NEW YORK – Watching the replay of Jim Valvano's ESPY Award speech brings thousands of people to tears every year at this time. The majority of the people crying never knew Valvano personally. Just imagine how Valvano's words tug at the heart of former Connecticut basketball coach Dee Rowe.
Valvano, who died in 1993 after his famous and difficult struggle with cancer, is best known as the coach who won a national championship at North Carolina State in 1983. But he had to work his way up the coaching ladder and UConn played a role in Valvano's history. After graduating from Rutgers and coaching one season at Division III Johns Hopkins, Valvano was hired as Rowe's assistant in the summer of 1970.
The association lasted only two years. Valvano left UConn in 1972 to become head coach at Bucknell.
The friendship lasted a lifetime, right up to the final days of Valvano's life. And Rowe has carried the memory of his buddy with him every minute and every day of his life.
Tuesday at Madison Square Garden will be all about the man known as Jimmy V – even though Rowe simply calls him James. The Jimmy V Classic, one of the most significant regular-season tournaments in college basketball, will be played Tuesday night in New York. Rowe will be in attendance, watching his Huskies play against N.C. State, the school where Jimmy Valvano became a household name.
No. 25 North Carolina State and UConn will play (9 p.m. approximately) after Texas and No. 15 Georgetown at 7 p.m. When you think about it, there couldn't be a more fitting matchup for this event. Nineteen years after Valvano left us, Rowe still misses him every day.
"You feel a whole lot of things," Rowe said when asked to describe his emotion when Tuesday's game was added to the Jimmy V Classic earlier this year. "This was a guy that you treasured his friendship and cherished the memories. It was long ago, but he died at 47. It brought back so much."
|Jim Valvano, Dee Rowe, Bill Gaertner (UConnToday.com)|
They were "James" and "Coach." That's what they called each other. It started that way when they were fellow staff members at UConn. It also ended that way two days before Valvano died, when Rowe traveled to Durham, N.C., to visit Valvano in room 401 at Duke University Hospital.
Rowe remembers getting there around 3 p.m. Visiting hours were over but Valvano's family – his mother, his wife, Pam, and his children were all there. Rowe would sit with them for the next six hours.
"I walk in and he's taking morphine every 20 seconds," Rowe said. "And he can hardly speak. I walk in and he says, ‘Coach, this is a day about love and family.' About halfway through he looks at his kids and says, ‘You can be anything you want to be in this great country. You've got to dream. Just dream. But you've got to have the courage to make the dreams happen.'
"And, you know what, that's what he did, with every move he made."
Valvano, who died April 28, 1993, played for coaching great Bill Foster at Rutgers, and then moved on to Johns Hopkins. Rowe hired him when assistant Fred Barakat left UConn to take the head coaching position at Fairfield.
In their final visit, Rowe and Valvano talked about family and basketball. When it came time to leave, Rowe found departure almost impossible.
"It was very difficult and I knew I wasn't going to see him again," Rowe said. "When I left, I gave him a hug and I said, ‘I love you James.' He gives me a hug and says, ‘I love you Coach.'
"I go to the door, put my hand on the door and he said, ‘Coach, just remember, winning's easy. Just surround yourself with people who have a passion for life.' Think about that – people with a passion for life. That's the last thing he said to me."
One of Rowe's coaching tenets was to surround himself with talented assistants. And Rowe has always approached basketball – not to mention living - with passion. Maybe that's why "James" and "Coach" got along so well. They certainly weren't deriving happiness from the results on the floor. UConn went 10-14 in Valvano's first season on the UConn bench and the Huskies were 8-17 the next year.
After the Wolfpack won the national championship in 1983, Rowe was invited to speak before the North Carolina State faithful at a championship banquet.
"There were a thousand people there," Rowe said. "I get up and say, ‘All I hear is what a great coach this Valvano is. I don't think he's so great. I had two losing seasons at Connecticut and he was the assistant coach both years. What happened?' I got a great laugh out of it."
Rowe was at the Final Four in Albuquerque when Valvano won it all in 1983. He went to the press conference after the game and then drove back to the hotel in a car with Valvano's brothers and father. Rowe stood in a parking lot with Valvano and they talked about the passage of time.
Later that year, a scrapbook of pictures and stories on North Carolina State's championship season was published, and Valvano sent a copy to Rowe.
There was an inscription on the inside of the book.
"Other than a nun in the third grade, and my father, there's no one I would rather have spent time with following the national championship than you," Valvano wrote to Rowe.
|Special uniforms Wolfpack will wear for Jimmy V Classic|
Talk about vintage Valvano. Talk about a loyal Italian kid from the old-world neighborhood, holding on to his roots and remembering where he came from. That was the guy Rowe loved. That's the guy Rowe misses.
"I had never tasted defeat in my life," Rowe said. "I would have jumped off a bridge into the Connecticut River if it weren't for Valvano keeping me sane. Jimmy was so special. I don't think there's ever been anyone quite like him."
Rowe was a pallbearer – along with coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Kennedy, Valvano's brothers, and broadcaster John Saunders – at Valvano's funeral in North Carolina. Rowe remembered that the previous fall, after a breakfast with friends, Valvano took him aside and told him he would be delivering his eulogy within a year.
Rowe kept thinking Valvano would work another miracle, just like the one that happened in that Final Four. That wasn't the case. The eulogy was written for a memorial service in New York, but church rules prevented Rowe from ever delivering it. Rowe has saved it and recently shared it with UConnPlaybook.com. At the end, he wrote about Valvano "going home" to heaven.
"When we get there we'll find him in one of heaven's gyms – no glitz, no bright lights, just an ordinary old gym – just the kid from Seaford back with his dad," Rowe wrote. "In a sweatshirt, whistle and old canvas Cons, helping kids. And they'll love him. He'll be the little boy again, the young coach. And the dream will be heaven's Madison Square Garden at 9 p.m., and we'll watch him cut down the nets again and he'll run around and hug the kids and all of us. He'll make a difference there, too."
In October 1993, Rowe penned a letter to Pam Valvano and her family. It was four pages, hand-written on UConn athletics stationery. Rowe doesn't use e-mail today, and back then he wouldn't have thought about having a secretary type the letter. He apologized for taking so long to write.
"I have long struggled with this," Rowe wrote, "maybe thinking that Jim's really only away on a trip, it's all a very bad dream, some way, somehow he'll find a way to come back.
"Now the balls are bouncing and it's time for another season, a new year, a new dance. For the first time Jimmy won't be a part of it. The reality is setting in and I know it's true, but I can't and don't want to believe it."
In a way unique to Valvano, he does come back to basketball every year, through the Jimmy V Classic and The V Foundation for Cancer Research. Valvano introduced the foundation and its "Don't' Give Up . . . Don't Ever Give Up" motto during that remarkable speech at the ESPY Awards just before he died.
And that is the ultimate connection between "Coach" and "James." Rowe is a cancer survivor. He likes to think the foundation, and some of the money generated by those who loved Valvano, has kept him ticking away at the age of 83. Tuesday night in New York, he will see Pam Valvano, other family members and friends of Jimmy V, and tell them again how much he misses his friend.
"I'm affected by this personally, with what happened with the V Foundation fighting cancer," Rowe said. "I've had four cancer surgeries and one was 6½ hours.
"So with me, every day is a bonus. Every day is a special day. Like I say to people, ‘Love life, it's a gift.' I tell people that every day."
No one taught Dee Rowe that lesson more profoundly than Jimmy V. They had a friendship that extended far beyond the boundaries of a basketball court. And that's one more thing to celebrate Tuesday night with the 9 p.m. game at Madison Square Garden.