We caught Regina in flagrante, her pernicious fingers already groping deep inside the metaphorical cookie jar. And as she worked her fingers into our lives, we resolved not only to stop her but to kill her — to excise her before she shattered the jar to pieces.
Regina was the meningioma, the egg-shaped tumor, nestled in my mother’s brain, just behind her eyeball. That was the name we gave it — my sisters and I — after the infamous antagonist of Mean Girls; Regina George, the doyenne of wickedness, had moved on from terrorizing high school cafeterias to pressuring optical nerves and brain tissue.
What else is there to do when, to steal from James Baldwin, one is caught in the teeth of terrifying odds? In our family, humor insulated and salved, it softened the edges of things. So when mom first told me, as we stood on the freezing kitchen tile on a February morning, that she had a brain tumor, we couldn’t help but both laugh at the absurdity.
We have Jim Valvano to thank for that. The legendary former coach of the North Carolina State University men’s basketball team resided in our Italian family’s pantheon of greats — beside Dante and Fermi and DiMaggio — who my parents regularly invoked with pride. Frequently did I hear of Jimmy V’s humble upbringing on Long Island, mere miles from my own hometown, and of his titanic game-time speeches. The documentary about his Wolfpack’s unlikely 1983 national championship victory played hundreds of times in our living room; every overtime win and one-point-game chilled us as if for the first time. What we most admired about Jimmy, though, was his effusiveness and humor. He loved his players and they loved him. But he loved life too — he smiled and laughed and dripped with passion. He made you feel good, even if only through the occasional television appearance.
And Jimmy had terminal cancer.
When we discovered Regina, therefore, I could not help but wonder: what were the names of Jimmy’s tumors? He must have had clever sobriquets for the hundreds of cancerous bodies that festooned his glands and bones in June 1992 — “Blue Devils” or “Tar Heels” perhaps, horrid names to match the horrid prognosis.
But like everything else in his life, Jimmy embraced cancer; he clapped it on the shoulders and planted kisses on both its cheeks. He joked with family about shaving his head, the inevitable result of the many hours of poisoning he would undergo during chemotherapy. But there was something about Jimmy — his energy, his presence, his force of will — that not a hair fell out. While the rest of his body decayed rapidly, his personality persisted and raged; death became a neighbor, but one not yet invited over for espresso.
In March 1993, Jimmy left what little energy he had remaining on the stage at the ESPY Awards as the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. He was by this point mere months away from death, hardly able to walk to the stage without assistance. In his acceptance speech, Valvano forced the audience to confront his cancer — his death sentence — head-on; he hung it from the rafters like a championship banner. “Time is very precious to me,” Jimmy said in the speech’s first minute, “I don’t know how much I have left, and I have some things that I would like to say.”
He began with a roadmap, three things we should do every day:
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 heckuva day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.
Jimmy was no stranger to public speaking, and a lifetime’s worth of locker-room pep talks prepared him well to stir emotion. He was direct and concise; he deployed the “rule of three” and left the audience with something memorable and useful. Indeed, the rhetorical devices were effective: not only did his advice win tearful applause from the packed house, it still appears on posters and plaques today. But more than just quality speechmaking, Jimmy’s “laugh, think, cry” paradigm worked because it resisted its own cliché; this wasn’t mere slogan, painted on a piece of wall décor from Target. Jimmy had lived this himself, most especially during his battle with cancer, and was proof that it worked. That not even cancer could undermine a life of laughter and thought and tears.
Having given his audience plenty to think and cry about, Valvano made sure to supply the final ingredient; after highlighting the courage of his wife and children, Jimmy noticed a thirty-second warning flash on his teleprompter:
That screen is flashing up there 30 seconds — like I care about that screen right now, huh? I got tumors all over my body. I’m worried about some guy in the back going, “30 seconds?” You got a lot, hey, Và Fà a Napoli, buddy.
Infectious. An Italian kid from Long Island who can give it as good as he can take it. Jimmy stepped “away” from the speech; he welcomed the entire audience to an inside joke. With this quick jab, he allowed us to imagine the flushed face of some production assistant backstage, reminded us of the folly of award show pageantry. And he gave us permission to laugh. To unclench. To remember what matters and what doesn’t.
Indeed, how could you forget (or not smile) at the authenticity of his che vuoi and dirty slang? Jimmy was not just a faraway speaker on the dais under bright lights. He was a person. And he was dying.
Along with this humor, Valvano closed the address with humility, recounting the first speech he had given as a coach. In 1968, when he was a rookie coach at Rutgers University, Jimmy borrowed from a pregame pump-up by his hero Vince Lombardi — but he borrowed a little too much, inadvertently encouraging his Rutgers squad to focus on “God, family, and the Green Bay Packers!” When the audience’s laughter subsided, Jimmy’s voice trailed off: “I did that. I remember that. I remember where I came from.”
This too was Valvano flexing his natural speechmaking muscles. For one thing, he was an excellent storyteller. He maintained great pace and economy; he gave just enough for the story to be at once funny and, crucially, re-tellable. But his turn to humility was telling as well. In a year of celebration of a life well lived, Jimmy spotlighted a moment of buffoonery. Because he remembered where he came from, and his year had been spent reflecting upon and remembering everything. Not only the gilded trophies and last-second shots. But the screw-ups and failures. The colorful stuff. Laugh, think, cry.
Always the coach, Jimmy wanted more than mere attention. He demanded action. He announced the establishment of the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research and called for the greater allocation of resources to cancer research and treatment. He reminded the audience: “I need your help…It may not save my life. It may save my children’s lives. It may save someone you love.” And he left the stage with words of hope: “I want to give [the Arthur Ashe Award] next year!”
Valvano was no soaring rhetorician, not a poet or politician. But as a coach he made Madison Square Garden feel like a locker room and lifted the whole of the audience. Laughing in the face of turmoil didn’t make Valvano (or we Petrillos for that matter) maladjusted. Instead, it was evidence of a certain “lightness of being.” This is not quite just a sense of humor but a self-awareness and a rejection of self-seriousness. It is, to quote historian John Lewis Gaddis, “the ability, if not to find the good in bad things, then at least to remain afloat among them, perhaps to swim or sail through them.” To meet terrifying teeth with a wry smile.
In Jimmy’s speech, we witness the examination of life lived with lightness; in considering his career and his family and his cancers, Jimmy laughs. And thinks. And cries. And lives fully. Because lightness of being is not about happiness, it’s not about constant joy, it’s not about the absence of pain. Instead, lightness of being requires, to return to Gaddis’ aquatic analogy, constant treading.
Valvano had hoped to return to the ESPYs the next year but would be unable to do so; he passed away less than two months after giving his acceptance speech. My mother conquered Regina less than two months after stumbling upon her. But despite the disparate outcomes, I like to think that my family invoked Jimmy V, chuckling even in the teeth of terrifying odds. We laughed and thought and cried. We had a heckuva few months. And to Regina we said: vaffanculo.
— Alex Petrillo (WWW intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Watch Jim Valvano’s 1993 ESPY Speech here.
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