Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Spirit of Valvano lifts Whittenburg

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

NEW YORK - Twenty years later, Jim Valvano found a ballplayer to hug. Dereck Whittenburg felt his touch in the delirious Wagner College scrum as sure as he had heard his voice in the night, a spiritual force as real as the physical presence that made North Carolina State the enduring symbol of fairy tales turned into trophies and airballs turned into dunks.

"I thought Jim was here," Whittenburg said Monday in an office one flight up from the site of his Northeast Conference triumph, a victory over St. Francis of Brooklyn that secured Wagner's first NCAA bid.

"I felt Jim jump in the pile and hug me."

Whittenburg would point to a hanging sketch of a smiling Valvano, and then to a photograph of Ronald Reagan greeting the '83 national champs at the White House. "Look where I'm standing," Whittenburg said. "Right next to Jimmy. I'm always near him. I'm the only former player who was a pallbearer at his funeral.

"I think about him every day. I've been reading more and more about him as we've gone through this run. I've been dreaming about him, too. It's like he's a spirit advising me, a spirit who's always there."

From his desk Whittenburg faced a framed Sports Illustrated cover showing the Wolfpack in the wake of their Houston Cougars conquest, lifting a trophy toward the headline, "Miracle Workers." Jimmy V would've loved this scene. He would've loved how Whittenburg is doing for Wagner what his old coach once did for Iona.

Jimmy V would've loved how his former shooting guard has talked Wagner into shooting for the March Madness moon, into believing that a first-round game against Pittsburgh can be seized just like a final-round game against Olajuwon, Drexler and their fellow Phi Slamma Jamma frat members living above the rim.

"I never have anything prepared to say when I go into the locker room," Whittenburg said. "I just come up with these speeches from the heart. A lot of that is Jim, a lot of that is myself."

Ten years after Valvano succumbed to bone cancer, coach and protege remain joined at the clipboard, and Whittenburg would have it no other way. Their bond doesn't fit inside the small box that was Whittenburg's airball from 35 feet, the one Lorenzo Charles turned into the sport's all-time assist.

"Before Jimmy died he put me on his V Foundation board," Whittenburg said. "He didn't ask me; he just put me on. It was his way of leaving his mark on me, of showing his love for me. So in return I have to help find a cure for a horrible disease."

Won't repeat mistakes

If Whittenburg lives and coaches in Valvano's honor, he's very much his own man. He is tougher on his players than Valvano ever was, forcing them to conform to strict codes of conduct.

"We don't have tattoos or cornrows, and we dress up in coats and ties for games," Whittenburg said. "We've had at least a 2.5 team grade-point average every semester in my four years, with three guys on the Dean's list this year and six last year. These recent scandals have given me a great platform for the foundation I want here. I don't want a bunch of kids running around and playing ball, but respectful kids who are productive in the community."

An assistant under Valvano during his scandal-scarred end in Raleigh, Whittenburg said he doesn't indict his mentor with his approach. "Education was always important to Jimmy, and the guys who played for him prove that," the Wagner coach said. "But sometimes success makes you forget the essential things, and I think that happened a bit to Jimmy at the end."

Before Valvano's fall there was a charmed rise to athletic glory, basketball's answer to Lake Placid. It was a journey that started with ACC Tournament victories over Michael Jordan and Ralph Sampson and kicked into magic carpet-ride gear with a double overtime NCAA victory over Pepperdine.

Whittenburg has told his players all about it, told them their work ethic, chemistry and faith remind him of his Wolfpack. He's shown his Wagner players that old championship tape - they laugh more at his short shorts than his short shot - a tape Whittenburg himself has watched hundreds of times.

But he isn't wearing his championship ring like he has in the past. "I don't want to beat my players over the head with it," Whittenburg said. "I want these kids to think about winning their own rings."

Truth is, Wagner's as far removed from the Final Four as Staten Island is from Albuquerque. But when Whittenburg addresses his Seahawks before they face Pitt in Boston, he won't be quoting Gene Hackman from "Hoosiers."

He'll be quoting Jim Valvano from North Carolina State, the man who taught him that an airball isn't any reason to quit on the dream of a long, lost hug.

Special NCAA hoops section; Bracket contest

It's more than a Bearcats game
No. 24 Arkansas thinking big
UC out to prove naysayers wrong
Varsity Village gets $10M from Fifth Third

Xavier now the hunted

No. 1 ranking increases ante for UK to win it all
Norse win on putback

March Madness could be delayed by war
Pressure and expectations smother winning coaches
Ohio State suspends Williams
BYU's no-Sunday stance could cause NCAA shuffle
Little Mo leads underdog Bulldogs vs. Sooners
Blue Devils to stick with perimeter lineup
Gators need answers quickly
Bobby Knight's son applies for Wright State job
Spirit of Valvano lifts Whittenburg
Tigers learn of bid while on 12-hour bus ride
Asheville gets a whiff of the bigtime

NIT: Iowa 62, Valparaiso 60
UCLA fires Lavin