The Purpose of Jimmy V’s Speech

Cameron Basnight

This paper is for the many influential people in my life that have helped me along with my educational journey. First, to Dr. Von Burg who helped guide me on the journey of creating this paper. Second, to my friends here at Wake. You all encourage me to do my best and always support me, thank you. Lastly, to my parents. Without y’all, I would not have the opportunity to be able to write and further my education. I owe all of this to the opportunities and experiences y’all have provided me throughout my entire life. I thank you all for being so influential in my life and helping in big or small ways towards the creation of this paper.


Keywords: Purpose, Jimmy V, Speech, Inspiration, and Sports


Jimmy Valvano gave one of the most memorable speeches in sports when he received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 1993 ESPYs. Jimmy V was an acclaimed men’s college basketball coach who was riddled with glandular cancer when he accepted the reward. The speech he gave when he accepted his award is one of the most motivational and inspiring speeches ever given. This speech is so important to me because I have been surrounded by sports all my life. I have played sports since I was a little kid, and this speech has always been so motivational for me. I also had to watch this speech every year with my P.E. teacher, we would analyze and discuss the speech in great detail; this gave me the background and confidence to rhetorically analyze it. I am using Kenneth Burke’s pentad theory, notably purpose, to analyze Jimmy Valvano’s legendary speech. I am exploring the speech’s three purposes: to inspire, to ask for help, and to leave a lasting mark. Burke’s purpose is key to having such a motivational and impactful speech.


Jimmy V’s first purpose behind his speech was to inspire all who listened to it. The inspirational purpose behind the speech is what makes it so historic. Burke discusses how the Pentad is necessary to analyze events that are trying to motivate an audience. He says “They never need to be abandoned, since all statements that assign motives can be shown to arise out of them” (Burke 412). The pentad is a map for motivation; for Jimmy V’s speech, I see the impact it had through the lens of pentad point purpose. Valvano inspires his audience to do three things every day: laugh, think, and cry. He famously says “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day; that’s a heck of a day” (Jim’s 1993 ESPYs Speech 2:42). Jimmy V creates his own take on “carpe diem.” He is encouraging everyone to live every day to the fullest, to really make every day worth living.


Jimmy V’s speech would not be nearly as motivational if his audience did not know his personal background. He was dying of cancer while on the podium and he wanted to inspire others to live fruitful lives like the one he had lived despite his diagnosis. Burke’s Pentad is critical in seeing the importance of motivational speeches and the effects they have on the audience listening to them. Catherine Fox discusses that “The Pentad offers a specific tool for seeing and understanding the complexity of a situation” (Fox 371). Without knowing the inspirational purpose behind the speech the audience may not have seen the complexities of it. As Fox describes, without knowing Jimmy V’s purpose I would not have been able to understand the weight of his words. He lays out what he believes life should be about and how you should live it. He says “You have to have an enthusiasm for life, you have to have a dream, a goal” (Jim’s 1993 ESPYs Speech 6:42). This is just another excerpt from the speech that Valvano is confessing to the audience his hopes and wants for them.


Jimmy V’s purpose of his speech was not to just inspire but to also ask for help to support cancer research. He had a purpose behind his words which in turn helped the audience act and feel in a particular way. This part of the speech is answering Burke’s purpose question: Why? Why is this happening? Jimmy V gives the speech with the purpose to raise awareness and attention to cancer research. Jimmy V uses his platform to announce the creation of the Jimmy V Cancer Research Foundation. He says “We need your help. I need your help. We need money for research. It may not save my life, it may save my children’s lives or someone that you love” (Jim’s 1993 ESPYs Speech 8:42). He knew that his time was coming but he still had hopes that future cancer research would eventually save many. Jimmy V is tapping into pathos when he is pleading to the camera that he needs help. I feel obliged to help in any way I can after listening to him. He is using the minutes he has to really make sure the purpose of his speech is heard. With this idea in mind, Hamlin and Nichols conducted an experiment to see what point of the Pentad gets more response from an audience. Hamlin and Nichols say “Strategies containing a purpose relate to motives which help us act in a specific context” (Hamlin & Nichols 102). This explains Jimmy V’s purpose of asking for help perfectly. Valvano wants people to donate and support his foundation. He was calling attention to the lack of funds and awareness on cancer research.


The final purpose Jimmy V had for his speech was to leave a mark. Every time I watch the speech, I witness the impact the speech had on the audience. That night at the Espys was Jimmy V’s last time to talk to a large audience. About a month after he gave this speech, Valvano lost his battle with cancer. Jimmy V had an already impressive basketball resume but this speech is what has kept him a legend throughout all these years. He says “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. But it cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever” (Jim’s 1993 ESPYs Speech 10:32). Valvano finished his speech by solidifying his legacy. He knew that he was going to die soon but wanted to make sure that his soul, the things that made him who he was, carried on forever. This part of his speech reminds me of a source that rhetorically analyzes Barack Obama’s farewell speech. Chase Dunn discusses Obama’s farewell speech and says “Obama crafts his legacy while also attempting to influence the political landscape of his successor by motivating his listeners to civic action” (Dunn 74). The ideas that Obama had going into his farewell address are very similar to Jimmy V’s purposes of his speech. In a way, this was Jimmy V’s farewell address as well. Valvano, like Obama, was leaving his legacy, he wanted people to see him more than a basketball coach or a man with cancer but as someone who lived life beautifully. While Jimmy V was leaving his legacy, he was also attempting to influence audience members. Jimmy V was attempting to influence people to donate money to cancer research. No matter who is giving a speech, a speech with a purpose means it can be motivational and influential on an audience. Jimmy ended his speech in a way that would leave a legacy. He perfectly wrapped up everything he set out to convey in the ten minutes he was talking as he was escorted down the stairs he received a standing ovation.


The pentad point agent would have been useful to analyze the speech as well. The point agent is about who did it? What person or kind of person gave the speech? This point could be used to analyze the speech by looking at who Jimmy V was as a person. The agent could have been used to look into Jimmy V’s background in both coaching and personal life. His speech is so impactful because of the person he was. On the stage, he was charismatic, funny, and positive. He gave off a demeanor that inspired people to be better than themselves and to do good. Jimmy V’s speech was inspirational because of his story as a coach and also his personal journey with cancer. If someone else gave that speech who did not have a body full of cancer it may not have resonated with the audience.


In conclusion, I used Burke’s purpose lens to rhetorically analyze Jimmy Valvano’s ESPYs speech. Burke created a pentad with one of the points being purpose: the “why” behind actions. The main three purposes of Jimmy V’s speech were to inspire, bring awareness to cancer research, and leave a legacy that lasts after he passes. Without these purposes, Jimmy V’s speech would not have been so successful and legendary. He crafted a speech that was not only inspiring but also brought awareness to a cause, while also leaving the audience with a legacy for himself.  Jimmy Valvano left this world not only with a personal legacy but with a speech that carries its own legacy.

Works Cited


Burke, Kenneth, The Five Key Terms of Dramatism


Dunn, R. Chase. “‘The Future Is in Good Hands: A Pentadic Analysis of President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address.” Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research, vol. 17, Fall 2018, pp. 73–89.


Fox, Catherine. “Beyond the ‘Tyranny of the Real’: Revisiting Burke’s Pentad as Research Method for Professional Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 4, Oct. 2002, pp. 365–88. (Crossref),


Hamlin, William J., and Harold J. Nichols. “The Interest Value of Rhetorical Strategies Derived from Kenneth Burke’s Pentad.” Western Speech, vol. 37, no. 2, Aug. 1973, pp. 97–102. (Crossref),


Jim’s 1993 ESPY Speech., Accessed 5 Dec. 2021.


Kaylor, Brian T. “No Jack Kennedy: Mitt Romney’s ‘Faith in America’ Speech and the Changing Religious-Political Environment.” Communication Studies, vol. 62, no. 5, Nov. 2011, pp. 491–507. (Crossref),



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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Cameron Basnight is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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