Basketball Short Story
Survive and Advance - 7
Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead,
Jim Valvano and Curry Kirkpatrick (1991)
I gave one of my best pregame talks of my life. It wasn't one of those out of Drawer 26, Speech #23. It was very sincere, and it took a lot longer than our normal meeting. We went over everything about the game, from halfcourt to full-court sets, rebounding positioning, out-of-bounds plays, last-second deals. I bet we stayed in there a full hour.
Sure, I'm a seat-of-the-pants coach. We've never been a system team. Against Georgia we played a certain way, and against Houston we were going to play a different way. I think what I do and what we've always done is change things during a game, adapt, adjust. I think I'm good at that. We had tremendous confidence for this championship game. Can you ima­gine what it was like to get the ultimate challenge against the number one team in America - with the entire basketball world thinking you had no chance? With a club that has just won nine straight games, beaten numbers four, three and two ... without a clock ... without a three-pointer? And we're going against a team that only plays zone? Some teams have a smalelr margin of error than others; Houston's was very small. Force them out of their transition game, and they could get very frustrated.
"Now I want to tell you guys something," I began in the locker room before the game of our lives. "I've waited all my career to be in this position, to be playing on the last day, to be playing for the national championship. And I'm telling you this. Everybody in America thinks we're holding the ball. Houston thinks we're holding. But we're not. They're all wrong. We're going to go out there and shove it right down their throats."
I was a Rat again, and every last one of these guys, my guys at N. C. State, was a Rat. I got right up in the faces of the whole starting team.
"You, Sidney Lowe! This is your last game ever. You're the finest point guard I've ever coached and tonight you are going to play flawlessly. You are going to go out and handle and dish and play the game of your life and lead us to the national championship.
"And you, Dereck Whittenburg! You've come back from the dead. They said you'd never play again. You're going to get those passes from Sid and hit those downtown J's from all over the gym and lead us to the national championship.
"And you, Cozell McQueen! You're getting every rebound there is tonight. You're going against Akeem the Dream and you're going to do a job on him and lead us to the national championship.
"And Lorenzo Charles! You're going to get inside position and power for points and re­bounds and lead us to the national championship.
"And Thurl Bailey! You're going to hit jumpers. And grab rebounds. And block shots. And dunk the dunkers. You're going to jump and bang and control the glass and lead us to the national championship!"
I told them we were going to go when we wanted to and stop when we wanted to, and that not only were they going to play the game of their lives, but I was going to coach the game of my life, too.
"We're going to leave this locker room and we're going to knock Houston right on their asses," I shouted.

L-R: Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg, Cozell McQueen, Lorenzo Charles, Thurl Bailey
The place erupted. The team ran out of that locker room sky-high. I think we could have de­stroyed some small nations, we were so hyper. We started out with a dunk (by Bailey) and took 18 shots in the first five minutes of the game. Houston took six. The only problem was, we didn't make many of those 18. I was a maniac, of course, but that didn't seem to matter. N.C. State played just about as perfect a half as we could. We got four fouls on Clyde Drex­ler. We held Houston to 25 points. We led 33-25, showing everybody that we could play with the vaunted favorites. Our defense was solid, and Houston wasn't doing things at will on the offensive boards either.
At halftime I became very selfish because I wanted to win so badly. To have come that far with an eight-point lead and then lose the national championship would have broken my heart. I told the kids they had 20 minutes to make their mark on history. I said: "Please be­lieve this. Never, ever, for the rest of your life in whatever you do - insurance, selling cars, teaching, television, banking, anything - never will you have the feeling that will come when that final horn blows and you have won this game. Should we lose, it will haunt you the rest of your days. You will ask yourself why, what could you have done? I'm not telling you now to remember what a wonderful journey it's been and just go out there and have fun and do the best you can. No. It's too close. I'm saying, let's go and out and win the national champion­ship. There's no reason not to now."
All my fears came to fruition at the beginning of the second half. We were drained emotion­ally, flat. And Houston was too great a team not to make a run at us. We scored only two points in the first ten minutes, Houston scored 17, and suddenly it was 42-35 for the Black Hats. Still, we weren't getting beat by dunks or rebounds or because we were getting run out of the gym. Houston was romping because we couldn't score.
With just under ten minutes to play, Cougar Coach Guy V. Lewis gave us the break we needed. Houston slowed the tempo and went into its infamous delay game, the Locomotion. I know why Lewis did it. Let's face it, we all do it. I'd done it against Georgia two days earlier and it almost cost us the game. It's just general game maintenance. Where it failed Houston, though, was that they were such a poor free-throw shooting team, 60.9% on the season, 57.3% during the tournament, and (as it turned out) only 10 of 19 in this champion­ship game. Lewis tried to eat a little clock, and the only reason that was wrong is because it didn't work.
Also, it was wrong because fouling is what we did. We fouled as a strategy. I wasn't going to get to the final game and let the clock go when I was losing. If we were going to lose, I didn't care if the margin was by 20 or by one. We were going to determine the outcome of the game. They would have to hit their free throws to beat us.
We tried fouling Drexler first. He knocked in two, so we didn't touch him again. We fouled other people. We had clawed back to within 52-48 when Whittenburg hit two baskets to tie the score at 52. (The N.C. State team hit six of our last seven outside shots in the game.) When the clock got down close to a minute, we wanted to foul their freshman point guard, Alvin Franklin. We did this with 1:05 remaining, Whitt doing the hacking honors.
I don't necessarily think players choke, not players who help teams win 26 straight. What they do is miss. Just as when a batter strikes out or a running back fumbles or a golfer misses a five-foot putt. The pressure of making free throws late in the championship game is immense. Franklin just missed.
When we got the rebound, I knew we would win the game. It's that simple. It had happened so many times before. We called a time-out with 44 seconds left to set up exactly what we wanted to do, a play we had used all year: Lowe in the middle with the ball, making some­thing happen. As soon as the clock got under 10 seconds, Sidney was supposed to go for the basket. If they came at him from Gannon's side, the dish would be to Terry for the shot. If they sent help from Whittenburg's side, Dereck would get the ball. If they stayed tight, Lowe was to continue penetrating to see what happened underneath.
Give credit to Houston: They knew we wanted the last shot. They knew we weren't going to take just anything quick; we wanted to win the game or go into overtime. The Cougars played a good halfcourt trap stopping all penetration. A couple of times we got bent out of shape, and Houston almost stole the ball. Exerting tremendous pressure, the Cougars forced Bailey in the corner to throw a sloppy pass out to Whitt. Anders came this close to intercepting, which would have been good-night because he had clear sailing for a breakaway dunk that would have won the game.
My heart went into my throat as Whittenburg barely controlled, searched for the basket and the clock at the same time and hurled up his final 30-footer. The amazing irony was that Charles, on the opposite side of the basket, saw the ball falling short, and Olajuwon, in textbook rebounding position facing the basket, did not. Akeem never even jumped. Loren­zo did, grabbed the ball with both hands and smashed it home. North Carolina State had won the national championship!

L-R: Charles stuffs the winner;
And there I was searching for someone to hug. I had told Lo in the huddle to make believe anything near the rim was a hubcap, but this was ridiculous. People were running every which way, everybody was hugging everybody. I knew the TV cameras were on me, and yet I couldn't find one person to hug! Where was I running? I was running around looking for Dereck because I had dreamed of this moment all my life and I knew I was only the 28th coach in history to win the NCAA title and that sixty million people were watching and I had been hugging Whitt after all our games because he was my designated huggeer and I thought I'd be making history myself here. ...
Then I got out in the middle of nowhere, and there's Whitt ... hugging somebody else!
So I ran left, looking for somebody else to hug. Everybody was hugging somebody else. I ran right, looking. Every was hugging. There was nobody left to hug! I had just won it all and I had nobody to hug! I finally found my athletic director, Willis Casey, my boss, a bit old and out of shape but a very nice man. He gave me my break. He grabbed me. He hugged me. Wonderful! Great! Finally a hug! He wasn't Whitt, but a hug's a hug. And then Willis Casey kissed me square on the mouth!
I had just won the national championship, ... sixty million have watched me running around like a maniac ... and then I fell into the arms of a 65-year-old, out-of-shape old man who kissed me square on the mouth! The guy watching in Dubuque must have thrown down his beer and said: "Mabel, come look at this." I felt the Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat all at the same time.
But I did recover long enough to tell everybody how much I loved Albuquerque, "the greatest city the Lord ever made," I said. "My wife is going to be pregnant - she doesn't know this yet - and I'm going to name the kid Al B. Querque."