PISCATAWAY – Inside of Rutgers' locker room, on the wall separating the lockers from the film viewing area, there’s a mural. It’s a dedication to Rutgers' own Jim Valvano, depicting and chronicling the annals of his basketball life.
From left to right are black and white pictures of his days playing at Rutgers, being carried off the court by his NC State team after pulling off one of the greatest upsets in NCAA finals history by defeating Houston, culminating in Valvano delivering his renowned speech during the 1993 ESPY’s where he accepted the Arthur Ashe Award. And of course, those seven immortal words, “don’t give up, don’t ever give up,” are written across this poignant memorial.
While the players see this façade on a daily basis, the kids just born around the time of Valvano’s death don’t know who this man was. All they recall is the image of him shown by CBS every March. The one of the guy who was running around after winning an NCAA championship not knowing who to hug.
So Rutgers' second year head coach Mike Rice has made a point to teach his players about Valvano.
“We always start our first meeting [of the year] with who Jim Valvano is, was and what he means to this program and why we have him up on our wall,” Rice told New Jersey Newsroom.
He’s also remembered in the main concourse, where his former teammate Bob Lloyd made a donation in his honor to have the Rutgers Basketball Hall of Fame named after his teammate and friend.
But it’s a place seldom recognized for the man it’s named after. Fans swiftly walk by, maybe taking a quick glance at the names of old as they shuffle to their seats.
And while the old-timers don’t need to be reminded of who Valvano is, the young ones — like the players — that Rice is starting to draw do.
Sure, it would be nice to call to mind the former point guard who — along with All-American shooting guard Bob Lloyd — laid the foundation in the late 1960s for the most successful era in the program’s history, culminating in an undefeated regular season and trip to the Final Four in 1976. And also that he’d start an illustrious coaching career as Rutgers' freshman team coach.
But remembering Valvano has nothing to do with what he did on the court. It’s what he did after his coaching career, once he was diagnosed with cancer. The Jimmy V Foundation has done more for cancer research than even Valvano could ever have imagined when he proposed the idea.
He’s the definition of Rutgers slogan “Jersey Roots, Global Reach,” with the Jimmy V Foundation having raised over $90 million.
“I think so much time has elapsed that there’s probably not as much awareness,” Dick Lloyd, who coached Vallvano for two years, said. “Common sense would tell you there’s not as much awareness as there was maybe 15 years ago or 10 years ago.”
Lloyd noted how things — most prominantly naming the floor after Valvano — have been discussed to honor and remember Valvano. But such things like funding serve as a roadblock.
Still, why, during Jimmy V week, is there not more done with Rutgers on the national landscape to honor the man behind the cause?
“We got to get better,” Rice said, while adding he’d like to take part in the Jimmy V Classic. “We have to build this thing before they put us in that."
“A lot of people say it’d be nice to see Rutgers in the Jimmy V Classic. I think that is something that ESPN controls and of course they’re doing it for an audience,” Dick Lloyd said. “My guess is a couple more years, I think we’ll be right there. Which would be nice. That would be a time to do a lot of celebrating.”
In his ESPY speech, Valvano laid out his feelings, saying the time has come to do more about finding cures for cancer.
“Somehow we have seem to put it [cancer] a little bit on the back burner,” Valvano said. “I want to bring it to the front table.”
Somehow, the Rutgers community — thanks to a losing program and shaky fan base — has let Valvano slowly fall to the back burner. And it’s about time to bring him back to the front table.
As Valvano said: "Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. But it cannot touch my mind and it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever."
And Rutgers needs to be at the forefront of having those three things carried on forever. They need to be more than an afterthought during Jimmy V week.
They just need to win first.