Bob Valvano copes with game of life

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 13, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ST. MARY'S CITY -- The games are his outlet. The games are his release. Two nights ago, his team played at home before fewer than 100 fans. It didn't matter. Here came St. Mary's, rallying from a 14-point second-half deficit to force one overtime and then another.

"C'mon fellas, suck it up for two seconds!" Bob Valvano cried to his players during a timeout before Marymount's final possession, with St. Mary's leading, 76-75. "It will be the biggest win in school history!"

The games carry him. Past the memory of his firing at Catholic last March, and his mother's quadruple bypass surgery that same week. Past the memory of his father-in-law who died at Christmas, and yes, even past the awful reality that his famous older brother might soon be gone.

The games, the games, the games. They seem so meaningless here, in this remote Division III outpost, this historic, picturesque town at the southern tip of Maryland. Yet, it's here where Bob Valvano is reviving his career. Here, where he's getting by.

"It takes so much energy just to get through the day on an even keel," he said. "Your emotions are subject to such swings, good and bad. A guy might come in and say, 'Bob, good game the other day,' and I'll break down in tears. Right now, I feel so vulnerable. I'm a little more on guard."

For almost a year, he has lived one nightmare after another, each of them devastating. His controversial firing led to a grievance. His mother nearly died. His father-in-law did. His brother recently appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the headline, "I'm Fighting To Live."

"I haven't even had time to process my season from Catholic," he said, referring to 1991-92, when his team set a school record with 21 wins and finished No. 29 in the Division III rankings. "Two weeks after the season, I started the absolute roller coaster of all time."

Mostly now, it is about his brother, the glib, gregarious Jimmy Vee. The other day, Bob spoke of him in the past tense, then caught himself, disgusted by what he had done. Jimmy Vee has cancer. Last summer, he was told that he most likely had a year to live.

Bob, 36, ordinarily looks forward to meeting his fellow coaches at the Final Four, but this year, everything is confused. Jim, 46, is scheduled to receive an award. Bob wonders if he'll be healthy enough to attend. "Every time I look at one answer, I open up six more questions," he said.

He speaks with Jim often. "We cover everything from how to defend the four corners to, 'is man innately good or bad?' " Bob said. "He can make me laugh hysterically and cry hysterically, all within 30 minutes. You finish a conversation with him and you need a shower."

Jim also started at Division III, at Johns Hopkins, but by the time he was Bob's age, he was one year away from a national championship at N.C. State. Slowly, Bob is coming to the realization that he might be left to continue a family legacy that began with their father.

"If, God forbid, he's gone at some point, doing this would be a lot different, no question," Bob said. "But not only would I want to stay, maybe to some degree it would make me all the more determined.

"You think of the Barrymores, you think of theater. You think of the Marsalises, you think of music. For the last few years, 'Valvano' has meant the game of basketball -- 99.9 percent because of him. To what degree, I can uphold that, I can try. Let's hope he's got a lot more to offer."

Bob never compares himself with Jim, knowing it's self-defeating. He spent four years at Division I St. Francis, N.Y., compiling a 38-74 record at a school that had two wins in the season before his arrival. He improved from 8-18 to 9-17 to 21-6 at Catholic, only to get fired.

He made mistakes -- allowing players to buy beer on a road trip his first year, distributing tampons at a team meeting his second, using vulgar language throughout -- but the issue boiled down to a personality conflict with two administrators. Bob won a handsome settlement from his grievance, and St. Mary's wasted no time hiring him.

He is in no rush to leave, for this torturous year has taught him, "Don't mess with happy." And, make no mistake, he is happy, here at the lowest rung of the college basketball ladder, where fans don't buy tickets, but are asked to make $3 donations.

On this night, St. Mary's (9-11, 4-4 in the Capital Athletic Conference) defeats a superior team, a team that hadn't lost since the death of its center, Pablo Coto, on Jan. 25, in a game against Goucher.

"For one night, I got away from all those troubles," Bob said.

When would they return?

Bob Valvano didn't blink.

"Right now."

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