N.C. State’s basketball practice had ended Tuesday, but Dereck Whittenburg was still on the court, talking, laughing, swishing jumpers, his voice echoing about the gym.
The Wolfpack’s season is still alive and Whittenburg is very much alive.
In 1983, he was an emotional senior leader for N.C. State’s national champions, passionate, at times combative, always competitive, jawing at the other team’s bench, hitting big shots, winning. He now says, almost convincingly, that he is milder with age, more composed. But the competitiveness, the passion, remains.
When Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried hired Whittenburg for his staff in the fall of 2013, the job came with the title “Senior assistant to the head coach/director of player development.” That sounds officious, and in truth Whittenburg’s roles are many and his enthusiasm unwavering for all of them.
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“He’s brought a ton,” Gottfried said. “Obviously his energy is second to none. He’s one of those guys who’s positive every day. Every single day he walks in with a smile on his face and he lights up the room.
“He’s a guy our players can look to and say, ‘He did it.’ He did what we want to do. He has stood on the top box; he has cut the nets down. I like the credibility he brings to what we’re trying to do.”
That is, win another one. The Wolfpack, making its fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance under Gottfried, has reached the Sweet 16. The prize, the nets, are still out there.
Senior guard Ralston Turner said he often turns to Whittenburg. It’s a guard thing, and Whittenburg, once the quintessential shooting guard, does have a feel for what Turner is experiencing on the court, in the heat of games.
“He means a lot to me,” Turner said. “He’s ‘The Man’ around here. For us, he’s been like a mentor, especially to me.”
An honored jersey
And a constant reminder of the 1983 NCAA champions, the team coached by Jim Valvano that never quit until it was cutting down the nets in Albuquerque. Whittenburg is teasingly reminded that after hitting so many clutch jumpers, his last college shot was a long airball and that Lorenzo Charles saved him – and the Pack – by turning it into destiny’s dunk and beating Houston in The Pit.
Whittenburg, at 54, still has the touch, but as Turner said, smiling, “Every time we challenge him one on one, he says, ‘My jersey is hanging up there.’”
Whittenburg’s No. 25 is one of N.C. State’s honored jerseys hanging at PNC Arena. While “Whitt” never played there, he returned to Raleigh to hopefully help the Wolfpack hang more banners there, to be a part of something special, to take the job and run with it.
Whittenburg and Gottfried had crossed paths as college coaches, then at ESPN when Gottfried was working as a game analyst and Whittenburg was helping produce what would become “Survive and Advance,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the ’83 Pack.
“When he came here, he said to me, ‘I want you around the program, I want you to come back,’” Whittenburg said. “No other coach here has said that in 30 years, in a way. No slight on anybody, but he was the first guy to approach me like that, and to come back to my alma mater was like another dream come true.
“When I was doing the film, he had me talk to the team, so I was around the team. Then the position opened, and I was trying to advise him on somebody else to hire and …”
Happy to be back
And Gottfried said he wanted Whittenburg to be a part of the program again. It all made sense. Whittenburg wanted to come back to N.C. State. His wife, Jacqueline, is from Raleigh and was excited. The Wolfpack basketball program seemed like the family the Whittenburgs wanted to again embrace.
“It was a chance to come back to a place I love, to my school,” Whittenburg said. “And, more importantly, come back to a coach I respect and wanted to help win the championship.”
Whittenburg had been a head coach, at Wagner and then Fordham. In 2003, he took Wagner to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Whittenburg had been a regional scout for the Utah Jazz, still in basketball but wanting more. Then came the idea of “Survive and Advance.”
That was the term Valvano first used in the ’83 run, one that became the mantra during the tournament. Whittenburg wanted to tell the story again, to relive it while telling it.
“I think the show was kind of a rebirth for him,” Gottfried said. “It was kind of a memory that was fading that all of a sudden comes back to life.
“Parents of the kids we’re recruiting watched that ’30 for 30’ and remember that team and the moment and watching Jimmy V run across the floor. The ’30 for 30’ kind of brought him back to life, really.”
Whittenburg is enjoying life, and certainly this NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack faces Louisville on Friday in Syracuse, N.Y., and Whittenburg, always active on Twitter (@DWhittNCstate), has tweeted: “All packed and ready for Syracuse! #PackMadness”
“I always tell the players this is their moment,” Whittenburg said. “I had my moment and this is their moment. There’s nothing more special.”
Whittenburg remains calm during games, speaking when he needs to, cajoling, clapping, encouraging in team huddles, and always a positive presence on the bench. But much of his work has been done away from the glare of the game.
“I think he’s been great with our players and I think he’s been great with our players’ parents, getting to know them and reaffirming to them that we’re trying to do everything we can to help their child,” Gottfried said. “He has been a great liaison to the parents. I like what he brings.”
Whittenburg, a 1984 N.C. State graduate, helps with the players’ academics. He offers advice, serves as a life coach, a big brother, a listener.
“He helps build your confidence up,” freshman Abdul-Malik Abu said. “He believes in all of us young kids. Him having been here before, his word is gold.”
Whittenburg said he’s also called on to make appearances, to represent Gottfried and the program. He said he has a speech he calls “Survive and Advance, That’s What We Do Every Day.”
“That’s what we do, isn’t it? “ Whittenburg said, his voice rising. “That’s what we all do.”
DWhitt, quite the character (or 140)
A sample of tweets from N.C. State great Dereck Whittenburg, now part of Mark Gottfried’s staff:
After after beating Villanova: #SurviveAndAdvance #Sweet16
After reaching Sweet 16: Hey Barkley HOW ABOUT THEM PACK NOW!?
Minutes after beating LSU: #SurviveAndAdvance
March 7: PNC Arena was special this year it’s been a great season but we are not done yet!
Before win at UNC: Trip over to the Dean Dome to get 1 for the Pack! #WPN
After win at UNC: #WPN to the Bell Tower!!!