Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
When legendary college basketball coach Jim Valvano proclaimed these seven words at the 1993 ESPY Awards, he was fighting an opponent more daunting than any he had ever faced on the court—terminal cancer. The 47-year-old’s legendary acceptance speech for the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award hid the fact that he had eight weeks to live.
Yet the weakness that disabled him from walking on stage under his own power did not cripple his spirit. With the humor of a comedian and the enthusiasm of his role model Vince Lombardi, Valvano urged his audience to live passionately and seize every day.
“Think about it, if you laugh, you think, and you cry—that’s a full day,” he said. “That’s a heck of a day.”
This week marks the Eighth Annual Jimmy V Week for Cancer Research, a cause that Valvano spearheaded before his death through a foundation bearing his name. College basketball games around the country are played in his memory, raising millions of dollars to eradicate an opponent that Valvano and so many others have lost to.
And it provides the perfect backdrop for Valvano’s 15-minute long acceptance speech to play on repeat. Yet his theatrics (ever see a grown man fight with a teleprompter?) and vivid stories give way to the address’ simple message—seven concluding words that simultaneously capture Valvano’s courage and the human spirit’s resilient nature.
Their beauty lies in simple elegance and profound applicability. In eight syllables, Valvano taught us that brevity puts hardship into perspective. Rather than preach and expound, he left his audience to think.
But what does it mean to never give up?
To a young kid, it means riding a bike around and around the block until the training wheels can come off. To a college senior, it means powering through despite the question mark that stands at the finish line.
To a cancer patient, it means living each day to literally defy the odds.
Like most things in life, Valvano’s message is relative to the journey we each face. His seven signature words are immortal because they give us chills. And they give us chills because they terrify us.
There is no magical formula for perseverance, nor is there a guidebook to confronting the unknown. We love certainty and clarity, yet life withholds them from us every day. We want to cling to hope even when hope turns its back on us. Valvano gives us a demand without any direction other than to keep fighting, and we’re left to fill in the blank at the end of our own sentence.
Yet in Jimmy V’s fight and the fight that we each call our own, we hold something that no one can take away from us. And like the terminally-ill basketball coach who fought to raise money so that one day “his children could survive,” we fight for something that is so much bigger than ourselves.
Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Senior Staff