now comes the frightening part, the wondering that is the monkey's paw of all achieved goals.
What happens next? Does it get better? Does it get worse?
Is this all there is?
"I wonder about it. Of course I do. I'm 37 years old, and I've got so many years ahead of me. I'd like to talk to somebody about it. I'd like to talk to Denny Crum. 'Denny, what happens? You've won a championship. You've won 20 for 11 years in a row. What do you want to do? Is it winning it again? Or, is it just getting through each season?' I'd like to sit with Dean. He's the best. He's in the Hall of Fame. What else can they do for him? Name the game after him? 'Dean, you've been doing this for 21 years at the highest level. What do you want now?' I'd like to ask him these questions. 'Tell me. I'm 37, you've got me by 14, 15 years. How are the next 10 years? Give me a hint.'
"One of the writers down here called it 'a premature championship.' Why? Because I'd only been here three years? Because I'm 37? What am I supposed to do--feel bad because I won it so quickly? Give it back? Some people suggested that maybe I'd be better off leaving here and going somewhere else, maybe to the pros. Okay, this is what I've always wanted to do, and I did it. But I'm not prepared to say that because I've done it I no longer want to coach college basketball and I want to get out. No, I'm saying I'm not done yet; I still enjoy coaching. Maybe if I was older I might have said, 'That's it. I've done it. I'm gone.' But I'm 37. And if you're asking me what I do for an encore, I'm asking you--whose encore is it? If it's mine, then I say, 'I'm gonna try and win another one.' I may never, sure. But I'm gonna try. The pros? I never say never, and if there was any job that I might ever in the future want--and this hasn't changed--it's the Knicks. But I'm not going anywhere. I don't have any urge to go. This is my home. My family's very happy here. I'm very happy here. We have a rule in our house--Don't Mess With Happy. Or, as they say in the South, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
"I'll tell you, basketball is really intense down here. The first time I coach against Carolina, we lose by one; Al Wood hits a jumper to beat us. The second time we're down one, we take a shot to win at the buzzer, but we miss; Wood grabs the rebound, gets fouled, sinks two to beat us by three. A few days later I get a letter from a State alum that says, 'Coach, I know you're new here, and I know you're trying. But I'm not sure you understand how we feel about losing to Carolina. I know where you live, and if you lose to them one more time, I'm going to come to your house in Raleigh and shoot your dog.' You get a letter like that and most times the writer doesn't sign his name. But I mean it's intense down here. This guy not only signs his name, he gives his social security number and references. So I write him back and say, 'Look, I'm sorry you feel that way, and believe me I don't want to lose to Carolina any more than you do. But I gotta tell you, I don't have a dog.' A few days later UPS rings my doorbell and hands me a package. I open it up. There's a dog inside, with a note around its neck that says--'Don't get too attached.' "
It's safe to say that Valvano makes more money than the president of the United States, but less than the second-string center for the New York Knicks.
It's also safe to say that in many ways the money embarrasses him. It has been reported that even before the championship he earned $300,000 a year from coaching, endorsements, speaking engagements, radio, TV and his basketball school. Now, in the flush of victory, there will undoubtedly be more. For example, a North Carolina department store chain plans to market a line of "Coach V" clothing including shirts, shorts and caps.
He is a rich man, richer than he ever dreamed.
Richer, perhaps, than he ever wanted.
"I never thought about being rich. Pam and I were childhood sweethearts. We used to go to the movies when we were in high school, then get a burger and talk about our future. We'd say if we could just make $10,000 together--just double figures--we'd be so happy. I was going to be a coach; I'd make $6,500. She'd get a job, make about $3,500. Then in a couple of years, hopefully, I'd be making 12 or 13 and we'd be able to start a family. The truth of the matter is, that's exactly what happened. I started as an assistant for $5,800 at Rutgers, and Pam worked at Look magazine in the city. And we were happy. I would have made $7,200 in my third year at Rutgers, but I got the head coaching job at Johns Hopkins for 10. I went from there to Connecticut as an assistant, then to Bucknell as head coach, and then to Iona. Iona was my first $20,000 salary, and it took me 12 years to get it. And we were never, ever unhappy. Because money was never the goal. Now I read that I'm making 300 Grand, and I go, 'Ooohhh, please don't write that.' I don't know why. Maybe it's because I didn't set out for it. Basketball was the goal. Maybe I'm afraid they're gonna find out I'd do it for free.
"I don't think about the money often, but once in a while something like this happens and I do: We were sitting at the pool the other day, and my daughter was paged. 'Phone call for Nicole Valvano.' I looked at Pam and said, 'Pammy, did you hear that? Our daughter was just paged at the country club pool.' I want to grab her and take her back to Queens with me and go to the Aquacade where I used to stand in line to be able to jump into the water; sometimes I'd have to stand in line for half a day just waiting my turn. Now my kids are paged at the country club pool. But what do I do? Do I make them have hardships because I did? We've got a condominium on the shore. My mother comes down, sees it and cries. We've gone for the weekend to Bermuda. I used to go to Rockaway Playland. That was the bigs. Now my kids want to know when we're going back to Epcot Center.
"I don't know what to tell you. But I know this. The other day I flew cross country, first cabin, and I was sitting next to a guy who was obviously used to flying first cabin, and the stewardess asks me if I wanted some caviar. I mean, caviar! The guy next to me has been on this flight before, and he says, 'Don't have it. It's not good caviar.' Hey, I don't want to want good caviar. It would bother me if I ever got that way. I don't ever want to say, 'The caviar isn't good.' "
"When I first got down here people told me that Dean Smith was lucky. I said, no, Dean's good, Dean's the best. But maybe's he's lucky, too. I mean I'm here a couple of weeks--I don't even have a staff yet--and I get a call from John Brownlee, a 6-10 Parade all-America from Texas, and he tells me, 'Coach, I'm going to be in North Carolina next week and I'd like to visit State. I plan to see State, Wake and Duke in the same day, then spend a weekend at Chapel Hill.' Now right away I get the feeling that I'm coming from behind on this kid, so I ask him, 'What's the attraction of Chapel Hill?' And he says, 'My father was Dean Smith's roommate at Kansas.' That's not lucky? To room with the father of a 6-10 all-America? Now I'm no dummy. Two can play this game. I call up my old roommate. 'Bob? It's Jim. Say, how's your son doing?' He tells me that Lance is enrolling in hairdresser school."
Most people hold the following truths about winning a national championship to be self-evident: that the victory is the greatest thrill of a coach's life. And that the victory will irrevocably change his life. It is, and it isn't. It will, and it won't.
"From the time we beat Virginia to win the ACC championship, through the Houston game, after each successive victory the reporters would want me to say that this win was the greatest thrill of my life. I couldn't say that. It's a matter of levels. I would tell them that the biggest win of my life was 'Johns Hopkins 72, Haverford 49.' That was my first game as a head coach. They'd look at me like I was nuts. Well, the truth is that although the impact of this game was greater, and it was a much larger win in the world of basketball, in my world the biggest was my first.
"So, you're asking me if this is the most hectic period of my life because I'm flying all over the country for speaking engagements and awards, and once again, it's a matter of levels. I did a summer, when I wasn't making a lot of money, where speaking at camps was the only way I could provide for my family. I did 90 camps in 35 days, three a day. Is this more hectic? No. I'd get up, drive to the Poconos, do a girls camp in the morning, a boys camp in the afternoon, and a coed camp at night. All I ate was beans and franks; I always caught the camp on beans and franks day. Okay, I'm doing different things now. The travel involves more miles. But it took me longer to drive to camp than to fly across the country. The difference is, nobody asked me about it then because I was nobody, and now you're talking to me. For 16 years as a coach I've been keeping these hours; I'm just reaching a different audience now.
"You want to know what's happened to me by winning a national championship? My fee has gone up. At Iona I was getting $100 to speak. When I started at N.C. State it was $250-$500. Six months ago it was up to $1,500. Now it's a minimum of $3,500. And I don't ask for it, they offer it. They don't want to insult me with anything less. After 16 years I'm an overnight sensation. And you want to know what else? In the eyes of the world, winning a championship has made me a better coach. Now people say, 'Hey, the Italian kid's a pretty good coach.' So now that monkey's off my back forever. Before, I was an after-dinner speaker. 'You need a speaker--Get Valvano.' I was funny. Now I'm witty. Witty's different than funny. It's perception. It's like the line I had when people said I looked like Joe Namath: 'You look at Namath and say he's ruggedly handsome; you look at me and say he's got a big nose.'
"But I admit some things about my personal life have changed. Before, when we went out--me and Pam and the kids--nobody made a big fuss. Even when we were out we could be by ourselves. Now there's no place to go; we have to stay home to be together. The recognition factor is so sky high that it's impossible to go out to Hardee's for a burger. You wind up signing autographs. Don't get me wrong, I love it. But it's hard on the family. Pam changed the phone number, and she put in a new rule: No writers at the house; the house is off-limits, it's just for the family now. I understand completely how she feels. She's very much worried about our personal and private time--that we don't have any, and there's none scheduled. I think she's wondering--am I gonna change? Is our relationship gonna change? Do I think I'm somebody special now? Well, I don't. I know I'm the same person. I still love people. I still love hanging around, having a couple of pops. You know what I worry about most? That because I can't go seven days a week, because there are things I have to turn down because I want to make time for my family, that people will think I've gone big time."
"The NCAA put in this great rule to cut down on recruiting. For 30 straight days a coach cannot leave campus. I tell my wife about it. I say, 'Pam, I'm going to be home with you and the kids for 30 straight days and nights.' She can't believe it. For 16 straight years I've been out recruiting. So Pam listens to the new rule and says, '30 days and nights in a row? Are you sure?' I said, 'I'm sure.' She says, "Okay, I want to make love 28 times.' I say, 'Fine, put me down for two.' "
This second championship Valvano wants to win, it won't be next year. He knows that, and so should everyone else. He loses his three best players--Thurl Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe--so while it sounds like a setup, it is not without reason that he says, "We're gonna lose. We're gonna be bad. We're the defending national champions so everyone will want to beat us--and they probably will." He looks at next year as a free season. You can do that when you have a 10-year contract. It's the one-year deals that kill you. They remind V of the football coach who goes 11-0 and gets a testimonial dinner. The football coach says, "You love me now, but will you still love me next year if I go 0-11?" And someone yells out, "We'll still love you, coach; we'll miss you, too."
"I get down to North Carolina and the people want to make me feel at home. You hear a lot about southern hospitality. Well, I'm here a few days and they take me to a barbecue. Now, seriously, not often did Rocco and Angelina Valvano serve barbecue. But the people down here want me to try it, so I fill up my plate. And everybody's watching me, wanting to see if I like it, so I eat it real fast. I'll tell you the truth--it's not ravioli. But they see me eat it so fast that they all breathe a sigh of relief. They figure I love it. They refill my plate. I had barbecue 42 times in 30 days. I had the runs for a solid month. I see a pig now, and I run to the bathroom. Southern hospitality, I love it. People want to take me fishing and bird hunting. Fishing? I didn't get much practice fishing in Queens. I mean you can't exactly flycast into a fire hydrant. And hunting? Me fire a gun? I tell them that in New York City there are birds flying around. The difference is that anything that breathes enough New York air eventually falls down and dies. You just wait for that to happen, then you go and pick it up. You don't have to be a hunter in New York--just a good follower."
The letters have been coming in as many as 500 a day. Letters from friends, from fans, from people who see in N.C. State's magnificent drive a metaphor for keeping faith with the human spirit. If underdogs like you can win, the letters say, then those of us who seem down and out, who despair our plight, can renew our hopes and become winners, too. "Don't underestimate the national impact of your victory," Sen. Howard Baker told Valvano. And the letters have driven the point home.
But there are two letters that V puts above the others. One was from an old friend and colleague, Alex Sotir, the former football coach at Johns Hopkins. Valvano was 23 when he became basketball coach at Hopkins; he thought he had it made. Then they told him the rest of his duties--head baseball coach, ticket manager for lacrosse and assistant football coach, which is how he wound up coaching wide receivers under Sotir. Anyway, the letter says, in part: "All of us, regardless of where we're coaching, dream that someday we might win a national championship. You got to live all our dreams, and I'm thankful that you're taking care of my little piece of that dream."
The other letter is from Westwood. From V's idol, The Wizard himself, John Wooden. And when V got it he read it once, twice, 50 times, memorizing every word, pressing the paper to his chest in the hopes that the ink would become tatooed to his skin. It reads, in part, "Your effort in the tournament this year and that of Don Has-kins in 1966 are the two finest NCAA tournament coaching jobs I have ever seen. You are great for the profession, Jimmy. Please do not change."
V holds the letter aloft and his face is a rainbow.
"That's it. Stick a fork in me. I'm done."
It is almost 1 a.m. in Raleigh. In the last two days Valvano has spoken to Wolfpack booster clubs, in Durham, Henderson and on the N.C. State campus, and run a basketball clinic for 500 kids at a Hardee's in Fayetteville. He has spoken to the Touchdown Club in Washington and met the president of the United States. There have been police escorts, private planes, standing ovations, and so many hundreds of autographs that his writing hand is as tender as a rose petal.
He is in the dimly lit lounge of the Mission Valley Inn, across Western Boulevard from campus. A rock band is playing, and those who aren't dancing are coming over, one by one and two by two, to applaud V for his coaching, thank him for his personality and accessibility and politely ask for his autograph. There is an amaretto in front of him for which the bartender will not accept payment. If this ain't heaven, what is?
"You know, those things we've been talking about, about what you do after you've won it, about realizing your dream, about whether it changes you or not? Those are tough questions. I don't have all the answers yet, but I really can't see myself changing. I know who I am. I know where I came from. I was a walk-on in college. I didn't have a scholarship. I never got one, even when I started. I was always coming from behind. I guess that's why I loved this team so much. We were all underdogs, always coming from behind. Even now, with the net in my office and the ring on the way, in my dreams I'm always coming from behind. I wake up and it seems I'm always six points down."
He toasts the bartender and leaves. It is a cool, clear night and the stars are like footlights. He walks to his car humming a song that came from far away and long ago, under the El in Corona. He gets in, starts the engine, smiles and waves good bye. As the car pulls onto the highway it goes from zero to 40 in no time at all, and what you hear bouncing off the asphalt is the deafening blast of BOOM-buh-buh-BOOM-buh-buh-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.