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He Never Gave Up

A Reflection

I cringe every time the highlight is shown of Lorenzo Charles grabbing Derek Whittenburg’s 40-foot airball and slamming it home to upset Houston’  Phi Slamma Jamma team 54-52 to give Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State team the national championship. That evening, April 4, 1983, I was sat up on a first date with a way wiser and more mature divorceé. While she made a lovely dinner, I entertained her two young daughters—and missed one of college basketball’s all-time great games.

That night Valvano, a Rutgers alumnus, became larger-than-life as he manically raced around the court after the upset, looking for someone to hug. Little did I realize that a decade later, I would be writing about his death from cancer at the age of 47.

The idea of the story was to capture the special friendship between Valvano and Bobby Lloyd, teammates at Rutgers in the late 1960s, and Valvano’s valiant effort to raise money for cancer before he died. Lloyd, one of the Rutgers’ all-time great guards, was the founder and chair of his late friend’s foundation.

At the time, Lloyd was a self-made, retired millionaire splitting his time living between California and Maui. I caught a lucky break when he came to New York for the annual meeting of the foundation’s board and the Espy Awards, which—to this day— acknowledges Valvano’s inspirational  “Never Give Up” plea, made just months before he passed.

I can’t recall any story with so many sources involved. I started with Lloyd and his wife, Kay, in their hotel room. Soon to follow were Dick Vitale and John Saunders at ESPN; Bob’s brother, Dick Lloyd; Valvano’s widow, Pam; Valvano’s former Rutgers teammate and former Milwaukee Buck, Bob Grecean; coach Bill Foster; Rick Sinding, former Daily Targum editor-in-chief, and others.

One unforgettable source was George Mackaronis, proprietor of Valvano and Lloyd’s favorite greasy spoon on Albany Street in New Brunswick and a ptayer on the Scarlet Knights basketball team in the late 1940s. George generously tapped into his considerable Rutgers memorabilia collection to supply art flor the story. There was no bigger fan of Rutgers hoops than George. He was a widower who lived for Rutgers basketball. After the story was published, I’d always find him at his same seat at the RAC and get the skinny on the team’s prospects.

Few stories were more rewarding to work on. I never met Valvano, but his courage and inspirational message at the end of his life lives on all these years later. May he rest in peace—and may his dream that cancer be eradicated one day come to pass.