EIGHINGER: Years later, Jim Valvano's speech can still provide inspiration

Posted: Jul. 19, 2014 4:58 pm Updated: Oct. 11, 2014 7:15 pm

Our family lost a friend to cancer last week.

A few months ago, he appeared to be the picture of health. A few months later, we found ourselves at a visitation, finding it hard to believe he was gone.

Just about every family is touched by this equal-opportunity disease that shows no favoritism toward any specific race, religion or gender. You would think, after all of these years, we would be accustomed to the fallout from cancer.

We aren't.

The losses still hurt, and each family that loses a mother, brother or friend feels cheated by the emotional chasms in our lives that cancer creates.

I've been thinking a lot this week about the famous Jim Valvano speech of 1993. The gregarious Valvano, who won an NCAA basketball championship while coaching at North Carolina State, was in the final stages of his battle with bone cancer.

Valvano was scheduled to speak to a national audience on ESPN as part of its annual ESPY awards show. He needed help to the podium and was assisted by his two close friends, ESPN personality Dick Vitale and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Each time I have lost a friend or family member to this awful disease, I go to YouTube to listen to this speech. I listen and watch how Valvano handled his own dilemma, while seeking strength on how I might better handle my own sorrow.

Numerous passages in Valvano's passionate delivery I know by heart.

"Time is very precious to me. I don't know how much I have left, and I have some things that I would like to say."

Valvano died two months after his speech, one of his final public appearances. I remember wiping the tears away the night I listened to him live, and I have wiped away tears each time since.

The speech remains a source of strength for many. Never did I imagine the night I heard it for the first time I would ultimately draw upon it so many times. As I've gotten older, there have been more family members and more friends succumb to different forms of cancer. I can only imagine what goes through their thoughts in their closing weeks, days and hours.

Valvano provided us all some insight.

"There are three things we all should do every day. No. 1 is laugh. You should laugh every day. No. 2 is think. You should spend some time in thought. No. 3 is you should have your emotions moved to tears -- could be happiness or joy. But think about it. 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."

The loss of a friend or family member is always softened, at least somewhat, by the memories we will carry of him or her. All of the stories, all of the smiles, all of the laughter -- all of the tears. We'll always have those.

Valvano had a unique sense of this as he ended his speech.

"I gotta go, and I got one last thing, and I said it before, and I want to say it again. Cancer can take away all 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."


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