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Inside Jim Valvano’s speech: The story & Jimmy V’s famous quotes behind iconic 1993 ESPYS speech

It’s been over three decades since the late Jim Valvano delivered his iconic “Don’t ever give up” speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, but his words and his message have stood the test of time.

The championship-winning college basketball coach is honored annually at the ESPYS with the presentation of the Jimmy V Award for perseverance, and Valvano serves as the inspiration for ESPN’s V Week to raise money for cancer research during each college basketball season.

Valvano knew the end was near when he made the speech, though you wouldn’t know it from the optimism he projected on that stage. Valvano’s dream of eradicating cancer is a battle that’s still being fought, but the awareness he helped create has brought us closer to that day.

MORE: What is the Jimmy V Award?

The Sporting News takes a look back at Valvano’s iconic ESPYS speech, including some of his most memorable quotes. 

Jim Valvano speech

Valvano won the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award on March 4, 1993 amid his battle with cancer, and the speech he gave after receiving the award has stood the test of time.

The speech emphasized the importance of time, hope, and family. Valvano described how important it is to have hope even in the most difficult times, and he told listeners that his cancer served as a reminder that time is precious and appreciating each and every moment of life was critical. 

A message of hope isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s about the most typical trope in any motivational speech. What made Valvano’s speech so impactful, aside from the eloquence of his words, was that the message was coming from someone who had every reason not to have any hope. Valvano was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the prime of his life, yet he stood up on the stage as a 46-year-old man and spoke as optimistically as someone who had 50 years left to live.

Perhaps most importantly, Valvano announced during his speech that he was launching the V Foundation for Cancer Research. While he knew he wouldn’t live long enough to see the difference it would make, the foundation serves as a lasting legacy of the legendary coach. 

Jimmy V speech quotes

Valvano’s speech has been quoted for decades, largely because of the fortitude and optimism he displayed in what he knew would be a losing battle.

When Valvano saw the 30-second warning reminding him to wrap up his speech, he took control of the moment:

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’?

As the night neared its end, Valvano spoke the four-word phrase that’s still associated with him: 

And its motto is, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.’ And that’s what I’m going to try to do every minute that I have left.

At the end of his speech, Valvano declared victory over the cancer he knew would take his life:

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.

Valvano’s words have become an inspiration not just for anyone battling cancer, but for any individuals going through what seems like an impossible challenge. These quotes and others echo throughout ESPN’s V Week during the college basketball season. 

MORE: Jim Valvano’s iconic speech marks 30th anniversary

Jim Valvano 3 things

One of the most memorable points of Valvano’s speech was his list of three things that people should do every day.

No. 1 is laugh. You should laugh every day. No. 2 is think. You should spend some time in thought. And No. 3 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.

Laughing, thinking, and crying were Valvano’s idea of a complete day, and his speech forced listeners to do all three. Later in the speech, Valvano named “three things” cancer couldn’t affect: His mind, his heart, and his soul. 

Jim Valvano speech transcript

Below is the full transcript of Valvano’s 1993 ESPYs speech.

I can’t tell you what an honor it is to even be mentioned the same breath with Arthur Ashe. This is something I certainly will treasure forever. But as was said on the tape, and also, I don’t have one of those things going with the cue cards, so I’m going to speak longer than anybody else who’s spoken tonight. That’s the way it goes. Time is very precious to me. I don’t know how much I have left and I have some things that I would like to say. Hopefully at the end, I’ll have something that will be important to other people, too, but I can’t help it. Now when I’m fighting cancer, everybody knows that, and people ask me all the time about how you go through your life and, “How’s your day?”

And nothing has changed for me, as Dick said. I’m a very emotional, passionate man. I can’t help it, that’s being the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano. It comes with the territory, right? We hug, we kiss, we love.

And when people say to me, “How do you get through life?” Each day’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. If we do this every day of our life, you’re going to … What a wonderful … Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think, you should spend some time in thought. And 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.

And so, I can’t help … I rode on the plane up today with Mike Krzyzewski, my good friend, and a wonderful coach. What people don’t realize, he’s a 10 times better person than he is a coach and we know he’s a great coach. He’s meant a lot to me in these last five or six months with my battle. But when I look at Mike, I think we competed against each others as players. I coached against him 15 years, and I always have to think about what’s important in life. To me, it’s three things: where you started, where you are, and where you’re going to be. Those are the three things that I try and do every day. And when I think about getting up and giving a speech, I can’t help it. I have to remember the first speech I ever gave. I was coaching at Rutgers University. That was my first job.

And I was the freshman coach. That’s when freshmen played on freshmen teams. And I was so fired up about my first job. I see Lou Holtz, Coach Holtz here. What was it like the first job you had, right? The very first time you stood in the locker room to give a pep talk. That’s a special place, the locker room, for a coach to give a talk. So my idol as a coach was Vince Lombardi. And I read this book called Commitment to Excellence by Vince Lombardi. And in the book, Lombardi talked about the first time he spoke before his Green Bay Packer team in a locker room, they were perennial losers. And I’m reading this, and Lombardi said, he was thinking, “Should it be a long talk? A short talk?” But he wanted to be emotionally, so he said, Be brief.”

And this is what he did. Normally, you get in a locker room, I don’t know, 25 minutes, a half hour before the team takes the field. You do your little X and O’s, and then you give the great Knute Rockne talk, we all do. Speech number 84, you pull them right out, you get ready, get your squad ready. Was the first one I ever gave. And I read this thing, Lombardi, what he said was, he didn’t go in, he waited. His team was wondering, “Where is he? Where’s this great coach?” He’s not there. 10 minutes, he’s still not there. Three minutes before they have to take the field, Lombardi comes in, bangs the door open, and I think you all remember what great presence he had, right? Great presence. And he walked in and he just walked back and forth like this, just staring at the players. And he said, “All eyes on me.”

And I’m reading this in his book, I’m getting a picture of Vince Lombardi before his first game. And he said, “Gentlemen, we will be successful this year. You can focus on three things and three things only. Your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers.” And the rest of them, they knocked the walls down, the rest was history. I said, “That’s beautiful! I’m going to do that.” Your family, your religion and Rutgers basketball. That’s it. I had it. Listen, I’m 21 years old. The kids I’m coaching are 19, all right? And I’m going to be the greatest coach in the world, the next Lombardi. And I’m practicing right beside the locker room, the manager’s telling me, “You gotta go in.” Not yet, not yet. Family, religion, Rutgers basketball. All eyes on me. I got it, I got it.

And now finally he said, “Three minutes!” I said, “Fine.” True story, I go to knock the doors open just like Lombardi. Boom. It didn’t open. I almost broke my arm. It didn’t open, now I’m down, the players are looking. “Yo, coach. Help the coach up, help him up.” And now I did like Lombardi, I walked back and forth, and I was going like that with my arm, get the feeling back in it. And finally I said, “Gentlemen, all eyes on me.” and these kids wanted to play, they’re 19, “Let’s go.” I said, “Gentlemen, we’ll be successful this year. If you could focus on three things and three things only.” I said, “Your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers.” I did that. I remember that.

I remember where I came from. It’s so important to know where you are. I know where I am right now. How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? And 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.

I talked about my family. My family is so important. People think I have courage. The courage in my family is my wife Pam, my three daughters here, Nicole, Jamie, Leanne, my mom who is right here, too.

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 your emotions going, to be enthusiastic every day. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great can 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. Now I look at where I am now and I know what I want to do. What I would like to be able to do is to spend whatever time I have left and to give maybe some hope to others. The Arthur Ashe foundation is a wonderful thing. And AIDS, the amount of money pouring in for AIDS is not enough, but it is significant.

But if I told you it’s 10 times the amount that goes in for cancer research, I also tell you that 500,000 people will die this year of cancer. And I’ll also tell you that one in every four will be afflicted with this disease. And yet somehow we seem to have put it in a little bit of the back burner. I want to bring it back on the front table. We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research. It may not save my life, it may save my children’s lives. It may save someone you love. And it’s important. And ESPN has been so kind to support me in this endeavor and allow me to announce tonight that with ESPN’s support, which means what? Their money, and their dollars, and they’re helping me. We are starting the Jimmy V Foundation for cancer research.

And its motto is, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” And that’s what I’m going to try to do every minute that I have left. I will thank God for the day and the moment I have. And if you see me smile and maybe give me a hug cause that’s important to me, too. But try if you can, to support, whether it’s AIDS or the cancer foundation, so that someone else might survive, might prosper, and might actually be cured of this dreaded disease.

I can’t thank ESPN enough for allowing this to happen and I’m going to work as hard as I can for cancer research. And hopefully we’ll be … maybe we’ll have some cures and some breakthroughs, and I’d like to think I’m gonna fight my brains out to be back here again next year for the Arthur Ashe recipient. I want to give it next year.

I know I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go, and I got one last thing. I’ve said it before and I’m gonna say it again. 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. I thank you and God bless y’all.

What kind of cancer did Jim Valvano have?

Valvano was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in June 1992. The cancer was metastatic, meaning it had spread to other parts of the body. In Valvano’s case, it spread to his back. Doctors could not determine the exact origin of his cancer.

Valvano first discovered something was wrong when he felt pain during a golf outing. He didn’t realize it was serious until his spine appeared abnormal during an MRI. It wasn’t long after that it became clear Valvano was dealing with an illness that would likely take his life.

Despite the cancer leaving Valvano in tremendous pain, he still carried out his duties as a college basketball analyst during the 1992-93 season and remained in the public eye until the weeks leading up to his death.

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How long after Jimmy V’s speech did he die?

Valvano died on Apr. 28, 1993, less than two months after his ESPYS speech on Mar. 4. The speech served as his final public appearance, as Valvano wasn’t able to make it to Yankee Stadium in April despite being scheduled to throw out a first pitch. 

Valvano didn’t necessarily look like he was terminally ill during his speech, at least at first glance, and one reason for that might be that he didn’t lose his hair during cancer treatment despite expectations that he would. 

Jimmy V foundation

Valvano left a lasting legacy through his words, but he made it clear he wanted his legacy to be cancer research and treatments and, ultimately, a cure. That was what prompted him to found the V Foundation. 

“I can’t thank ESPN enough for allowing this to happen and I’m going to work as hard as I can for cancer research. And hopefully we’ll be … maybe we’ll have some cures and some breakthroughs,” Valvano told the ESPYs crowd. 

While a cure still eludes the world, the V Foundation for Cancer Research continues to raise money to bring that day closer. The foundation says it has awarded more than $310 million in grants nationwide since 1993, and it has been promoted by college basketball legends including Valvano’s personal friends Mike Krzyzewski and Dick Vitale. 

ESPN holds an annual “V Week” shortly after Thanksgiving, encouraging donations and intertwining college basketball programming with features that document the work the V Foundation has done.

Each advancement in cancer treatment is a reminder of the movement Valvano launched and the progress that is still ahead of the world. 

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