Celebrating a Giving Spirit

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

“Don’t give up! Don’t ever give up!”

Those words, spoken by Jim Valvano at the ESPY Awards in 1993, when the legendary college basketball coach and ESPN commentator knew his cancer was terminal, highlighted his announcement that ESPN was creating the V Foundation for Cancer Research that year. Mr. Valvano, who also served as one of the network’s commentators, envisioned millions of fans banding together to help fight the disease. The emotional speech has since become a beloved and frequently aired segment of the ESPN archives.

In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of its first broadcast, ESPN is calling for “Show Your Spirit Day!” Sept. 7, asking fans to wear their favorite team’s apparel that day. In addition, the fans-individually or through their schools, companies and organizations-are asked to make donations of at least $5 to the V Foundation.

“This is a really fun way to celebrate Jim Valvano and a worthy cause,” said Rosa Gatti, ESPN’s senior VP of corporate communications and outreach. “ESPN is pledging that 100 percent of all donations will go directly to research.”

Like most major corporations, ESPN donates funds to a variety of organizations. But the network’s “pet” charity, the one with which it has the strongest emotional ties, is clearly the V Foundation. Through ESPN’s efforts, more than $40 million has been raised for the foundation since 1993. Ms. Gatti said an average of 83 cents of every dollar has gone to research.

Mr. Valvano was the coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack when, as underdogs in the 1983 NCAA Basketball Tournament, the team captured the national title. Many credited the team’s success to its “heart,” as demonstrated by Mr. Valvano’s leadership.

He received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the inaugural ESPY Awards ceremony on March 4, 1993, when he made his now-famous speech. Mr. Valvano died weeks later, April 28, 1993, at age 47.

ESPN sportscaster Dick Vitale, who covered the Wolfpack and later worked alongside and became friends with Mr. Valvano, said, “Jimmy V. was a natural for TV. He could have been Seinfeld before Seinfeld came along. He was such a funny guy, he would have been phenomenal on sitcoms. When he walked into a room, he just lit it up.”

“Jimmy was so strong when he found out he had cancer,” Ms. Gatti said. “We asked him how he wanted to handle this, did he want us to make some sort of announcement. He asked to do a conference call to reporters and talk about his battle with cancer and the need for more research. He was so brave about it.”

ESPN hopes to build Show Your Spirit Day! into an annual event.

Other ESPN and ESPY-related fund-raisers for the cause include annual celebrity golf events and an annual men’s basketball classic. There have also been wine-tasting events in California’s Napa Valley that have raised more than $1 million.

ESPN’s commitments to charity extend beyond the V Foundation. The company also sponsors the Play Your Way Team ESPN initiative, which, Ms. Gatti said, “provides the power of play and the power of sports. The Play Your Way initiative creates and promotes PAGs-physically active games-for kids to play.”

Team ESPN, the employee volunteerism arm of the company, collaborates with Cable in the Classroom in a program called SportsFigures, which helps educators use sports to teach math and science. It crafts lessons to be presented to students from an athlete’s perspective. Various sports stars, such as Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, have participated.

Ms. Gatti said ESPN also recognizes the growing importance of sports for the disabled. The network is a contributor and organizer of volunteers who aid the Special Olympics, as well as V Foundation sports programs for those with cancer.