The Precious Moments You Have
“Coach Valvano was a big dreamer, from day one,” remembers Dereck Whittenburg. “He used to have had all of us in a circle, telling us his goal was to win the national championship. From day one.” Senior guard on North Carolina State’s Wolfpack in 1983, Whittenburg also remembers not quite believing what he was hearing. Neither did center Thurl Bailey, who adds, “Who says that on their first introduction to their players, ‘I’m gonna win a national championship’?”
It didn’t take long for Bailey and Whittenburg to become believers in Coach Jim Valvano, of course. And as they look back for the documentary, Survive and Advance, they still sound thrilled to have been part of it, part of the team, part of the experience, and also, part of history. For the team’s unlikely run to the 1983 ACC and NCAA Championships is legendary—in part because it was so unlikely, and in part because Valvano is now enshrined in a national collective consciousness, at least that consciousness familiar with concept of March Madness.
A tribute to that concept, as well as to the Wolfpack and Coach Valvano, Survive and Advance is another stirring film in ESPN’s vaunted 30 for 30 series. Much like Jonathan Hock’s previous film for the series, The Best That Never Was, it tells a remarkable story made accessible through remarkable footage. But where the story of running back Marcus Dupree is, as its title suggests, one of dreams unfulfilled, the Wolfpack’s story is—initially—all about dreams achieved. That this story is also framed by the loss of Coach Valvano, to bone cancer in 1993, not to mention The Speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, makes that achievement at once more extraordinary, more somber, and more likely subject to reductive mythology and hagiography.
To its credit, Survive and Advance, airing this month on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU, doesn’t reduce any of it. Per the sports documentary format, it offers thrilling, grainy TV game segments, talking-head interviews with players and coaches, and some well-known images (say, Valvano cutting down nets after a couple of games or, after beating Houston to win the NCAA Tournament in Albuquerque, running around on the court looking for someone, anyone, to hug). It also offers something else, which is a reflection on why it might be important to remember this experience and others, how sports—in this case college basketball—shape lives and characters, and how teams, as an idea and practice, can provide inspiration and structure and support, in good and difficult times.
As the film has it, the Wolfpack certainly endures a range of times. Having won ACC titles during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, endured sanctions from 1972-‘73, and then winning the NCAA title in 1974 (this during the so-called Norm Sloan era), it was, when Valvano arrived in 1980, dealing with Sloan’s departure to the Florida Gators. At the time, remembers Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Valvano was “not well liked [by established coaches] because they felt like he’s this young upstart.” This supports the players’ recollection, that “from day one,” he was unorthodox, passionate, and ambitious. He was also, as the film shows, something of a standup comedian, performing for audiences—players, university assemblies, reporters—accounts of his childhood in Queens and his Italian parents (“My father thinks everything north of the George Washington Bridge is Canada!”).
The film structures its narrative so that bits of such performances help to tell Valvano’s life story, and also provide emotional punctuation for the team’s story. Cutting pretty much directly from his first day to the championship season, the film allows that the team spends a season or two evolving and then, it seems on a track predestined. The film doesn’t look at lives off court or contexts beyond basketball, but instead creates a kind of forward momentum by its focus on game after game, with specific fouls, three-point shots, and injuries evoked by player—this in individual interviews, as well as during a sit-down get-together following the 2011 funeral of one teammate, Lorenzo Charles, following a bus crash.
Gathered around a table, Charles’ teammates embody a lively mix of nostalgia and joy, with Whittenburg insisting they must do this regularly, so that they don’t lose touch with one another and also that they cherish the specialness of their bond. As Whittenburg puts it, “There’s a saying that as athletes get older, their accomplishments get greater and greater as the years pass on, but the truth is, they just get further and further away.” This particular group is lucky to have an especially galvanizing memory to share, but they also articulate—or maybe rearticulate—the hope and promise they found in their coach. Encouraging his 1993 ESPYs audience to “be enthusiastic every day,” he urged them as well “to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems, whatever you have. The ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.”
The film notes in passing that the NC State program has not again achieved the brilliance of 1983, and that Valvano had to leave in 1991, following accusations of rules violations: these turned out not to be his doing, but players selling shoes and game tickets, but Valvano took responsibility for not monitoring his players properly. Though he found another gig—quite perfectly, as broadcaster—It was only a year later that he was diagnosed with bone cancer. While you may remember his TV appearances, his players here remember something less visible, the effects Valvano continues to have on those who knew him. Just so, even as it keeps focused on the televised glory days, on spectacular dreams achieved, Survive and Advance also indicates the ways such images can distort what happens. Some history remains off-screen.