A sit down with the director of Survive and Advance, a documentary celebrating Jimmy Valvano.
by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
The image of the late Jim Valvano bounding across the court in jubilation after North Carolina State’s upset of Houston in the 1983 NCAA Championship is a requisite for any March Madness highlight. The Wolfpack’s Cinderella run stretched back to the ACC Tournament, which they won, securing an invite to the NCAA Tournament. During that span, six of their nine games were decided by two-points or overtime, earning them the nickname, “The Cardiac Pack.” But Survive and Advance is just as much about the heart and essence of their coach Jimmy V as it is about the team.
Directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jonathan Hock, (Unguarded, Chris Herren and Royce White’s Draft Day Hockumentary), his recent work resonates with basketball fans for good reason. Hock’s ability to interview, glean insight and get the raw and honest emotion from people, is evidenced when he spoke with Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, who couldn’t help but show his human side when speaking about the last days of his dear friend Valvano. The director creates environments where his subjects feel like they’re among old friends, which is what he did with the NC State team as they reunited in a restaurant, fondly reminiscing over their celebrated run like old war heroes.
Despite Valvano’s passing in 1993 from cancer, his charismatic voice is prevalent throughout the film, through old interviews, speaking engagements, anecdotes from players and coaches, and his inspiring “Don’t Give Up” acceptance speech at the ESPY Awards, eight weeks before he died, all of which capture his spirit. The film shows how “the son of Rocco and Angelina Valvano,” motivated and inspired a group of men from Tobacco Road to dream to the fullest—to believe in him and to believe in themselves, and in the face of insurmountable odds, to simply survive and advance.
Survive and Advance airs on ESPN March 17 at 9:00 p.m. EST.
SLAMonline had a conversation with Survive and Advance’s director Jonathan Hock.
SLAM: Do you recall that NC State run? Were you watching it as it happened?
Jonathan Hock: Oh yeah, I was a sophomore in college and one of my best friends had got on the NC State bandwagon very early. When the tournament started, he picked NC State in our NCAA pool out of probably hundreds of people in the pool. He was talking them up like crazy and we all laughed at him at first and then as every miraculous game went by, we all jumped on the bandwagon with him, because it was such an incredible run. It’s just everything that a Cinderella run can be and by the final game we’re all there in a room together watching on a little black and white TV, in the dorm room we had black and white TV rooting Whit and Sidney on and it was unbelievable.
SLAM: Living that moment and developing a personal attachment, how did it feel when the opportunity presented itself to do this film?
JH: It was a dream come true, to be able to spend a year and a half of your professional life, reliving one of your happiest memories as a sports fan. When that game ended, it was a big celebration outside, guys ran out to the playground to play ball ‘til 2:30, 3 in the morning, taking 30-foot shots yelling “Whittenburrrrgg!” It was tremendous and it’s the kind of project where you have to pinch yourself and remind yourself how fortunate that you are to be in a position where you can earn a living telling stories about things you lived and loved as a fan.
SLAM: How did this film become a 30 for 30?
JH: Dereck (Whittenburg) and I had met when he was coaching at Fordham, and he called me one day in the spring of 2011. We had shared stories in the past and he knew what a big deal the ’83 Wolfpack was for me as a fan. He said, “The 30th anniversary is coming up and the story is going to be told and I want to be sure it gets told right. So I’d like you to tell it with me.” So I said, “Great, come on in next week and we’ll talk about it and make a plan and pitch ESPN.” During the four or five days between when he called and when we met, was when Lorenzo (Charles) passed. So suddenly, the project took on a whole new meaning and after the funeral and everything, we went to ESPN and talked to them about the project and the way we’d like to tell the story and we were fortunate that they embraced it too. The thing with ESPN is that Jim Valvano is and was a very big deal to them, and the fact that his story had never been told in a 30 for 30 before, made the project important for a lot of people.
SLAM: With Jimmy V’s personality and story, it could have been very easy to make a film about him alone, was it hard to balance telling his story as well as the athletes who played for him?
JH: It’s a love story, it’s a love story between the players and the coach, and you have to in your storytelling, you need to honor that and it would be very easy to just say Jimmy V is enough drama for a whole 30 for 30 on his own and that’s true, but for me the more enduring story is the love story between him and the players. You need the players and their background and you need their motivation to tell that story right and to give it the meaning and weight that it deserves. It’s been 20 years since Coach Valvano passed away and 30 years since they shared their greatest moment together, the passage of time really makes everything different and changes the meanings of things. It gives the players insight into what matters and I think that there’s some deep meaning in the film for viewers. Not just reliving or for the first time living the incredible run and experiencing the incredible magnetism, charisma and power of Jim Valvano, but also seeing how it feels for human beings of a certain age, (which happens to be just about the exact age I am). Looking at that across 30 years, to something and how it feels to know when your life became perfect for an instant. It was now three decades ago and it’s a very emotional experience and it says a lot about life. That’s what sports does when it’s at its best, it says a lot about life.
SLAM: How important was it for you to keep Jimmy V’s voice in this film and where was his speech from that ran through the film?
JH: That was something called The Million Dollar Roundtable, where he spoke to a group and it was great because you couldn’t find footage like this anymore ’cause there’s no sponsor logos on it. It’s just this black environment with a spotlight on Coach V and he’s giving such an impassioned rendition of his own history and his philosophy and as soon as we saw this footage, the producer Jim Podhoretz and I looked at it and were like, “Wow, this was like Coach V was telling us it’s almost like it’s present tense.” We were really, really glad to have found that footage and really appreciative for them letting us use it, ’cause it wasn’t a public event. It really helps you understand why the players loved him so much.