“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 ESPY Awards on March 4, 1993. Gravely ill at the time, Jim was covered in tumors and experiencing almost unbearable pain. His close friend Dick Vitale (see his WINNER’s profile) would tell me many years later that Jim could barely muster the strength to make it to the stage to accept the Ashe 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 he, with the full support and backing of ESPN, announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research. Jim Valvano 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 be the keynote speaker at the Sertoma (“SERvice TO MAnkind”) sports banquet in Sioux City, Iowa. Our mutual friend, Dick Vitale, had delivered the keynote at the same event in 1989, and it was Dick who helped me convince Jimmy to make a similar trip to Iowa. Jimmy was the first keynote speaker in this event’s history who agreed to give his speech “in the round” and it resulted in an incredible evening. His appearance came just one day after the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis, and Jimmy was working on very little sleep. But I doubt anyone in the crowd even noticed, as the staging allowed him to connect in a unique way with everyone in the audience. 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 connect in the years to follow at various meetings or on the phone. The last time we talked was a couple days prior to an early season, non-conference basketball game between Iowa State and Florida State that was played on November 19, 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.” My last conversation with Jimmy was heavy on jokes about Thigpen’s name and decidedly lighter than Gary Smith’s moving account, but it was nonetheless clear just how sick he was. Sadly, Jimmy passed away on April 28, 1993.
The V Foundation’s board includes many friends and business associates: George Bodenheimer (see his WINNER’s profile), Rosa Gatti (ESPN, retired), Kevin Plank (Under Armour), Harry Rhoads (Washington Speakers Bureau), Robin Roberts (see her WINNER’s profile), Mark King (Adidas), Dick Vitale (see his WINNER’s profile), and Norby Williamson (ESPN). Since awarding their first grant in 1994, The V Foundation has funded more than $200 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 has frequently held a golf event in Iowa, and it’s been a pleasure to lend Dick and The 380 Foundation a hand with it. Honorees have included Fran McCaffery (Iowa) and Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State) in 2014; Ben Jacobson (Northern Iowa) and Mike Brey (Notre Dame) in 2015; Steve Prohm (Iowa State) and Dan Gable (Wrestling Legend) in 2016; and Fran McCaffery (Iowa) and Tom Izzo (Michigan State) in 2017. Dick also hosts the annual Dick Vitale Gala near his home in Sarasota, FL where he now raises more than $3 Million annually for The V Foundation, 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 2017 and 2018, WSNN-TV produced a series of special reports that aired in the week leading up to the Gala. The purpose of all such efforts is to raise awareness of, and funds for, the fight against pediatric cancer.
As noted earlier, 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 on March 4, 1993. In doing so, he captured hearts and minds everywhere. The enduring messages 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 lives on.
For more on Jim Valvano and his famous ESPYs speech, read Don’t Give Up…Don’t Ever Give Up: The Inspiration of Jimmy V by Justin Spizman and Robyn F. Spizman (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010).
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)