Derek Whittenburg Interview
Standing small in stature, but gargantuan in heart, Dereck Whittenburg, was a mean-mugging, trash talking, and sharp shooting assassin who’s hot hand and unabashed confidence made him a legend on streets of Washington, D.C..
At the age of 13, Whittenburg stared into the television screen as he watched his cousin, David Thompson; lead N.C. State to their first ever national title in 74’. With confetti trickling down from the heavens, jubilated Wolfpack players celebrated with their index fingers pointed high in the air; symbolizing their immortality. Thompson, college basketball’s golden child, captured MVP honors – further cementing his legendary status. It was a spectacle unlike anything Dereck had ever witnessed before; one that would shape his childhood and ultimately, his destiny. Because it was at that exact moment that his dream has been realized. Like Thompson, he too wanted to rock the Wolfpack red; to win awards; to be crowned champion. He wanted to do everything his cousin had done, only better.
Nine years later, under the tutelage of the legendary Jim Valvano, Whittenburg lead N.C. State past a star-studded Houston Cougars team to capture the 83′ NCAA Championship – a run that ESPN dubbed as “the greatest college basketball moment of the 20th century.” Now 55, “Whitt” still remains a polarizing figure in the basketball community. He currently serves as an administrator at his beloved N.C. State and tours the nation, speaking about that magical moment and the coach that made it all happen. “It’s not that I’m living in the past,” he told me. I believed him. But, damn, if you’re Dereck Whittenburg, why would you ever stop?
Jeffrey Kee: How often are you asked about that 83’ title run with N.C. State?
Dereck Whittenburg: It seems that it’s been every day of my life for the last 32 years. It really does and that’s no exaggeration. I could be anywhere in the world and someone will ask me about that championship. If you would have told me 32 years ago, when I was in college, that our team would have had this type of impact I would have started laughing at you. But it’s been such an incredible journey. Even last week when Villanova won the title, I got interviewed just as many times as Kris Jenkins did.
JK: Do you ever get tired of talking about it?
DW: No, how can you? It’s a vehicle for myself – with all that I’m currently involved in – I can use my successes in athletics to help me motivate and inspire other people. I really enjoy talking about it too. It’s not that I’m living in the past, but I think the “Survive and Advance” documentary has brought the 83’ title run back into the present and that’s why people still talk about it to this day.
JK: You and I both hail from the city of Washington D.C., although, I’d bet a million bucks that we had two completely different childhoods. What was your upbringing like?
DW: I grew up in the Washington D.C. area, and then moved out to Glenarden, Maryland when I was nine-years-old. I grew up playing all three sports – basketball, baseball, and football. Actually, basketball wasn’t even my best sport. It was probably my third best. But when I picked up basketball, I loved it right away and quickly became really good. Then – when I was in the 10th grade – I got the opportunity to play at DeMatha High School under Coach Morgan Wootten, which was a huge deal back then. I mean, at the time, earning your degree from DeMatha was an amazing accomplishment. Playing there, I knew I’d be able to fulfill my dream of earning a college scholarship.
JK: I read that you’re cousins with [Hall of Famer] David Thompson?
DW: Yes, I am. We didn’t really know each other. We knew of each other, but didn’t hang out or anything like that. When I was a teenager, my family told me that I had a cousin named, David Thompson, who was going to play at N.C. State. This was in either 72’ or 73’. The first time I saw him play was against the University of Maryland. He had an amazing game. It was then that I realized my dream was to play at N.C. State.
JK: Going back to Morgan Wootten; he’s probably the most legendary high school basketball coach of all time. After Norman Sloan left for Florida [following your freshman season]there were rumors that Coach Wootten was close to taking the head coaching job at NC State. How do you think he would have fared?
DW: Well, Morgan knew how to be successful at any level. He understood how to get people to play hard for him. I think he would have done very well given the fact that he’s an outstanding coach from top to bottom. I think that if Morgan would have taken the N.C. State job, we probably would have experienced the same results. We probably would have still won the championship. It may not have been as dramatic as it was with Coach Valvano, but, nonetheless, I believe we would have won the title because that’s how brilliant of a coach Morgan Wootten was.
JK: How were Coach Wootten and Coach Valvano similar?
DW: Coaching wise, they both understood was how to manage game-time situations. They knew how to prepare before the game and how to adjust during it. That’s what set them apart – both were such phenomenal strategists.
JK: What about their personalities?
DW: Oh, they were totally opposite. Morgan Wooten was a teacher. He taught History. He was very low-key. He never used a curse word. He never even raised his voice. Jim Valvano, on the other hand, was the most charismatic person that I’ve ever met. His personality was so outgoing. He wanted to be amongst the people. Both were great coaches, but as people, they were complete polar opposites.
JK: Your former NC State teammate, Terry Gannon, said, “Whitt was the toughest 6’0 guy I’ve ever met.” I feel like everyone on that team would attest to your feistiness. What was your personality like back in the day?
DW: I feel like I was very misunderstood at times. I was fun loving. I was very outgoing. I loved people, but I was extremely competitive. Sometimes, I couldn’t turn that competitiveness off. If I came back from practice or something like that – I would have this stare. Some of my colleagues would watch me on TV and say, “Dereck, you look so mean out there on the court.” I would tell them that it’s not personal, I just want to win so badly and I work very hard to do so. Overall, I was just a nasty competitor. Not dirty, but very fierce and I carried that around with me everywhere I went.
Image courtesty of NC State Basketball/Facebook.
JK: Being the team captain of that 83’ team, you had a reputation for having a very “in your face”, confrontational style of leadership. Describe that.
DW: Yes, I did. Naturally, I wanted to reach out and be a leader. Some people read books on leadership or learn it from somebody else; nobody taught me how to be that. It was just something that was inside of me. As the leader, I demanded the best effort from all of my teammates every single day. That’s what leadership is about. It’s not about criticizing because no one is perfect, but it’s important that you get the most out of your teammates during every practice and every game.
JK: I read that you once met Coach Valvano before he ever stepped foot at N.C. State. What was that first encounter like?
DW: Back in the day, there was this AAU tournament called the “Boston Shootout”. It was a huge tournament where they would select the top AAU teams in the country to play against one another. Washington D.C. and New York had the two best teams in the tournament. I played on the Washington D.C. team with [future N.C. State teammate]Sidney Lowe and were had just beaten New York in triple overtime. After the game, Jim Valvano comes up to us, grabs us by the neck and says “I love you two guys. I’m Jim Valvano, Iona College.” I said, “Who is this crazy guy?” I had never heard of him before in my life. When Coach Valvano got the N.C. State job a year later [after Norman Sloan’s departure], he walked into the press conference and walked to the podium. I took one look at him and turned to one of the assistant coaches and said, “Isn’t that the guy who owns a college? He told me that he owned a college.” The assistant looked at me and said, “No Dereck, he coached at Iona College.” I mistakenly thought he said “I own a college” as opposed to “Iona College.”
JK: From watching the documentary, it seems that from the moment he was hired, you and Coach Valvano were able to form a tight-knit friendship that lasted until the day he passed away. How did your relationship with him first begin?
DW: When most coaches first get the job, they’ll go to their players and tell them, “If you want to talk about anything, feel free to reach out to me or come to my office.” But to be honest with you, very few players actually take their coaches up on that offer. In Coach Valvano’s case, I was just curious about him. I was really interested in him because he was so much more than just a regular coach. He was a very smart guy, so I used to go into his office to hang out and talk about different things. We’d talk about politics. We’d talk about the team. I just wanted to hang out. I wanted to be around a successful and charismatic guy. I wanted to learn from him. So, over time, we built this relationship. It was a very natural friendship. We became very close and, as you can see, I’m the only player from that 83’ team to serve on the Jimmy V Foundation’s Board of Directors. That’s very special to me.
JK: Speaking of the Jimmy V Foundation, talk about some of the work you’ve done as a member of the Board and its status moving forward.
DW: Our foundation is thriving! We’re doing some fantastic work. This is our 23rd year of the V Foundation for Cancer Research. We’ve raised over $150 million. Every single dollar of that goes directly to cancer research. You can see, through the Jimmy V Week on ESPN, how much awareness we’re raising in effort to find a cure. That was Jimmy’s dream. Like he said [in his 93’ ESPYS’ speech], it may not save his life, but our efforts will help save the lives of others. I’m very proud to be a part of that.
JK: Going back to the 83’ title run. I think the most amazing part of the entire story is that – after defeating top-ranked North Carolina and Virginia to win the ACC championship – you guys almost lost to Pepperdine (69-67 OT) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. How’d that almost happen?
DW: Well, when we preparing to face Pepperdine, we were still motivated, but we had been on cloud nine after beating the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country in Virginia and North Carolina. Plus, we were exhausted. We had just flown all the way out to the west coast. It’s not that we took Pepperdine lightly; we just didn’t play well. But we were still focused to the point where we knew how to win. We didn’t give up and figured out a way to scrape out the victory in overtime.
JK: The Houston “Phi Slamma Jamma” team that you faced in the title game – with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler – will probably go down as one of the best of all-time. Watching them play Louisville in the Final Four, you said that you “hadn’t seen a game like that in 30 years.” What was going through your head as you watched them pick apart that No. 1 ranked Cardinals team?
DW: That was such a great game! Houston was amazing, but we weren’t watching them in fear. We were more studying both Houston’s and Louisville’s style of play because, at the time, we didn’t know who we’d face in the championship game. We knew that both teams were very capable. Louisville had actually beaten us earlier that season in a very close game (57-52), so we already had a good feel of who they were as a team.
JK: Houston had 13 dunks that game. Hakeem and Clyde are in the Hall of Fame. Was there any part of you that was afraid to play them?
DW: No, I wasn’t fearful at all. We played in the ACC, so we were used to playing No. 1 ranked teams all the time. We weren’t afraid of anybody.
Image courtesy of Dereck Whittenburg/Facebook.
JK: Coach Valvano was known for his inspirational speeches – the ESPYS’ one in particular. What did he say to the team right before you took the court?
DW: He had so many great pregame and halftime speeches. The one before the Houston game was just one of many. He basically told us that we couldn’t let one game come between us and our dream of a national championship. We had come so far. We’ve dreamed about it. We’ve talked about it and now we’re here, so let’s go get it. You know, being around him every day was an inspiration. We heard speeches like that from him on a daily basis.
JK: After winning the title – when the team got back to campus, how were you guys treated?
DW: Like rock stars! We were like rock stars, man! It was unbelievable. The fans and the entire community embraced us. We have great fans anyways. N.C. State fans are fantastic. Win or lose they’re with us. But coming back to campus with all the fanfare was a really special moment for me.
JK: I know you’re married, but how did the girls treat you after that?
DW: I can’t remember! [Laughs] That was a long time ago!
JK: A lot of people don’t know this, but you elected against a pro career after leaving N.C. State. You were drafted by the Phoenix Suns (3rd round, 51st pick), wound up spending a little bit of time in France, but left to finish up your degree in 84’. Why didn’t you want to continue pursuing your playing career?
DW: I gave it a shot and right away I realized that I didn’t want to pursue playing professional basketball as much as I thought I did. I got drafted by the Suns, but instead of playing, I wanted to come back and start my career. I knew that, in the long run, I knew that I’d be in another profession other than basketball, so I wanted to start on that right away.
JK: Wow, that’s rare. You almost never hear stories like that.
DW: Yes, that’s very rare and I’ll tell you why. The year before, in 83, I was All-ACC, one of the leading scorers in the Final Four and MVP of the title game. You would think that a guy like myself would have gone and played pro for the next decade. Today, a person with those same credentials is probably going to leave school early for the NBA. So, for me to do that back then was very unusual. I always tell people that not everyone is going to play in the NBA, but regardless, you can be successful in life. That’s my mission now; to prove to everyone else that people can still be successful even if they don’t make it in the NBA.
JK: So when you realized you didn’t want to continue playing basketball, what was your Plan B?
DW: At the time, I didn’t really know what that exactly was. I came back to help Coach Valvano coach, but I didn’t know if my next career was in coaching. I really thought I’d go and work for a major company like IBM or something like that. But once I got into coaching, I loved the profession and wound up doing that for the next 30 years.
Image courtesy of coachwhittenburg.com.
JK: You were a grad assistant at NC State, an assistant coach for many years, and then a head coach at Wagner and Fordham. Aside from X’s and O’s, what life lessons did you try and instill into your players?
DW: I wanted to teach my players was that hard work will always give you a chance to succeed, but that if you don’t work hard, you will most definitely fail. I wanted them to be passionate about everything they did; to be committed as well. Most importantly, I wanted them to believe in themselves and understand that anything is possible if they put their minds to it.
JK: A lot of people will watch the “Survive and Advance” documentary and think it’s just another triumphant sports film. In reality, though, it’s more of a life story than a basketball one. What life lessons do you want viewers to take away from it?
DW: Survive and advance! That’s what we do every single day. The 83’ team showed people the power of dreaming and believing. We proved that through tough times – adversity and tragedy – you can prevail. In order to make it in life you have to survive and advance. That’s what single moms are doing; families are doing; people who lose their jobs. You can’t quit. You have to survive and advance. That’s what this world is all about.
JK: What type of role do you have now at N.C. State?
DW: I’m an ambassador for N.C. State and the Associate Athletic Director for Community Services and Student Affairs. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. Like I said, how many players – if you look around the country – have went to a school, earned a degree, won a national championship, have coached on three different occasions and hold an administrative position? All with one school? There’s no other NC State player that can say they’ve done that. I’m humbled and honored, and I just want to serve Wolfpack nation the best way I can.
Image courtesy of coachwhittenburg.com.
JK: Everyone will remember you for playing days, but off the court, you’ve done so much for the university and for cancer research. What do you want your legacy to be?
DW: For the rest of my life, I want to be able to show people that they can be successful. I want people to believe in themselves and to know that they are special. Nobody is perfect, but everyone is special in their own way. I want people to look at themselves and not judge themselves through others. I tell people all the time – find your passion, go for it with everything you have and enjoy your life. I want to inspire people to do that. That’s what I want my legacy to be.
JK: What did you think of Villanova’s title run last week?
DW: To achieve something like that was such a special moment. I texted Jay Wright; I’m very good friends with him. He was so excited, even though he didn’t show it on the court. For those kids at Villanova, beating North Carolina was a David vs. Goliath story. You don’t really see the great, All-American caliber players at Villanova. They have very good players. They’re a great basketball team, but that North Carolina team was powerful. A lot of those UNC kids will end up playing in the NBA. I can’t really say the same about the guys at Villanova. This might be the last time we see them play in the national spotlight. Most of them will probably go and play overseas. But it’s always a special when you’ve dreamed about something every day for so long, and it becomes a reality. It’s really a once in a life time type of feeling.
JK: Kris Jenkins is a Washington D.C. guy as well, right?
DW: Yes, he is. How ironic is that? Two D.C. guys – one from DeMatha High and the other from Gonzaga High – had the only two buzzer-beating shots in NCAA championship history. That’s very special to me.
JK: It’s unrelated, but I heard that you helped recruit Stephon Marbury to Georgia Tech. How’d that happen?
DW: Yes I did. I was at Georgia Tech and, at the time, [then head coach]Bobby Cremins had a reputation for recruiting the nation’s top point guards, so getting Stephon Marbury became our top priority. He and I struck up a great relationship and, after some time, I was able to convince him to play at Tech. I’ll tell you – you want to talk about someone with determination and talent – that young man has been unbelievable with everything he’s doing over in China. It’s incredible what he’s doing.
JK: It really is. He’s been in China, for what, six years? And they already have a statue of him.
DW: Yeah, he’s doing very well. I was actually the one who convinced him to go play in China. Stephon had wanted to stay in the NBA with the Boston Celtics. I was helping him train when he got the initial offer to go to China. He was contemplating it and I told him he’d be crazy if he didn’t accept. I said there was no way he’d make $1.5 million in the states. If China wants you, go there and make a career out of it and he has. I’m very proud of him for that.
JK: Dang, so you’ve known Stephon for, essentially, his entire adulthood, right?
DW: Well, I believe that if you make an impact on an individual and spend quality time with them, your relationship with that person should last that long. If you’re really influencing an individual, the bond you have should last a lifetime.
JK: Before I let you go Dereck, I have one last question. Was it a shot or a pass?
DW: Oh, it was definitely a pass!