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North Carolina State had its own version of Sister Jean for 1983 NCAA tournament

North Carolina State had its own version of Sister Jean for 1983 NCAA tournament
North Carolina State's Terry Gannon helps cut down the nets following the Wolfpack's ACC tournament championship game in Atlanta in 1983. (Robert Willett / Associated Press)

Sister Jean has nothing on Captain Jim.

Thirty-five years ago, Jim Letherer was the unofficial team mascot who adopted North Carolina State during its Cinderella run to the national championship.

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Los Angeles-based broadcaster Terry Gannon was reminded of the one-legged man who mysteriously appeared and then followed the Wolfpack to each of their NCAA tournament stops in 1983 while watching the recent saturation coverage of Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt.

Unlike Sister Jean, who has been Loyola Chicago’s team chaplain for decades and was once the principal at St. Brendan’s elementary school, only a few blocks from Gannon’s home in Windsor Hills, Captain Jim materialized seemingly out of nowhere.

“He’s on crutches and he’s got one leg, and his name, he tells us, is Captain Jim,” Gannon said by telephone from the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA tournament he called for the Golf Channel this weekend in Rancho Mirage.

“Well, V [coach Jim Valvano] takes a liking to him, so he has Captain Jim in the locker room every game and sitting behind the bench. We’ve got not one but two dreamers telling us we’re going to win the national championship, V and Captain Jim, and he’s with us the entire way.”

Letherer kept inspiring the Wolfpack long after they upset Houston to win the title on Lorenzo Charles’ dunk at the buzzer. Living out of his car at the time, Letherer would come to players’ apartments to shower and get something to eat. One night, while watching a documentary on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a group of players, Letherer announced that he had marched with the civil rights leader, a white man supporting the efforts of blacks seeking equal rights.

“We’re like, ‘Shut the hell up. You didn’t march with Martin Luther King’ and he says, ‘Oh, yeah, I did,’” recalled Gannon, who was a shooting guard for the Wolfpack. “So it didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t believe him. I’m in history class like a week later, and I open the book and I about fell out of my chair. There’s a picture of him in the civil rights march, Selma to Montgomery, with Martin Luther King.”

Gannon also learned that there was a life-size statue of Letherer in the Selma Interpretive Center, a welcome center for the 50-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Gannon said he last saw Letherer in the late 1980s when he left on a walk from Raleigh, N.C., to Albuquerque — site of the Wolfpack’s Final Four triumph — to raise money for cancer awareness after having lost his leg to bone cancer as a child.

Letherer died in 2001 at age 67 after suffering a heart attack, his death coming almost a half-century after he had developed a following among civil rights activists and celebrities.

Sammy Davis Jr. came up to me,” Letherer said in a 1965 interview, “and said, ‘Baby, with your one leg and my one eye, we can really get something done.’”

Humble beginnings

The coaching battles between Michigan’s John Beilein and Villanova’s Jay Wright date to the mid-1980s when Beilein was the head coach at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and Wright was an assistant at the University of Rochester in New York.

Beilein enjoyed an advantage in that LeMoyne was a Division II school as opposed to Rochester’s being Division III.

“We would recruit guys all year, then John would wait until the end of the year because he had the scholarship [to offer], we didn’t,” Wright recalled. “You’d be on a guy and you’d just hope you wouldn’t see John in the gym. And, like, in April, he’d pop in and he’d see you. You’d say, ‘Are you going to take him, John?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, but we’re going to take him.’

“But he was always the nicest guy, and as a young assistant he was always nice to me.”

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Beilein and Wright later faced off as Big East Conference rivals after Wright came to Villanova in 2001 and Beilein coached at West Virginia from 2002-07.

Casting call

Beilein, when asked which actors would portray him and Wright if this NCAA tournament were a movie: “At the end of the game [Monday], he’ll still look like George Clooney and I will look like Columbo by Peter Falk. … I’d like to say Kevin Costner, but I can’t go there.”

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