Jimmy Valvano: laugh, think, cry

For this, my 400th posting on the blog, it is appropriate that I choose something a little different, a little special. This is both. For one thing this speech is 25 years old, for another it has been viewed on YouTube nearly 4.5 million times. I was pointed at it by a trainee.

Jimmy Valvano, known to his fans as Jimmy V, was a legendary basketball coach in the USA. In 1992 he was diagnosed with cancer. On 4 March, 1993 he delivered this speech at Madison Square Garden, accepting the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

We are primed for an emotional experience by the adoration shown by the audience. We see him leaning on someone’s arm as he climbs the steps onto the stage, but otherwise there are no strong clues to his illness.

After retiring as a basketball coach he had another career as a motivational speaker, and it shows. This is no stranger to the speaking platform.

In his opening he makes the point that today he has no cue cards, and that makes me wonder whether he usually did. My theory, from other things he says, is that this free speaking shooting from the hip is not quite the norm for him, but I’m not surprised how easily he does it.

I remember, as quite a small boy, observing to my parents how invalids always seemed to be more cheerful than other people (at that time WWII was a very recent memory, so people with war injuries were all around). Here we have a man on the threshold of death lecturing us how we should maintain our happiness.

And look at the energy with which he does it! If there was little sign of his illness at the beginning there is absolutely none now. He is being swept along by the intensity of his message. 

His prime message is, “Don’t give up: don’t ever give up,” but there is another recurring theme – almost a mantra – in this speech. He urges us to make sure that every single day we laugh, we think, and we cry.

I’m reminded of another mantra that we hear all over the place, that we should treat each day as if it were our last. Jimmy V makes me realise that we should deliver each speech as if it were our last. The wonderful uninhibited freedom with which he delivers this must surely owe something to his being conscious that he has nothing to lose. 

This is a classic piece of speaking and – guess what? – it makes us laugh; it makes us think; and it makes us cry.

At the end we see several friends almost carrying him back down the steps off the stage, and now we can see how ill he is. He died on 28 April that year.

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