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What is the Arthur Ashe Award? How tennis star inspired most prestigious ESPY, Jim Valvano’s famous speech

The 2024 ESPY Awards are set for Thursday, July 11 at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC and will be hosted by tennis legend Serena Williams.

The annual event celebrates the past year in sports, awarding the best athletes — and teams — that provided the most memorable and iconic moments at all levels.

Among the most prestigious awards is the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, an honor that in many ways, transcends the world of sports. 

Learn more about the award as well as its winner in 2024.

What is the Arthur Ashe Award?

Per ESPN, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage is given to recipients that “reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”

The award itself is not limited to just athletes, as it is given to a member of the sporting world whose difference transcends sports to impact the world.

Who is Arthur Ashe?

Born in 1943, Arthur Ashe was an American tennis player who won three Grand Slam titles during his career — the 1968 US Open, 1970 Australian Open and Wimbledon in 1975. Ashe is the only Black man to win the singles title at each of the events.

After retiring from the sport in 1980, Ashe became an influential voice in civil rights, serving as a member of a delegation of African Americans who worked towards bringing the end of South African Apartheid. 

Ashe was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and went public with his diagnosis in 1992. He would go on to found the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, spending his last days working to educate the masses and increase awareness surrounding HIV and AIDS.

Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia on Feb. 6, 1993. He was 49 years old.

Arthur Ashe Award winners by year

Steve Gleason, former New Orleans Saints safety, won the Arthur Ashe Award in 2024. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 and has documented his journey with the disease over the past 13 years.

“Over the past 13 years, I’ve been documenting our journey with ALS,” Gleason wrote on Instagram. “My aim has always been to see if we can discover peace and freedom with a love of Life, in the midst of extreme adversity. Being recognized at The 2024 ESPYS is not just an honor, but a powerful platform to further help and serve others. Thank you, ESPN, for this incredible accolade.”

Year Winner
2024 Steve Gleason
2023 United States women’s national soccer team
2022 Vitali Klitschko
2021 Maya Moore
2020 Kevin Love
2019 Bill Russell
2018 “Sister Survivors” of USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal
2017 Eunice Kennedy Shriver
2016 Zaevion Dobson
2015 Caitlyn Jenner
2014 Michael Sam
2013 Robin Roberts
2012 Pat Summitt
2011 Dewey Bozella
2010 Ed Thomas
2009 Nelson Mandela
2008 Tommie Smith and John Carlos
2007 Trevor Ringland and David Cullen
2006 Roia Ahmad and Shamila Kohestani
2005 Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah and Jim MacLaren
2004 George Weah
2003 Pat and Kevin Tillman
2002 Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick
2001 Cathy Freeman
2000 William David Sanders
1999 Billie Jean King
1998 Dean Smith
1997 Muhammad Ali
1996 Loretta Claiborne
1995 Howard Cosell
1994 Steve Palermo
1993 Jim Valvano

Jim Valvano ESPY Awards speech

The inaugural ESPY Awards were held on March 4, 1993, just weeks after Ashe’s death. Former college basketball coach Jim Valvano, who led NC State to a historic national title in 1983, was honored as the first-ever Arthur Ashe Award recipient.

Less than a year prior, Valvano was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and during his acceptance speech, admitted that he did not know how much time he had left to live. In the now-iconic speech, Valvano announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research and provided a number of unforgettable musings.

Valvano died on April 28, 1993, less than eight weeks after his speech. He was 47 years old.

I can’t tell you what an honor it is to even be mentioned in 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.

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