Dick Vitale has provided college basketball’s soundtrack for over four decades. He is interwoven into the sport’s fibers. Countless fans can look back and identify the moment he sparked their curiosity and ignited their passion. Perhaps it was a Duke-North Carolina game. Or a Super Tuesday in Bloomington with Bobby Knight stomping around on the sidelines. His voice carries transportive energy. And although it’s been largely absent this year — the ESPN broadcaster worked five contests before stepping away to tackle his health with full focus — we can still hear it reverberate as loudly as ever.
Vitale is currently resting his instrument, as he explained in a recent Front Row piece. He’ll require surgery to solve his dysplasia and ulcerated lesions of the vocal cords. Last October, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. This came two months after a melanoma diagnosis. These have not been easy times. But if anyone is built to find light in a dark cloud, it’s Vitale.
Ever gracious, he wishes we could talk on the phone. The 82-year-old communicates by pen and pad or via text right now. His words still spill forth fast and with purpose, an avalanche of information and character. He still snaps into that meandering journey of joy specific only to him as basketball’s most optimistic and authentically excitable personality.
His openness and humanity are a constant. That hasn’t changed a bit. I want to know what the past several months have been like for him. But selfishly, I also want him to know that we are all rooting for him. That the six decades spent navigating the public eye with generosity and kindness have garnered a near-universal approval rating. It feels like an important thing for him to hear, even if he’s heard it before.
“I still attack every day with passion and energy,” Vitale writes. “To be very honest, the last five months have been the toughest I have ever dealt with. There have been days with lots of tears but then I realize how blessed I am to have so many praying for me.”
Shortly after his health issues began, Vitale says Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes reached out with a personal prayer. Those have continued every day. He sends me a video of Tom Brady sharing well wishes. These are two examples in a crowded field. Those who know him in real life and those who know him only through the television share a common bond.
“It has been such a help knowing that people care,” Vitale reflects. “The support has come from my loving family, my ESPN family, and the basketball community. The media has treated me like royalty and, of course, the fans have inspired me through their encouragement.”
Vitale’s fight against cancer did not begin with his diagnosis. He’s been on the front lines, leading the charge with his reach and boundless energy, for almost half of his life. His annual gala, the night circled on his calendar above any rivalry game, will eclipse the $50 million mark in funds raised this year. If he loves basketball with full volume, that love still pales in comparison to the work he does trying to improve the lives of young patients and their families.
Over the weekend, ESPN announced that its V Week netted $13.5 million in donations, smashing the previous record of $8.8 million, fueled in large part by an outpouring of support for its most visible champion. “Please tell anyone that if they want to JOIN MY TEAM to simply donate at my website,” he says. “All of the money goes to the V Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research.”
On social media, Vitale has been documenting his medical journey by posting pictures of himself receiving treatment. He’s been candid about the setbacks and frustrations. I ask why he’s providing this window for everyone to look through.
“I have been very transparent because I think it is vital for people to see what goes into this journey to be successful in the fight against cancer,” he explains. “It also is important because it lets people know how badly we need money for our oncologists for research. I learned so much that I never ever knew that took place in trying to win in this fight. I am talking not just me, but all cancer patients. It involves numerous visits for blood work, scans, blood counts, in addition to the chemotherapy and radiation that many face. It is a daily battle and I want people to learn what goes on in attacking this vicious disease.”
A cynic could find twinges of cruel irony in Vitale’s longtime foe coming to his own doorstep. Or that one of our most recognizable voices is on hiatus. But there exists a perfect opportunity for all those who care to follow the template Vitale himself has built.
He’s looking forward to a time when this is all in the rearview and he’s in an arena, where he’s happiest. Where the public can feel his vim and vigor from thousands of miles away.
“What makes it difficult is that I feel I can match my enthusiasm and energy with any 22-year-old, plus I feel as sharp mentally concerning the game I love yet I feel trapped and can’t express my feelings due to my vocal cord situation,” Vitale says. That is to be sitting at courtside talking about the PTPERS, Diaper Dandies etc. My best day of the year was on November 22 in Las Vegas where I joined my play-by play buddy Dave O’Brlen for the big game between Gonzaga and UCLA. It was Hoops Heaven and I am hoping and praying that is happening during the 2022-2023 season! I may be 82 but my dream is to get being like a 22-year-old having a blast hanging at the arena with all the fans.”
The catchphrases and outsized personality make Vitale one of a kind. Yet his legacy may ultimately be defined by how loud he inspired others to be when he could not speak for himself. The best way to pay him back for all of this is to pay it forward. To lend him your voice while his rests.
In the face of his biggest challenge, he’s still thinking of others. He hopes his personal story can help raise money for kids with the same battle. That eventually he and others can hear what he calls magical words: You are cancer-free.