Critics Corner: Survive and Advance

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Critics Corner: Survive and Advance
Apr 24, 2013

One practice, every single season, in which no balls were brought out to the court.  Practice jerseys really weren’t necessary and you didn’t really even need to tie the sneakers up tight.  All you did for that one practice, was cut down the nets.  That’s it.  Just cut down the nets.  And then, the cherry on top was the coach, the dreamer boy, standing at the top of the ladder, waving the frayed net around his head.  Practice it and you’ll become it.  Cutting down the nets was a dream for Jim Valvano, so why not practice it.

ESPN films’ Survive and Advance is the emotional story of former NC State coach Jim Valvano, one of the most charismatic and refreshing figures to ever grace the game of college basketball.  The film chronicles the late Valvano, his time at NC State, his improbable run to the 1983 national title, and his spirited fight against cancer through the eyes of his players, who the film shows at an annual reunion lunch.

A man who wore his heart on his sleeve, Valvano came into NC State after the Wolfpack administration had been hotly pursuing DeMatha Catholic coaching legend Morgan Wootten.  A vivacious son of Italian immigrants, Jimmy Valvano did not succeed at first in Raleigh.  The story, told mostly through the eyes of a pair of DeMatha stars turned Wolfpack backcourt running mates, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, chronicles their early struggles.  In Valvano’s first three seasons, the Wolfpack got no further than the first round of the tournament.  While the guards’ senior season turned out differently, it didn’t always seem so optimistic.

One of the many great aspects about the film was the number of voices they used.  Credible voices.  People like Roy Williams, Coach K and Sonny Vaccaro all provided fascinating insight.  And, as Coach K described, the ACC in the 80s was perhaps the best college basketball had and will ever see because players stayed in school.  The players were better, the coaches had more to work with and the rivalries were at a new level of intensity.  In their magical championship season, the Wolfpack had to go through talents like Virginia’s Ralph Sampson and North Carolina’s Michael Jordan, multiple times.  So, when Whittenburg broke his leg in a regular season contest against Virginia, the difficulty of the schedule got to the team.  NC State hobbled into the ACC Tournament, which in that era was the only way a team could get into the NCAA tourney.  But the resilient Valvano never backed down.

One part of the film that I found interesting was the structure.  The filmmaker decided to intersperse the evolution of Valvano’s battle with cancer in the story of the ’83 championship run.  It was a tactic that was confusing at first, since it jumped from one era to the next, but as the film reached its’ apex, all the pieces started to come together.  As the stories were told of Valvano’s fighting spirit when battling the disease that would eventually kill him, they were juxtaposed with the fire and fight he instilled in his players, as they would find themselves escaping with countless improbable victories.  With a healthy roster, State snuck by Wake Forest, stymied North Carolina in overtime of the conference semifinal and “slayed Sampson” and the Cavaliers to reach the big dance.  And yes, the cutting down of the nets came easier since Valvano and his crew had been rehearsing it for three years.

“The Cardiac Pack” wasn’t done, rising from the ashes to burn Pepperdine in a first round match-up, escaping UNLV in a second round game, walloping Utah.  The team had a character.  Valvano’s character.  More intriguing than the story of the team’s run however, was simply the tales people told of the legendary coach.  Whether it was Krzyzewski talking about how he and Valvano became “special friends” during the late coach’s battles in Duke University Hospital or if it was Dick Vitale talking about how he got Jimmy to come to the 1993 ESPYS, where he delivered his legendary “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” speech.

Valvano’s impact not only on the game of basketball, but on the world, was immense.  His resilience and his fight inspired a nation battling with all types of challenges, whether it be Phi Slamma Jamma, cancer, a difficult exam, or losing a loved one.  Valvano showed people what it was to live, and this film accomplished the near impossible: capturing the spirit of a man who was bigge

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