I love pioneers. And college basketball’s Dick Vitale is one whose personality and energy have never faded. He’s an announcer, the likes of the NFL’s John Madden, MLB’s Joe Garagiola and the NHL’s Barry Melrose. They can all talk up their respective sport as no one else can. Yes, genuine ambassadors and nothing contrived. Their relationships with their viewers are best described as electric and entertaining.
When it comes to college basketball, Vitale was a perfect match for a perfect time, 1979. Coming off the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Indiana State-Michigan State title game, Americans grew an appetite for college ball. But the three legacy networks ABC, CBS and NBC wouldn’t touch it, not night after night. ESPN, still in the cradle, born in September ’79, operated on a shoestring. So with nothing in the can and little money to spend, the Bristolites gobbled up college basketball and winter nights were never the same. Television across America is filled with hoops virtually every night.
At first, the acronym ESPN sounded more like a federal detention center than what it turned into, a burgeoning sports network. It took quite a while for college basketball to be valued for something more than it was for eons, a sport of regional interest.
With the new-found visibility of ESPN, the fledgling Big East became a giant, the ACC a monster, and the unique Vitale the face of it all. Other conferences would emerge further, the Big Ten and the Pac-10. Only aficionados would know a couple west coast names like Marv Harshman and Pete Newell other than the famous John Wooden.
Dickie V went to work with bells ringing. He would arrive on site, in arenas large and small, well before tip-off, to greet fans; behaving in the role of a welcoming cheerleader. Dickie V was novel. No one saw anything like it before. In time, Vitale became part of America’s growing college hoops’ tapestry.
He was a successful college coach at the University of Detroit and spent a little more than a year as the Pistons’ man on the bench. Not good enough for Pistons ownership. He was out of work and wanted another coaching gig. When it didn’t happen immediately, ESPN reached out. But Dickie V wanted to coach. He finally said yes, with a little nudge from his wife, Lorriane. The couple has now been married for fifty years. Dickie V threw himself into broadcast work and the rest is history.
Our St. John’s athletic director, the magnificent Jack Kaiser, now 95, brought Vitale to New York to speak at a dinner at Mama Leone. He enlightened and entertained the audience and was so impassioned that he could hardly keep the mic in his hand.
Vitale is the guy who would run out onto the court at age 65 waving a hoops’ flag with alacrity. He added so much value to ESPN, that it should pay him dividends for life. He gave the network life when it had nothing. He’s a Hoops’ Hall of Famers as a contributor and indisputably so!
As long as there are fans to inspire, Dickie V is happy. He’s worked with the best. Be they Bob Wischusen today, Tim Brando a few decades ago or Brent Musburger later. Whoever, Vitale has fun. For that matter, Vitale and Musburger did Brent’s last basketball broadcast ever. Dickie V followed by presenting Mus with a plaque for his lifelong contribution to broadcasting.
The Hoops HOF’s administrators though haven’t come around yet to honor Musburger which is inexplicable. He only called six Final Fours and six NBA Finals.
If you’re looking for a straight forward, exclusive X’s and O’s broadcast and dialed up Vitale you’re on the wrong channel. If you want some down to earth insight into personalities, you’re where you should be.
Vitale is now fighting cancer and undergoing challenging days and nights. tackling chemotherapy regularly. At 82, he’s throwing every last punch at the dreaded disease.
More so than anyone, Vitale is generally unpredictable, bringing fresh and unique material to the airwaves regularly. Somewhere in heaven, the late Canadian, James Naismith, is smiling, watching the interest in hoops swell. More often than not, you’ll hear about generous things Vitale has done for people, young and old. While Dickie V is transparent, he’s quiet about what he does privately for those in need. They don’t come like Vitale anymore.
In the beginning he struck me as another Bill Veeck. Then I thought no, maybe an irrepressible promoter. Bottom line is that he’s really a charismatic throwback to the day when your word was your bond.
Dickie V and I interacted this week:
What are some of the things that keep you inspired as you fight your fight?
I am motivated by the fact that I want to be able to get back to courtside. The best medicine for me was when I was able to do the UCLA-Gonzaga game in late November. My voice was strong and I was so thrilled to be doing what I love.
As far as therapy I must do six months of chemotherapy and I am on complete voice rest until cleared by Dr. Steve Zeitels of Boston who’s rated the #1 vocal cord doctor in the nation. He has treated Adele, Lionel Richie, James Taylor, Steven Tyler and other famous singers. Many of the stars in music and broadcasting are his patients including Joe Buck. I must see him every two weeks to see how the major inflammation is healing. I have what they call dysplasia of the vocal cords.
I am fighting hard, doing everything my medical team prescribes for me. There is no doubt that chemotherapy is very challenging. The side effects produce various problems. But I do realize that to win this battle, I must be mentally tough and think positively. I am really frustrated by the vocal cords problems. It is tough enough to battle the Lymphoma but adding the voice hadships accelerates the frustration.
I have been overwhelmed by the love from so many in the basketball community from every level . I have received prayers from all over the nation. I am flooded on social media with words of encouragement. Trust me, they go a long way in lifting spirits both mentally and emotionally. Coaches constantly send me texts showing how much they care. I have heard on a regular basis from many of them.
Hall of Fame
As far as the Hall of Fame, I feel that it won’t be long before Mark Few of Gonzaga and Billy Donovan based on winning two national titles at Florida will be in Springfield.
Role models when you were young?
Locally in New Jersey as a young HS coach I had great admiration for Al LoBalbo who won 13 state championships at St Mary ‘s of Elizabeth. Hubie Brown was a former player of Coach Lo Balbo. I had great respect in my early days of coaching for Hubie’s basketball knowledge. Also from the NBA I thought the world of Red Holzman and Jack Ramsay .
As for my favorite play by play guy it would be impossible to pick one. I have had the honor of sitting next to so many giants in broadcasting. All the guys I’ve worked with are real pros. (Dick’s first night on ESPN. Joe Boyle’s son Mark is the radio voice of the Pacers.)
How has TV changed?
Obviously, technology in the forty plus years I’ve been on the mic, has evolved and has changed in the way viewers watch games. I leave all of that to the producers and focus on my thoughts and observations. What I see happening and always remember is what Scotty Connal a giant in TV production told me when he hired me ‘was to educate and entertain.’
Thankfulness and prayers
I thank Jimmy Pitaro, the network’s President and many of my colleagues and executives for all the love they share with me daily. ESPN is my second family as they have treated me like royalty. I am 82 but in my heart I feel as energetic as ever. The bosses know that the day I don’t have the passion and desire to call a game I will be the first to call and say it is over. I am praying and hoping that I can beat these setbacks. I stay in touch with the game.
Athletic and caring Family
Also having the great support from my loving family has giving me the spirit to fight on. My wife Lorraine and I celebrated our 50th anniversary in May of 2021. My daughters Terri, Sherri an their husbands live five minutes from me and are at my side through all the scans, bloodwork, Chemo and the rest. I have five grandchildren that always provide me with inspiration. I have a granddaughter Sydney at Notre Dame, a sophomore who plays tennis and I have twin grandsons, Connor and Jake who are student, tennis players as freshmen at Duke . Also a grandson who is a senior in high-school and has committed to Notre Dame for lacrosse
Ryan is going into the class of 2022 for lacrosse at Notre Dame. Ava is my youngest as she is a sophomore in high school and a nationally rated tennis player.
I hear from many who thank me for bringing my battle vs cancer to the public. In addition by sharing what a cancer patient faces helps me raise many $$$ for cancer research.
It is quite a battle. My goal is that on May 6 at my Gala, I will be able to announce to the sellout crowd of over 900 people that I AM CANCER FREE . My chemo treatments are scheduled as of now to finish in April. Also my goal is $ 7 million for kids vs cancer and that would mean since starting my gala we have raised in excess of $50 million for Pediatric Cancer Research thru THE V FOUNDATION. I am very proud of that .