March 11, 2006

You turn on the TV in March and college basketball games are on the air almost 24/7. And Bob Valvano is one of the guys who is working almost non-stop this time of year.

I had a chance to chat with Valvano at the Skydome Wednesday evening before the Big Sky Conference Men’s Tournament title game between NAU and Montana. He covered the game for ESPN2 along with Terry Gannon.

Before we began our short discussion, Valvano, who coached college basketball for 19 years before becoming an analyst, finished jotting down a few statistics on his notepad.

Then he was ready to offer a few anecdotes about what he does from October to April.

How many college games have you seen since October? I asked.

“When I’m not doing stuff for ESPN, I work as Louisville’s radio and TV analyst, so I’ve seen many of their games. I also do (coverage of) the Big East for ESPN … so I’ve seen the entire Big East essentially, so it starts there. But then I did the Preseason NIT and the Jimmy V Classic. So the top five teams I’ve seen all of them in person. I’ve seen UConn, I’ve seen Villanova, I’ve seen Memphis, I’ve seen Duke. I haven’t seen Gonzaga this year, although I had them last year.

“I think when the year’s over I’m going to do 52 games.”

And you thought you watched a lot of games!

It’s a constant challenge for Valvano, the younger brother of the late North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano who won a national title in 1983, to stay informed about the plusses and minuses of so many teams.

Here’s how he described that challenge:

“At this time of year I always tell people it’s like you’re a tax accountant and it’s April 1.

“Starting Saturday, Championship Week, we’ll have seven games in eight days. So it’s busy, but I love it. There’s not an ounce of complaint in there. It’s a very fortunate way to make a living if you love basketball.”

So how does your voice hold up?

“Everybody has tea and lozenges. It (my voice) is holding up OK,” he said.

Where do you go after leaving Flagstaff?

“Actually, I go from here to the Big West Championship in Anaheim,” Valvano said. “We have the semifinals on Friday on ESPNU and the championship game I do with Terry on Saturday.”

Where were you before coming to Flagstaff?

“The Big South Championship that Winthrop won, and I did the doubleheader in a D-II league called the Gulf South Championship,” he said. “I did the men’s and women’s finals there, which was very entertaining. That’s one of the very best D-II leagues in the country.”

What really characterizes Big Sky basketball?

“It’s going to sound like I’m sucking up to everybody hear but I would say class,” he told me. “The one thing I’m struck with it is a first-class organization from the coaches to the players to the environments. Obviously this is now the third different venue in the last three years. I’ve been exposed to all different sorts of communities.

“The coaches are very accessible and appreciative. The kids are very articulate. And on top of it, it’s good basketball. It’s very entertaining basketball to watch. I have nothing but good things to see about this league. It’s been a great experience to be a part of it.”

Do you have a favorite Big Sky game you’ve been to over the years?

“I would say the very first one we did, which is not good news for the locals here but I’ll tell you why,” Valvano said. “It was the championship game two years ago and Northern Arizona lost at Eastern Washington in Cheney. They greeted us. Terry and I did the game and they had signs up — ‘Welcome Terry and Bob.’ This was all still kind of new to me. I was just in my second or third year of doing Championship Week stuff. I was really appreciative of that. And then I will always be struck with (NAU) coach (Mike) Adras after the game.

“As we were leaving to go to the car, he came over to both of us and just said, ‘Thank you for being here and giving us the great coverage.’ That’s easy to do that when you’ve won. It’s easy to be a gracious winner and look like you’re trying to walk out and make everybody say, ‘Boy, what a good guy he is.’ But when you’ve just lost and it is a one-bid league (to the NCAA tourney) and it’s really your chance, he could’ve been devastated. Instead, he was just a picture of class. I walked out and said, ‘Wow, this league is pretty good.'”

How do you try to analyze a game?

“I’m in the arena,” he said, “and even if you’re watching on TV, there may be some little, subtle things you don’t see. You can see what’s going on. I’m trying to tell you why they are doing those things. It’s up to you to decide whether you agree. I’m not selling it for them, but if the coach is going to make a move, I’m going to try and tell you why he’s making it. Now at home you can then say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’

Are you happy with the legacy of your brother and the Jimmy V Foundation?

“I’m just humbled by how people still remember him,” he said of his brother who died of cancer in 1993. “If you think about it, we were in the hotel last night and a guy came up to me and said, ‘You look like Jimmy V.’ I said, ‘That was my brother.’ And he went on and on. He was a young man. He was working in the restaurant. He might’ve been 22, 23 years old.

“…So that means that kid was 9 when Jimmy stopped coaching and probably wasn’t born when Jim won the championship. And so for him to know who he is, I think, it has to speak a little bit to the legacy a little bit.

“We’ve raised over $50 million now for cancer research. We’ve funded 200 scientists to do research. We’ve done some brick-and-mortar stuff.

“It does two things: One, we’re all going to go sometime. Obviously I wish he (my brother) had been here a lot longer. But if we can make that kind of a difference that should be all of our goals: to do something that has ramifications beyond our time here.

“(Two), it kind of keeps him alive for me. I mean, every year at this time I feel like he comes back for a visit. You put the TV on and you know you’re going to see him running around at the end of the game looking to hug somebody at the game. CBS runs that all the time, ESPN runs it all the time.”

Visit the V Foundation for Cancer Research online at http://www.jimmyv.org.