Jimmy V is Jimmy Valvano, the brash and high-strung basketball coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack, whose Cinderella team defeated a star-studded U. of Houston for the ’83 crown. After Valvano landed in NCAA hot water in the late ’80s, he left the university and wound up a popular, colorful commentator for ESPN.
Soon thereafter, he was diagnosed with cancer of the spine, and his dying days — during which he valiantly enrolled friends and family for his cancer research team — was well-documented by the media.
It’s that last chapter that “Never Give Up” emphasizes, but the telepic takes a long and muddled route to get there. Story starts in 1993 at the Long Island high school gym where Valvano (Anthony LaPaglia) learned hoops from his father (Lou Ciscoulo) about 30 years earlier. From there, vidpic jumps to Valvano as a teen courting wife-to-be Pam (Ashley Crow) and to Valvano’s crowning achievement — the ’83 win.
Use of actual footage from the CBS broadcast of the game is more effective than if it had been restaged, but cuts to the locker room and sidelines have the look of a cooking-oil commercial.
After the Wolfpack’s victory, Valvano becomes the hero of Raleigh, N.C. — dedicated more to the game and his celebrity than to Pam and their three children — and develops a prosperous side career as a motivational speaker.
On a trip to Hawaii, Valvano’s father dies and upon his return the media descends on the family as the scandal breaks surrounding his basketball program.
During one of his backdoor escapes, Valvano meets Mike Davis (Ronny Cox) on the golf course, and the two strike up a friendship and business relationship that carries through to Valvano’s death.
The cancer diagnosis comes after he quits N.C. State, and the filmmakers get the vidpic on a solid, linear track chronicling his demise. Yet by this point, none of Valvano’s relationships has been established with any credence.
Crow plays Pam with stone-cold aloofness that belies the troubles of a wife left alone four months out of the year. Among the players, only Chris Washburn (Dwane Adway) is given so much as a line.
LaPaglia captures Valvano’s onscreen persona but he never shows what made the man tick. And only when eldest daughter Nicole (Wendy Hoopes) breaks down in front of her father do we get any sense of what this man meant to anybody. Clearly the disease-of-the-week area is where this creative team excels.
Direction by Marcus Cole and editing by Jim Oliver fail to give “Never Give Up” emotional resonance until late in the telepic.
Re-creations ring terribly false. Makeup didn’t seem concerned about reality, either.
The real Valvano was a gaunt and tired-looking man near the end but he never lost his fire; LaPaglia looks no different in ’83 than in ’93.
Many moments that Valvano spoke about at length during his days as a commentator are either gleaned over or ignored, and his abilities as a motivator are presented too one-dimensionally to clarify his great talent on the sidelines or at a podium.