'The medicine of sitting courtside' – ESPN's Dick Vitale reflects on his cancer fight, eager to return to broadcast Gonzaga vs. UCLA

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Dick Vitale has raised $44 million for the fight against cancer through his annual gala in Florida, most of it earmarked for children. That doesn’t even count constant promotion during college basketball broadcasts of the Jimmy V Foundation, which honors Jim Valvano, his late friend, ESPN colleague and North Carolina State coach.

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

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

Vitale lives how he talks, a tireless mix of passion, excitement and wonder. That one-eyed, bald guy shouting on TV in front of some delirious student section, the kids six decades his junior, is the same in real life, where he somehow turned unexpected fame as an unorthodox broadcaster into a relentless warrior against this awful, insidious disease.

And then, on Oct. 12, he got diagnosed with it himself.

The otherwise healthy 82-year-old was informed by his doctors that some puzzling symptoms he couldn’t shake was actually bile duct cancer.

“I Googled it,” Vitale said.

The words popped off the screen. Aggressive. Rare. Months (not years). Single-digit survival rate. Surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Low quality of life.

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

Vitale is retelling the story over the phone Monday at his typical pace of speech. It’s a torrent. And it was damn wonderful to hear.

Feb 1, 2020; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale interacts with the crowd during the second half of the game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Dick Vitale, interracting with the crowd at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse in 2020, will be on the network's broadcast of Gonzaga vs. UCLA on Tuesday night. (Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)

Improvement in 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 put aside his treatments long enough to broadcast Tuesday’s clash between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA. For the first time this season, Vitale will be back in a gym, microphone in front of him.

“The medicine of sitting courtside,” Vitale calls it.

It’s the culmination of some comparatively good news. The bile duct diagnosis proved wrong. After weeks of dread, additional tests showed Vitale actually had lymphoma. It’s still serious and still deadly, but not as deadly and far more treatable.

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

Lymphoma could be treated with chemotherapy alone. No surgery. And after undergoing treatment the past few weeks Vitale’s doctors came to him with permission to follow some advice: don’t let cancer define who you are.

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

Vitale was immediately on the phone with ESPN. He wanted to broadcast. He wanted to be on the air. He wanted to be courtside, where he had provided and drawn in so much energy through the years.

After being fired as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons in 1979, he hooked on with this then fledgling cable network to analyze college basketball games. He figured it wouldn’t last. He knew nothing about television. He’d never heard of cable. He had no training. He just winged it, rattling off catchphrases and playground jargon like he was back playing in his native Jersey. He had no idea if anyone was watching.

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

The Cameron Crazies. Bob Knight’s glare. High-flying UNLV. The ferociousness of the old Big East. As the game grew through the 1980s and 1990s, there was Vitale, not just broadcasting it but promoting it, not just describing the action, but becoming part of it.

He could make some obscure game from Champaign or Charlottesville seem like a national event. It made him a sensation. Schools laughed at how word that Vitale would be broadcasting the game on television would somehow cause tickets to sell out. He became the “big game” stamp of approval.

He’d get mobbed for autographs, even from players. He got more famous than the coaches. He appeared in commercials, video games and nearly a dozen movies.

He may not have been classically trained, but his colleagues and bosses at ESPN marveled at his work ethic … night after night they could ship him anywhere and it was the same intensity. Snowstorms. Late games. Early mornings. Middle of nowhere campuses. None of it mattered. He’d get to the gym and it was always awesome, baby.

This was an unexpected career. He wasn’t going to waste it.

“I’ve been blessed,” Vitale said.

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

Now after all those years trying to help others fight cancer, he was fighting it.

Uplifting flood of social media well-wishes for Dickie V  

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

“I’m lucky, though,” he said, quickly changing his mood. He says he won’t let himself be down. Besides, his mind flashes to the children – “I get emotional just thinking about it.” He thinks of the haunted looks of the parents – “the worst.”

He thinks of the people he passes at the hospital who aren't blessed with a huge group of family and friends with them the way he does.

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

What Vitale learned the past six weeks is that his family is almost endless. As word broke of his diagnosis, he was floored by the response, brought to tears by not just the texts and gifts from famous coaches or celebrity friends. It’s the letters that come. The social media posts. The tweets.

People he hadn’t spoken to in years. Players whose game he called from the 1980s. Strangers. Fans who tell him what he meant to their late parents. And, yes, even the children, some he once visited; boys and girls from the All-Courageous teams, others he never met but somehow impacted. Now they are 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 the messages mean,” Vitale said, his voice catching. “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. No. 2. The Zags. The Bruins. He can’t wait. He’s also nervous. He doesn’t know how he’ll handle it. He expects fans will cheer for him, but “the game is what it’s about. It has to be about the game.”

Still, this is Dickie V.

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

He probably will, of course. Everyone knows that. Which will be fine, which will be great.

Dick Vitale, back on a broadcast no one was sure could even happen, fighting a disease he has been fighting forever, has earned that many times over.

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