Jimmy V’s Legacy Still Alive During NCAA Tourney Time

North Carolina State Wolfpack head coach Jim Valvano celebrates with his team after defeating the Houston Cougars to become the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball champions. (Photo: Getty Images)

Longtime college basketball fans will never forget the scene.

Forty years ago in the NCAA men’s national championship game, N.C. State University upset the heavily favored University of Houston – a team featuring future Naismith Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

To call this win improbable would be an understatement, since the victory involved a last-second heave near half court by Dereck Whittenburg in the final seconds. The shot fell short but right into the hands of teammate and Brooklyn Technical H.S. graduate Lorenzo Charles, who dunked the ball to cap off the 54-52 win.

Pure bedlam ensued, with the lasting image being N.C. State’s head coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug. As told by Valvano’s assistant coach Ray Martin, the reason why Jimmy V had no one to hug was simple: Everyone was already hugging someone else!

Just like Valvano, Martin hails from Queens. Valvano attended St. Leo’s Elementary School in Corona, while Martin started his hoops career in the Catholic Youth Organization for St. Rita, Long Island City.

Martin went on to play for coach Jim Gatto at Mater Christi H.S., Astoria, where his teams won three city championships in four years. The high school All-American said remembers exactly how the iconic NCAA championship moment unfolded, as well as Valvano’s “don’t give up” attitude – even 10 years before his famous ESPYs speech.

“Coach Valvano was ahead of his time,” Martin said. “Coach had the uncanny ability to make sure that if we were going to lose, we would not let their best player beat us. We’re going to make somebody else beat us, somebody that’s not used to having the ball in their hands at crunch time.”

In the Final Four matchup, the Wolfpack faced the University of Georgia and their standout player Vern Fleming, another Mater Christi graduate who played for Gatto. N.C. State was able to contain the future Olympian to earn a berth to the national championship game to face the winner of the University of Louisville and Houston, dubbed “Phi Slama Jama” due to the team’s high-flying dunking ability.

“People were telling us we had no shot against either Louisville or Houston,” Martin said. “When Houston beat Louisville, everyone took it for granted that Houston was going to be the champions.”

Yet the Wolfpack, led by their resilient head coach Jimmy V, knew full well they had a chance.

“The one thing Coach V always instilled in his players – and his coaches too – was a sense to believe,” Martin said. “He always had our guys believing they could win any game. Coach V was an unbelievable motivator. You talk about the greatest speechwriters in sports history, Coach V is right up there.”

On April 4, 1983 in Albuquerque, N.M., the teams took the court. Valvano knew that if his team could keep the game close, they would find a way to win in the end.

An important note here is that Martin was the one who recruited Charles to come to N.C. State out of Brooklyn Tech. Martin noticed immediately that Charles was physically college-ready and had incredible hands.

“Anytime you’d throw the ball in his vicinity, he caught it and was like a vice,” Martin said. “Nobody would take it from him.”

Fortunately, those hands came in handy during the title game’s enduring moment. With the score tied at 52 in the closing seconds, Valvano called a timeout. The team moved the ball around the perimeter during the final possession but couldn’t set up a baseline shot. With just seconds left, Whittenburg heaved up a prayer.

“Dereck always said it was a pass, but we know it was a shot,” Martin said. “When he took the shot, Lorenzo Charles was able to slip in behind Olajuwon, who was out of position to get a rebound. It was the perfect location for Lorenzo to catch it and dump it in.”

Martin said he was so elated as time expired that he leapt off the bench, ran onto the court, and jumped into Charles’ outstretched arms.

“Now everybody’s hugging everybody,” he said. “Coach V is running around trying to hug somebody, but everyone is taken. V was saying, ‘Who am I supposed to hug?’ It was a great moment.”

This season, N.C. State welcomed backed the national title team for a 40th anniversary celebration. Of course, Valvano was there in spirit, as he passed away in 1993 at age 47 after a valiant battle with adenocarcinoma, a form of glandular cancer.

Just like his Wolfpack never gave up, Jimmy V also never gave up in his cancer fight. The ESPYs speech established the V Foundation, whose goal is to achieve victory over cancer by never giving up. Since its formation 30 years ago, the foundation has awarded more than $310 million in research grants nationwide as it supports cutting-edge cancer treatments.

From his early days roaming around Queens to later roaming around the court to find someone to hug, Valvano’s never-give-up spirit will continue to inspire athletes, coaches, and those battling cancer alike.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at