ESPN’s Dick Vitale continues lifelong cancer fight

Dick Vitale at its annual gala in Florida, raised $44 million for the fight against cancer, the majority of which is for children. That doesn’t even count constant promotion during college basketball broadcasts from the Jimmy V Foundation, which honors Jim Valvano, his late friend, ESPN colleague, and North Carolina state coach.

That’s the financial part; the flattering of celebrities to join the cause, the strong weaponry of corporate interests to get worked up, the years of extra time doing every small town radio interview if he can get a plug-in about the beating cancer.

Then there is the incalculable, the emotional part. He calls the twelve sick children he celebrates at the gala every year – ‘Dickie V’s All-Courageous Team’. The thousands more he has visited in hospitals, or called on the phone. The parents he hugged. The siblings he has mentored. The letters. The books. The inspirational cell phone recordings, Vitale telling someone she’s “Awesome, Baby with a capital A!” just to make them laugh, just to make them laugh.

Vitale experiences how he talks, a tireless mix of passion, excitement and wonder. That one-eyed bald man screaming on TV in front of a frenzied student body, the kids six decades younger, is the same in real life, where he somehow turned unexpected fame as an unorthodox announcer into a ruthless fighter against this horrible , insidious disease.

And then, on October 12, he was diagnosed himself.

The otherwise healthy 82-year-old was told by his doctors that some of the puzzling symptoms he couldn’t shake were, in fact, bile duct cancer.

“I googled it,” Vitale said.

The words shot from the screen. Aggressive. special. Months (not years). One digit survival rate. Surgery. Chemotherapy. radiation. Low quality of life.

“You’re 82 and you’ve got that stuff. You start to think you might not see your kids,” Vitale said. “I was really down. I’ll be honest, I was a basket.”

Vitale retells the story on the phone Monday at his typical pace of speaking. It’s a torrent. And it was damn great to hear.

Story continues

Dick Vitale, interacting with the crowd at Kansas’ 2020 Allen Fieldhouse, will be featured on Tuesday night’s broadcast of Gonzaga vs. UCLA through the network. (Jay Biggerstaff/US TODAY Sports)

Improving Dick Vitale’s Cancer Diagnosis

He had just flown, along with his wife Lorraine, from their home in Sarasota, Florida, to Las Vegas, where he would delay his treatments long enough to broadcast Tuesday’s showdown between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA. For the first time this season, Vitale is back in a gym, with the microphone in front of him.

“The medicine of sitting at the court”, Vitale calls it.

It is the culmination of relatively good news. The diagnosis of the bile ducts turned out to be incorrect. After weeks of anxiety, additional tests showed Vitale actually had lymphoma. It’s still serious and still fatal, but not as deadly and much more treatable.

“I was so happy,” Vitale said with a laugh. “And who’s happy to hear they have lymphoma?”

Lymphoma can only be treated with chemotherapy. No surgery. And after the treatment for the past few weeks, Vitale’s doctors came to him with permission to follow an advice: don’t let cancer define who you are.

“They said, ‘Let us handle the chemotherapy, go ahead and live your life,'” Vitale said. “You’re 82 years old, do everything you can, live every day like it’s special.”

Vitale was right on the phone with ESPN. He wanted to broadcast. He wanted to be in the air. He wanted to be on the field, where he had given and sucked so much energy over the years.

After he was fired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons in 1979, he joined the then fledgling cable network to analyze college basketball games. He thought it wouldn’t last. He knew nothing about television. He had never heard of cable. He had no education. He just turned it into a grand piano, rippling screams and slang from the playground as if he were playing again in his native Jersey. He had no idea if anyone was watching.

He somehow managed to explain what was happening on the field while conveying the excitement that happens from it, which is the cocktail that makes the college game so spectacularly unique.

The Cameron crazies. The look of Bob Knight. High flying UNLV. The Wilderness of the Ancient Great East. As the game grew in the 1980s and 1990s, there was Vitale, who not only broadcast it, but promoted it, not only describing the action, but becoming a part of it.

He could make an obscure game from Champaign or Charlottesville look like a national event. It made him a sensation. Schools laughed at how the message that Vitale would televise the match would somehow cause the tickets to sell out. He became the “big game” stamp of approval.

He would be harassed for autographs, even from players. He became more famous than the coaches. He has appeared in commercials, video games and nearly a dozen movies.

He may not have been classically trained, but his colleagues and bosses at ESPN were blown away by his work ethic… night after night they could send him anywhere and it was the same intensity. Snow storms. Late matches. Early mornings. Middle of nowhere campuses. It all didn’t matter. He would go to the gym and it was always great, honey.

This was an unexpected career. He wouldn’t waste it.

“I’m blessed,” Vitale said.

When Valvano died in 1993 – his famous “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up” speech is repeated to this day – Vitale threw himself into the fight against cancer. Suddenly, these throw-away broadcasts created something tangible and real. He could make the difference. No request was too big. None were too small.

Now, after all these years of trying to help others fight cancer, he fought it.

Uplifting stream of social media get well wishes for Dickie V

“I understand the journey now,” Vitale said. “I understand what they’re going through now. It’s not just the chemo. It’s the blood tests. The CT scans. This test. That test. Cancer is stupid. It just sucks.

“But I’m lucky,” he said, changing his mood quickly. He says he will not disappoint himself. In addition, his thoughts flash to the children: “I get emotional just thinking about it.” He thinks of the ghostly looks of the parents – ‘the worst’.

He thinks of the people he passes in the hospital who are not blessed with a huge group of family and friends with them like he does.

“I see the people all alone. I don’t know how they do it, I just don’t know,” Vitale said. “I have my wife. I have my children, my grandchildren. But that’s the thing. It’s not just what this does to you, it’s what it does to your family.”

What Vitale has learned over the past six weeks is that his family is almost endless. When his diagnosis came out, he was shocked by the reaction, moved to tears by not only the texts and gifts from famous coaches or famous friends. It’s the letters that come. The posts on social media. the tweet.

People he hadn’t spoken to in years. Players whose game he mentioned from the 80s. strangers. Fans telling him what he meant to their deceased parents. And yes, even the children, some he once visited; boys and girls from the All-Courageous teams, others he never met but was influential in some way. Now they’re rooting for him.

The man who gave and gave and gave – his time, his energy, his influence – was suddenly on the receiving end.

“I can’t tell you what all those messages mean,” Vitale said, her voice faltering. “All the prayers, all the love, all the social media, all the ‘you can do it’.”

He paused. He needed a moment.

“I get emotional,” he said. “I’m just so lucky.”

Now it’s back to work. No. 1 vs. #2. The Zags. The Bruins. He can’t wait. He is also nervous. He doesn’t know how to handle it. He expects fans to cheer him on, but “the game is what matters. It has to be about the game.”

Yet this is Dickie V.

“I hope I don’t get too emotional,” he said.

He probably will, of course. Everyone knows that. What will be good, what will be great.

Dick Vitale, back on a broadcast that no one knew for sure could happen, battling a disease he’s fought forever, earned so many times.

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