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Original Issue

Jimmy Vee Hung In There

The former basketball coach's yearlong battle with cancer taught us all a lesson in courage

Why just one wig? Jim Valvano was sitting in front of a few hundred hairpieces one day last summer, his head freshly shaved because he didn't want to wait for chemotherapy to make him bald, his mind mulling one of the great existential questions: Why just one wig?

"One of the wigs had hair down to the shoulders, like a rock star's," he recalled a few months later. "One was a crew cut, another one had a ponytail, another one made me look like the Beatles. I thought, God, wouldn't it be great? People could turn on their TVs one night and I'd be Steven Seagal, with the ponytail. The next night they'd turn it on and I'd be a Marine sergeant. The next I'd be a rocker, and the night after that, I wouldn't wear one at all and be Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3, and then...."

He wanted to be everything, to try on everyone's life for size. That was Jimmy Vee's glory and, some said, his sin. Until he faced cancer, he saw no boundaries in life. When you sat and talked with him, you laughed a lot, and you forgot about your own boundaries, too.

I was nervous before I met him for the first time last fall, at about the time the photograph shown here was taken. How could I ask a total stranger questions about his impending death? But Vee didn't flinch. He put both arms around what he felt at midnight—when he was awake, alone, terrified of what was happening—and he handed it to me. He wasn't afraid to do that.

When he was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma last June, many people still saw him as the scandal-scarred basketball coach who had been drummed out of NC State in 1990. By the time he died at age 47, on April 28 at Duke University Medical Center, most everyone saw him as something else. The two images that were played over and over on the TV news—the mop-haired Vee ricocheting all over the court in search of someone to hug after his Wolfpack had shocked Houston to win the '83 NCAA championship and the gaunt Vee peering down from the podium at ESPN's American Sports Awards two months ago, roaring that "cancer can take away all my physical abilities, but it cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul"—were so powerful that the scandal that had occurred between those events was eclipsed. In an odd way, just as Valvano used to take risks at the end of a close game to ensure that his team would get the last shot, so he had control at the end of his life.

He achieved that by dying a public death. During his last few months as a basketball analyst for ESPN and ABC, his family and colleagues would shake their heads in disbelief as he squirmed incessantly in a chair, trying to find some position in which the pain wouldn't overwhelm him, then hobbled in front of a camera, took a deep breath...and came alive, sparkling with all his old wit and intelligence, making everyone watching forget how sick he was. "Everyone's talking about how great his courage was at the end," says his friend and agent, Art Kaminsky. "But the truth is, it took far more courage than we'll ever know, because the pain and the terror he went through for the last year was more than we can conceive."

"His last six months of life were incredible," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who visited Valvano nearly every day toward the end. "He kept getting on that airplane from North Carolina to Connecticut, to go to ESPN, knowing that he would throw up on the flight and that he'd collapse at the end of the night. But he wanted everyone to attack this disease with passion, to pressure the government to go to war against it. A person dies of cancer every minute in this country, but that's just a statistic, it has no feeling. Jimmy gave it feeling."

He had hoped to attend the Final Four in March and to accept a personal invitation from Bill Clinton to visit the White House in late April. He was going to go in a wheelchair, wearing a small plastic container that would pump morphine into his veins a few times a minute. But his body wouldn't let him, and he died in the Duke hospital, with his wife, Pam, and his three daughters, Nicole, Jamie and Lee Ann, at his side.

Last spring, when he was in Frankfurt, Germany, for ABC's coverage of a World League football game and he first began feeling the pain of his disease, he saw something he had never seen before, in the stadium parking lot. People were donning Velcro-covered clothing, running as fast and leaping as high as they could to stick themselves to a wall. "Forget the pain, gotta do it," Valvano remembered telling himself. "Can't go all the way to Frankfurt and not jump and stick to a wall."

He clenched his teeth. He ran. He jumped. He stuck. That's what everyone will always remember about him. Vee stuck.