by Steve Adubato, PhD
How significant can a speech be? The Gettysburg Address, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I have a dream" speech, or President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in which he said those memorable words: "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
There are many memorable speeches made by well-known leaders, but every once in awhile there is a speech made by someone in the most extraordinary of circumstances that stands the test of time — a speech that continues to be watched on YouTube, moves people to tears and motivates them in ways they had never imagined.
While the NCAA basketball tournament has recently ended, it’s a perfect time to think back to March of 1993 when Jim Valvano, the former basketball coach of North Carolina State University — a team that had won the NCAA tournament a decade before — delivered one of the most powerful and memorable speeches while accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first televised ESPY Awards.
Valvano was in the final stages of his battle with bone cancer. He died two months after his ESPY speech and those in attendance knew that Jimmy V was likely making one of his last public appearances. He needed to be assisted to the podium by his two close friends and fellow coaches, Dick Vitale and Mike Krzyzewski.
In his speech, Valvano came to life and was full of energy and passion saying, "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.
"I’m fighting cancer, everybody knows that. People ask me all the time about how you go through your life and how’s your day, and nothing is changed for me."
Valvano went on to say: "There are three things we all 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 heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special."
Valvano went on to talk about the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research and the importance of raising money for cancer research.
Said Valvano: "It may not save my life. It may save my children’s lives. It may save someone you love. The Foundation’s motto is ‘Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.’ 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. I’m going to work as hard as I can for cancer research and hopefully, maybe, we’ll have some cures and some breakthroughs."
Finally, with the crowd in tears and on the edge of their seats, Valvano concluded with this: "I gotta go, and I got one last thing and I said it before, and I want to 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 implore you to go on YouTube and check out Jim Valvano’s ESPY speech. No PowerPoint slides. No charts. No graphs. Just an incredibly passionate, personal and persuasive speech from the heart from a New Jersey guy who never gave up. Twenty-one years later, his words mean more than ever.