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Terps play UConn at 'the mecca' to honor New York kid Jim Valvano

4 Apr 1983: Head coach Jim Valvano of the North Carolina State Wolfpack celebrates with his team after the Wolfpack defeated the Houston Cougars 54-52 in the NCAA men''s basketball championship game at University Arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
4 Apr 1983: Head coach Jim Valvano of the North Carolina State Wolfpack celebrates with his team after the Wolfpack defeated the Houston Cougars 54-52 in the NCAA men''s basketball championship game at University Arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Getty Images / Getty Images)

As with most basketball fans who grew up near New York City, Madison Square Garden was an important place in the life of the late Jim Valvano, long before a tournament in his memory would be played there.

It is where he went as a kid, traveling in from Long Island with his father Rocco, a high school basketball coach, and his two brothers, to watch the New York Knicks when they were very bad and, later, when they were the best team on the planet.

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It is where he played as a senior at Rutgers, when he was known mostly for sharing the backcourt with the team's star, Bob Lloyd. The Scarlet Knights played at the old Garden five times during Valvano's senior year, three of them in a surprising run to the 1967 National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

"It was a huge deal for him," Lloyd recalled Monday. "In all the time we played at Rutgers, he wanted to play in the Garden. When we didn't get the bid [to the NIT] after our junior year, he was heartbroken.

"Any New York kid, the Garden was the mecca and it still is the mecca."

Years later, Valvano would joke that he helped turn Southern Illinois guard Walt Frazier from a relative unknown into "a first-round draft choice" that year by the Knicks. But in truth, Valvano held his own in their NIT semifinals matchup, scoring 24 points on 11 of 16 shooting while Frazier scored 26, pulled down 18 rebounds and was named tournament MVP after leading his team to the title.

Lloyd talked about Valvano's underrated offensive skills when members of the 1967 team were honored last week at Rutgers and the court at the school's old College Avenue Gym — affectionately called "The Barn" — was named in memory of their late teammate.

"Jimmy scored over 1,000 points in the three years we played on varsity," said Lloyd, who scored over 2,000 points. "I joked the other night when I spoke that Jimmy set some sort of record because he was the only player in college that scored 1,000 points and he didn't have the basketball."

It was one of the few times in life that Valvano didn't take over the stage. He will be there in spirit Tuesday night when No. 6 Maryland (7-1) plays Connecticut (5-2) — the school that gave Valvano his first big-time coaching job as an assistant — in the featured game of the Jimmy V Classic.

As a young coach whose head coaching career actually started with a season at Johns Hopkins in 1969, Valvano eventually turned the new Madison Square Garden into a personal launching pad to the spotlight he sought — and found — at North Carolina State.

The Garden is where Valvano, then in his second year as the coach at little Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., took his team at the end of the 1976-77 season, convincing the folks who scheduled college doubleheaders to add a third game.

Valvano's Gaels played South Florida at 11 a.m. before friends, family and ushers and won, 107-100.

And it was where Valvano's 1979-80 Iona team led by future NBA stalwart Jeff Ruland beat Kansas in a 7 p.m. game and a few weeks later, eventual national champion Louisville in the featured 9 p.m. marquee matchup.

His widow, Pam Valvano Strasser, recalled Tuesday how early in his career at Iona she once took one of her husband's sports jackets to the dry cleaners and felt something in the breast pocket.

"Jim was writing his goals on note cards all the time, and it said, 'Play in the 9 o'clock game at Madison Square Garden,' and that was the ultimate for a kid from Long Island," said Valvano Strasser, who started dating her future husband while they were in high school. "And he also wrote one that said, 'Win the national championship.' That's not easy, but he did that, too."

That spring, Valvano was on his way to Raleigh — after DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten reportedly turned down the job — and national acclaim.

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"What I remember is his personality. His personality was bigger than anything," said Naismith Hall of Famer Dick Vitale, who knows something about outsized personalities.

"He used to light up a room anywhere he went. He was full of energy and compassion. He loved New York. He was full of so much pride for the city. He was New York all the way. He loved [Frank] Sinatra. At his memorial service, they played 'My Way.'"

Valvano's career at N.C. State was a whirlwind: a national championship in 1983, an ACC tournament title at the Capital Centre in 1987 and a fall from grace with his resignation amid allegations of NCAA violations by 1990. He went from being Jimmy V to Jimmy TV, becoming one of the country's most astute and entertaining college basketball analysts.

Three years later, a few weeks after North Carolina's Dean Smith won his second NCAA championship in New Orleans, Valvano died after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 47. Two decades after being established, the V Foundation has raised more than $150 million for cancer research.

Vitale, who has worked tirelessly over the years to help raise money for the V Foundation, said that Valvano's legacy has changed from coaching teams to saving lives.

"Jimmy V would be so proud to know that these teams were gathering to raise money in his memory," said Vitale, who will speak to the ESPN audience live at halftime about the foundation's work. "That was his ultimate dream as he was dying.

"Jimmy's legacy will not be a jump shot or a slam dunk or winning a national title. His legacy will be the many, many lives that he will affect for generation after generation. The number is getting bigger and bigger."

Considering how many years have passed since his death, most in the current generation of college basketball players are only aware of Valvano's famous ESPY speech and vaguely familiar with the image of the coach's frenetic search for someone to hug after the Wolfpack upset Houston's Phi Slama Jama in the 1983 NCAA title game in Albuquerque, N.M.

Maryland's Jake Layman knew little about Valvano until last season, when Nima Omidvar, the team's director of basketball operations who had worked previously as a video coordinator at N.C. State, showed the "Survive and Advance" "30 for 30" documentary to the Terps.

"I learned a little bit not only about his coaching, but what kind of person he was," Layman said.

Rasheed Sulaimon had heard his share of Valvano stories during his three seasons at Duke from Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, who arrived in Durham, N.C., the same year Valvano got to Raleigh.

Though markedly different in personality and coaching style, the two became close friends.

"He was an amazing coach, an amazing person, an amazing commentator," Sulaimon said of Valvano. "The coach I played for before was great friends with him, so he always talked about him. The Jimmy V Foundation is great for everything it does. It's a terrible disease and I'm honored to be a part of this game to help bring awareness and raise funds for research."

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