“I was in the third row for Jimmy V’s famous ESPYS speech on March 4, 1993. Everyone there that night saw his bravery and his courage. It was massive as Dick Vitale and Coach K had to help him to just get up out of his seat and on to that stage. Everybody, from the second he started walking up there, was sobbing knowing what he was giving to us in that moment.”
~Lesley Visser, 2020 Sports Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and board member for The V Foundation, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
“Don’t Give Up … Don’t Ever Give Up.” Those inspiring words were spoken by Jim Valvano immediately following his acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the inaugural ESPYS (see their WINNER profile) on March 4, 1993. Gravely ill at the time, Jim was covered in tumors and experiencing almost unbearable pain. His close friend Dick Vitale would tell me many years later that Jim could barely muster the strength to make it to the stage to accept the award. But make it he did, and the words he spoke in the 11 minutes that followed contained powerful lessons on how to live a full life: “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
It was during that same speech that Jim, with the full support and backing of ESPN, announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research. He dreamed of finding a cure for cancer and he wanted to ensure that his fight, and the fight of so many others, would lead to victory. Although Jim lost his battle with metastatic adenocarcinoma less than two months after delivering his now-famous ESPYS speech, his dream to find a cure for an “incurable” disease lives on through research grants made possible by The V Foundation.
Jim Valvano and I first met in April 1991 after he agreed to deliver the keynote speech at the Sertoma (“SERvice TO MAnkind”) sports banquet in Sioux City, Iowa. Our mutual friend, Dick Vitale, had been the featured speaker at the same event in 1989, and it was Dick who helped me convince Jimmy to do likewise. Jimmy was the first speaker in the event’s history who agreed to give his speech “in the round” and it resulted in an incredible evening.
Jimmy V’s appearance in Iowa came just one day after the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis, and he was working on very little sleep. But I doubt anyone in the audience noticed, as the staging allowed him to connect with nearly everyone in a personal way. Jimmy had them laughing one moment, and moved to tears the next. One part of his speech focused on what he called the 4 E’s: Exuberance. Excitement. Energy. Enthusiasm. Jimmy challenged the audience that night: “Practice the 4 E’s. They are like magnets and people will be drawn to you and your passion. You will be a gift to those around you while infusing your own life with happiness. If you focus on injecting every moment of your life with unbridled enthusiasm, you will see monumental changes.” He punctuated his message with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing great can be accomplished without enthusiasm.” To this day, I’ve never met a more enthusiastic person than Jim Valvano.
Jimmy and I would occasionally stay in touch in the years to follow. The last time we talked was a couple days prior to an early season, non-conference basketball game between Iowa State and Florida State in November 1992. Jimmy had been told the previous spring that he had bone cancer, and yet he was prepping to work the game in his role as an analyst for ESPN/ABC. I asked him how he was doing. His reply was eerily similar to one recounted in a story written by Gary Smith and published in the January 11, 1993 edition of Sports Illustrated: “Justus Thigpen. Can you believe it? Who knows how much time I have left, and I’ve been sitting here poring over Justus Thigpen’s stats in the Iowa State basketball brochure. I’m sitting here reading, and I quote, that ‘Justus Thigpen was twice selected Big Eight Player of the Week’ and that ‘he scored 11 points at Kansas and 17 points in ISU’s overtime win on ESPN versus Colorado.’ What the hell am I doing? The triviality of it just clobbers me. You get this sick and you just say to yourself, ‘Sports means nothing,’ and that feels terrible. God, I devoted my whole life to it.” It was obvious just how sick he was. Sadly, Jimmy passed away on April 28, 1993.
The V Foundation’s board includes many friends and business associates, and it was an honor for me to join their marketing advisory board in 2021. Since awarding their first grant in 1994, The V Foundation has funded nearly $300 million in research grants, supporting research on 12 types of cancer: brain, breast, cervical/ovarian, general cancer/other, GI, head and neck, leukemia/lymphoma, lung, melanoma, pancreatic, pediatric, and prostrate. Importantly, as a result of both the board’s leadership and generous donors, an endowment covers all administrative expenses in order that 100% of direct cash donations goes to cancer research and related programs. The V Foundation’s mission continues to embody Jimmy V’s spirit and commitment to finding a cure for cancer.
It has been gratifying to be involved over the years with various events in support of The V Foundation. Attending the ESPYS and participating in the ESPY Celebrity Golf Classic is always gratifying. Dick Vitale hosts the annual Dick Vitale Gala near his home in Sarasota, FL with the proceeds specifically earmarked for pediatric cancer research. Our station in Sarasota, WSNN-TV, produced and broadcast a Dick Vitale Telethon in 2015 and 2016 in support of this annual Gala. In more recent years, WSNN-TV has produced a series of special reports that are presented in the week leading up to the Gala. The purpose of these efforts is to raise awareness of, and funds for, the fight against pediatric cancer.
It’s easy to wonder what Jimmy would think about the spark that continues to glow in his name. “He would be overwhelmed with joy,” Chris Berman, the iconic ESPN sportscaster, once told me with an air of confidence. “He would be overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment at the work that everyone’s doing, whether they be the doctors, the scientists doing experimental research or those helping families who have someone going through a fight and in need of caregiving. Jimmy would be so overwhelmed by the success of The V Foundation from what it set out to be. He’d say, ‘This is in my name? We did this?’ That would be Jimmy V.”
Susan Braun, who served as The V Foundation’s chief executive officer from 2012 to 2021, pointed to a key word: hope. “The thread that pulls it all together is hope,” Susan told me. “We see hope express itself in different ways in the work we do. Sometimes the hope is for a cure. Sometimes the hope is in the form of a new research finding that is stunning and we’re seeing more and more of those. So hope can mean different things to different people, but what ties together the most beautiful and triumphant with the darkest and most tragic is hope. We strive to grow hope as much as we possibly can.”
As noted above, Jimmy V loved to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson who also once said, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” Facing his own mortality, Jimmy V somehow found the bravery that was needed to take the stage for that one last and most memorable speech. In doing so, he captured hearts and minds everywhere. The enduring themes from that night continue to inspire, and they have changed the lives of thousands. It concluded with Jimmy telling the audience, “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And these three things are going to carry on forever.”
The V Foundation is a WINNER for ensuring that Jimmy V’s legacy truly carries on forever.
ABC “Good Morning America” Anchor Robin Roberts talks about never giving up
ESPN’s iconic Sports Anchor Chris Berman talks about Jimmy V
Kevin Martinez ESPN’s VP of Corporate Outreach, talks about the annual “V Week” in support of The V Foundation
Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead by Jim Valvano and Curry Kirkpatrick (Pocket Books, A Division of Simon & Schuster, 1991)
Don’t Give Up…Don’t Ever Give Up: The Inspiration of Jimmy V by Justin Spizman and Robyn F. Spizman (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010)
“V Foundation for Cancer Research” Retrieved from www.jimmyv.org
Smith, Gary (January 11, 1993). “As Time Runs Out” Retrieved from www.cnnsi.com
Vitale, Dick (March 4, 2013). “Jimmy V’s legacy lives on” Retrieved from www.espn.com
Kohn, Ryan (May, 16, 2018). “Dick Vitale fights cancer with ‘an enthusiasm unknown to mankind’“ Retrieved from www.yourobserver.com
Last Updated: October 30, 2022