(Don’t) Fear the Reaper, by Nick Lannon
MAY 4, 2019
Jim Valvano was the coach of one of the most famous teams in the history of college basketball, the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, a team that won the NCAA Championship that year in amazing fashion.
He’s probably more known, though, for his emotional speech at the first ESPY awards, shortly before his death from cancer. The odd thing about Jim Valvano’s death, though, is that no one thought he was actually going to die.
I recently rewatched the ESPN documentary Survive and Advance, which chronicled that 1983 team’s NCAA run. But more interesting to me than the basketball, though, was how the film treated Valvano’s diagnosis, struggle, and eventual death.
Almost every person interviewed in the film, from Valvano’s players to his wife and friends, said that when they first heard that Jim had been diagnosed with cancer, they just knew that he would beat it. He was a fighter, they all agreed, and he would win. This is the language we use with cancer: the language of victory. I saw a post on Facebook recently in which a young boy wanted 100,000 “likes” because he’d “beaten” cancer. The people in Valvano’s life all spoke of their surprise as he became sicker, and then their shock at his death. They’d really and honestly, it turned out, despite all rationality, thought he would win. We use this victory language to try to convince ourselves that a win over death is like a win for the ’83 Wolfpack: facing long odds, but not impossible.
Even Jim Valvano died. The winner of all those NCAA tournament games didn’t win. He couldn’t win the ultimate one. The Facebook boy might have beaten cancer, but he hasn’t beaten death. No mere human has, or ever will. As humans, we want to win everything, but the victory we most want to garner is the one with the biggest stakes: we want to defeat our own deaths. The incredible and profound thing about Jesus’ cross is that it doesn’t shrink back from death. It doesn’t avoid it. Christ’s cross looks death in the face and boldly confronts it. The cross is the end of the human contest. Everyone loses. As the Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.”
Bill Simmons, a former ESPN personality (and, perhaps tellingly, one of the creators and executive producers of the 30 for 30 series), gave voice to this tension in an episode of his “The Bill Simmons Podcast” on December 16, 2016, discussing the then-recent death of TNT basketball sideline reporter Craig Sager. Here’s what he said: “I was surprised by just how shocked I was that somebody who had been battling cancer for three years couldn’t beat it. And I think that’s part of the legacy of Sager, which is that the dude was such a fighter. I was surprised that cancer beat him. Cancer beats everybody…I just kept assuming he was going to keep fighting and fighting…I can’t remember a public figure fighting harder than that guy did to live.”
He says it so clearly: cancer beats everybody, and yet he—for some reason—assumed that Craig Sager would be the exception. Simmons had unknowingly made the impossible—the defeat of death—possible in his mind. But that’s the thing about human life: the diagnosis is terminal for all of us. Fight or no fight, we all die. Only God, in Christ, brings victory out of defeat. God, in Christ, brings life out of death. We all die. Yes, it’s true, and unavoidable. In Christ, though, we do not die without hope. In fact, we have something even better than hope; we have a promise: new and eternal life.