by Joe Giglio
photography by Smith Hardy
The best ideas usually start with a simple question.
Leon Cox has known college basketball legend Dereck Whittenburg long enough to anticipate what a normally innocent query—What do you want to do next?—could lead to. When Whittenburg told Cox he wanted to get involved in education and help college students, the groundwork was set for the Dereck Whittenburg Foundation. His foundation will be awarding scholarships to college students this month at its annual banquet at CAM Raleigh December 4. “I was interested in helping kids finish college,” Whittenburg says. “We’ve awarded 59 scholarships since we started and we’re expanding. It’s pretty exciting to see it grow.”
The foundation, run by Whittenburg and his wife, Jacqueline, helps college students in their junior or senior years, with a scholarship (up to $5,000 each). Students at N.C. State University, Shaw University, Wake Tech Community College, Meredith College, St. Augustine’s University, and William Peace University have been helped by the foundation, which will give out another $80,000 to $90,000 at the upcoming CAM event.
“That’s just what Dereck does,” says Cox, who met Whittenburg when the two were at N.C. State together in the early 1980s. “Helping people has always been in his wheelhouse. He is always in ‘give’ mode because of his success.”
Basketball is an undeniable part of Whittenburg’s success but certainly not its entirety. Whittenburg, 58, has made his philanthropic mark in cancer research with the V Foundation, in honor of his former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano. “What people don’t understand, I’m overshadowed by the national championship,” Whittenburg said. The irony of the moment is lost on Whittenburg as he sits in his office at Reynolds Coliseum on N.C. State’s campus, where he helped make the “Cardiac Pack” famous.
There’s literally a poster from the documentary Survive and Advance about the ‘83 team, looming over his left shoulder as the words leave his mouth. Whittenburg was the executive producer for the emmy-award winning film, an ESPN documentary released in 2013.
If it wasn’t for Whittenburg, his Wolfpack teammates, and their colorful coach, “March Madness” wouldn’t be a thing—or at least not the version that is as popular as it is today. The classic underdog story, N.C. State won the national title in 1983 with one improbable win after another.
It was Whittenburg’s missed shot—“It was a pass,” he adds reflexively—that led to Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beating dunk to push the Wolfpack past heavy favorite Houston in the national championship game.
It was Whittenburg who would hug Valvano, after each win, and it was Whittenburg who Valvano couldn’t find after Charles’ stunning dunk. The iconic, frantic scene on the floor of “The Pit” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been immortalized by CBS and is replayed every March during the NCAA tournament.
Valvano died from cancer 10 years after the amazing championship run, but his legacy has grown with the V Foundation’s work. The foundation has raised more than $250 million for cancer research. It has been a passion project for Whittenburg, who had more than a coach-player relationship with Valvano.
“Jim loved Dereck,” says Mike MacDonald, who was a former assistant coach to Valvano at Iona and serves on the V Foundation board with Whittenburg. “He was always hugging Dereck. He would be really thrilled and very, very proud of Dereck’s accomplishments.” Whittenburg says the most important thing he learned from his former coach was about life “after the cheering stops.” He would spend time in Valvano’s office and talk about politics and the real world. “My lens is wider than just basketball,” Whittenburg says. “There are a whole lot of other things going.” That’s why Whittenburg felt strongly about helping college students in need. He had worked with Cox, the general manager of the Sheraton in downtown Raleigh, to open Jimmy V’s Osteria + Bar in 2013. The restaurant, which features a “Whitten-burger” on the menu, gives 2.5 percent of its profits to the V Foundation.
Whittenburg suggested the foundation to Cox and the education aspect of it in 2015. Most scholarships are for high school students to get to college. Whittenburg wanted to help those who were already in school and needed a push to get to the finish line.
“I cherish being a first-generation graduate,” Whittenburg says. “In my family, that was a big deal.” And that’s why he’s so intent on others reaching the same goal. It’s also why he relishes the opportunity to work at his alma mater.
His “9 to 5” job at N.C. State is officially the Associate Athletic Director for Community Relations and Student Support. That’s really just a long way of saying “storyteller.” Whittenburg comes about the title honestly. He has an oversized personality and a distinctive, contagious laugh.
“N.C. State did a smart thing, there’s no better rep for the university than him,” MacDonald says. “Dereck knows everybody and he has that personality. You can’t not like him.” The way Whittenburg looks at it, his job is to tell the story of N.C. State. He enjoys interacting with fans. He goes to each home football game three hours before kickoff. “He loves being back in Raleigh,” Cox says. “He loves being connected to the university.”
Whittenburg needs a golf cart to get around to all of the different fans and alumni groups that want to see him and hear his stories before the football games. And not just basketball stories. Whittenburg loves to talk about N.C. State’s history. The school recently renamed an on-campus building for Irwin Holmes, the first African-American to earn an undergraduate degree from N.C. State. “He was a pioneer and that led to me being in my position at N.C. State,” he says.
Whittenburg, “Whit” to most people, has stories about meeting Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. He can easily spin from a story about Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski to one about Martin Luther King, Jr. “I enjoy people,” he says. “It’s natural for me. I have fun with it. They have fun.” After more than 25 years as a coach in college basketball, Whittenburg does miss the game. “It’s the camaraderie. I miss being with the guys.”
But his new roles have just widened his circle. He’s still “Whit,” it’s just more people get to be involved in his life than just his players. “Everything I do, I’m very passionate and excited about,” he says. “The work here at N.C. State, the V Foundation, the [Dereck Whittenburg] foundation, I’m looking forward to seeing it all grow.”