"I hear [Valvano] had a big scandal at N.C. State. Three of his players were found in the library."--Pat Williams, Philadelphia 76ers general manager.
Will the real Jim Valvano please stand up?
By Peter Golenbock
Carroll and Graf
311 pp., $18.95
Isn't he the chummy basketball guy with the big schnozz and the quick wit? The coaching success story who plays by the rules--and actually cares about his players as human beings? Kind of a Tommy Lasorda without the waistline?
Or is he the well-connected sleazeball who recruits naive high schoolers to North Carolina State with visions of national TV, number-one rankings, superstardom and sports cars, only to sit them on the bench? The racist manipulator who covers up his players' drug problems, illiteracy and criminal tendencies without trying to get them help? The egomaniac who pressures professors and administrators into preserving eligibility for Wolfpack cagers in his single-minded pursuit of NCAA glory and the all-mighty buck?
In Personal Fouls: The Broken Promises and Shattered Dreams of Big Money Basketball at Jim Valvano's North Carolina State, Peter Golenbock makes a forceful case for the latter, the portrait of a venal, vicious and vainglorious Coach V.
UNFORTUNATELY, there is no way to know how much of his account is factual. Golenbock swears he taped all of his conversations, but refuses to release the tapes in order to protect his unnamed sources. The one source he does name, team manager and Valvano confidant John Simonds, had his arm dislocated by a Valvano assistant after telling Golenbock the behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty.
There was so much controversy surrounding Personal Fouls that its initial publishers decided to abandon it, particularly after N.C. State officials went through the roof after hearing of the allegations--which were revealed on an early book jacket release. Carroll and Graf, a small New York publishing firm, decided to print the book, and the university began an investigation. So far, Valvano has stepped down from the post of athletic director, but it remains unclear what further changes will be made in the Wolfpack program.
Valvano, of course, claims Golenbock's account is all lies. The truth is probably somewhere in between the two versions, much closer to the author's than the coach's.
Valvano's record, off the court, is horrible. Despite taking courses as demanding as "Leisure Alternatives," few of his players graduate. Several, like Cozell McQueen and Chris Washburn, could not read before or after their N.C. State "educations." And Washburn has been in and out of drug rehabilitation since his stereo-stealing college days.
GOLENBOCK'S allegations will raise some eyebrows, but it is his vivid characterizations that make the book work. There's Kevin Drummond, the serious, hard-working junior-college transfer who can't understand why Valvano picks on him instead of Charles Shackleford, the lazy, pot-smoking center.
There's Washburn, he of the 470 SAT scores, who could not identify the country north of the U.S. There's McQueen, who weeps as his roommate has to read him the newspaper account of the death of his good friend Len Bias. There's Avie Lester, the acne-ridden reserve who releases the frustration he builds up sitting on the bench by pummeling teammates in practice.
Then there's the intelligent, softspoken Bennie Bolton, whose anger mounts throughout the 1986 season and finally erupts before the ACC championship game:
"Fellas, we've had a hard season. We lost Drum. We had fights. We've had grade problems. Everyone here hates V. After this season, many of us are going to leave here. Some are going to graduate, others will transfer. All of us here think that V has burned us....
Three weeks ago, the fans were dogging us everywhere we went...Fuck V. Fuck the fans. We need to win this game for us...Today we have to put aside all the differences between black and white, who's playing and who's not, and let's go out there and give it a shot--for us. Scrap everyone else--school pride and all that garbage. Let's just try to play one game one time for us, just like the old days prior to the start of the season when we used to go down to the gym and play for the fun of it."
MOST of all, there's Valvano, professor of "the Art of the Big Con 101." A liar, a cheat, a turncoat, a PR mastermind--this is not the funny loudmouth we saw on CBS looking for someone to hug after winning the NCAA championship in 1983.
Golenbock's year-long investigation of the Wolfpack has left him jaded and furious with the corrupt N.C. State hoops program, and he vents his anger in his introduction--an attack on the materialistic, win-at-all-costs American value system that projects crack dealers and inside traders as the heroes of the 1980s.
Golenbock sees Personal Fouls as a quintessentially American tale of innocence, greed and power abuse. He offers two plans for revamping collegiate athletics--one cynical, one idealistic.
The cynical one is hardly original: drop the facade, face the music and pay the players their market value. Rather than let Nike pay Valvano $150,000 to force his players to wear Nike equipment on the court (And planes--for "team unity," according to Valvano.), let the "amateurs" endorse their own products. This plan, of course, will never happen.
Much of his idealistic 11-point plan is equally unrealistic. Eliminate weekday games? Split tournament TV revenue equally among all teams? Even Lehigh? Eliminate booster groups? Appoint Dan Quayle "ombudsman for college athletes?"
Earth to Golenbock--come in.
SOME suggestions do merit a look, though. Eliminating athletic dorms and coaching endorsements would be a constructive start. Giving coaches tenure might allow them to build character and teach basketball without alumni pressure to win.
But eliminating freshman eligibility would unfairly single out first-year students as the only athletes who need time to study and rearrange priorities. Expelling Proposition 48-victims with low college GPA's similarly misplaces the onus on a distinct group of athletes, this time those with SAT scores under 700. Athletic eligibility should depend solely on academic performance regardless of class year or SAT scores.
The real problem stems from high school, when teen superstars lose sight of academics in pursuit of the NBA money. Golenbock realizes that young athletes must be taught that they must study to become Michael Jordan, because most will never become Michael Jordan.
The body of the book, the story of a season of discontent, is where Golenbock excels. There are a few flaws, however: he does dwell unnecessarily on Valvano's coaching deficiencies, which are numerous but hardly immoral; and he also inserts a three-page chapter devoted solely to relaying rumors that Bias' died from smoking a crack-laced marijuana cigarette, not from snorting cocaine. Interesting, but irrelevant and unsubstantiated.
But when it comes to capturing a team's locker-room atmosphere, Golenbock, the co-author of Yankee-bashing books like Sparky Lyle's The Bronx Zoo and Graig Nettles' Balls, has no peer. If you're interested in college athletics or just want to read a horror story about power abuse, make a fast break to Personal Fouls.