‘Basketball speech’ truly transcends sports

Published 11:33 pm Saturday, December 11, 2010

What makes a good speaker or a good speech? Is it passion? Is it preparation? Or is it just that little something extra that cannot be quantified?

Maybe it is all of the above.

I’ve seen, heard or read quite a few over the years.

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Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” soliloquy certainly ranks toward the top.

Gen. George Patton gave a few that would have had me saluting a flag, picking up a rifle and marching off to fight for my country.

I’ve heard a few high school students give some great ones from the heart at graduation ceremonies.

But one that always sticks with me — in part because it gets refreshed in my mind about this time each year — is college basketball coach Jim Valvano’s acceptance speech after he was honored with the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at ESPN’s ESPY Awards show in 1993.

I don’t remember seeing it at the time, and either age or interest means I really don’t remember paying all that much attention to his coaching career.

But I’ll never forget his speech that, in just a few short minutes, offered poignant lessons on life that match any of the great Greek philosophers as far as I’m concerned.

It is too long to print in its entirety but anyone who wants to read it or watch it can go to http://www.jimmyv.org/remembering-jim/espy-awards-speech.html.

Jimmy had been diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was grim. But the coach chose to use his celebrity and his final days trying to make a difference, using this speech as the platform for launching the V Foundation for cancer research, an organization that has gone on to raise more than $100 million.

Jimmy V knew that time was valuable.

“When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives,” Valvano said.

“Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three 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.”

Jim talked a lot about the fact that, in life, you have to know where you’ve come from, where you are and where you are going.

“How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. You have to be willing to work for it.”

For me, it seems as if some of what he talks about is what is lacking in much of our society today.

“I just got one last thing, I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get you’re emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day and as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘ Nothing great could be accomplished without enthusiasm,’ 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.”

It is the end of his speech that is perhaps the most well known and also the most timeless. Cancer or some other disease or adversity has touched each and every one of us in some way and these are words to live by.

“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.”

So will Jimmy V’s words that are just as powerful nearly 20 years later.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.