Commentary | Jimmy Valvano's speech best of many great sports oratories

adell@bradenton.comMarch 6, 2013 

It has been 20 years since Jim Valvano riveted the soul of a nation at the inaugural ESPY Awards.

The N.C. State basketball coach died of cancer less than two months after his March 3, 1993, speech, but his message left an imprint that will never be washed away.

In announcing the formation of the V Foundation to fight cancer that night, Valvano uttered his words that live on: "Don't Give Up! Don't Ever Give Up!"

Thanks to Dick Vitale and others, no one gave up. Many lives have been saved as the V Foundation poured millions of dollars into cancer research that recently realized a breakthrough in the fight agasint breast cancer.

Valvano's speech is an inspirational piece that provides a blue print to success. It should be a required reading for every person who coaches sports at any level.

Valvano said there are three things people should do every day: laugh, think and cry, either from happiness or joy.

"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," he said.

The event in New York was to give Valvano the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award. He was expected to receive it, say thanks and leave the podium.

Vitale and Duke head basketball coach Dick Krzyzewski helped him get up on the stage and then stood in awe as Valvano began to talk.

"If you would've seen him the night before, there was no way you could anticipate him delivering a speech. He was so sick. I don't know where he got the energy," Vitale recalled.

The day after his speech, Valvano received thousands of calls. At first, the only one he took was from President Bill Clinton. With his wife's prodding, he agreed to talk to

Vitale. It was the last time the two spoke.

"After electrifying a nation he could barely talk. He was so ill. I remember him saying it was over and that the biggest regret was that he wouldn't be able to see his daughter graduate from grammar school," Vitale said.

Valvano's final words are priceless: "Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you, and God bless you all."

Here are several other sports speeches that are timeless and touched our souls:

n Lou Gehrig: Forced to retire because of a nerve disorder, on July 4th, 1939, at Yankee Stadium Gehrig delivered a timeless speech with his famous words: "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

He took the time to mention everything positive in his life and cite all the people who made that possible. His speech ended with, "I might have been given a bad break, but I've got awful lot to live for." He died in June 1941.

n Herb Brooks (hockey coach who led USA to its Miracle win over the Soviet Union in 1980): Is there is a greater pregame speech? OK, this was re-enacted by Kurt Russell in a movie, but some of the players said it was pretty close to accurate. Either way, it makes for high drama, and you can be sure some coaches borrowed these words.

"If we played 'em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world."

n John Cappelletti's 1973 Heisman acceptance speech: The Penn State running back dedicated the trophy to his leukemia-stricken 11-year-old brother. Here in part is what he said: "You get your bumps and bruises, and it's a battle out there. For me it's on Saturdays and only in the fall, For Joseph, it is all year round, and this trophy is more his than mine because he has been a great inspiration to me." His brother died three years later.

n Billy Donovan's pregame speech before the Florida basketball team went out and won the 2006 national title was special to Gator fans. It makes us wonder if he borrowed a little of Herb Brooks, or perhaps Phil Jackson.

Donovan said: "Tonight is not about the past, and it's not about the future. It's about right now. And you guys have got to want this night to last forever. .. Live in the moment. Cherish the moment. And go out there and play like a team."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Followhim on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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