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Dick Vitale: Faith, Family and Foul Shots

Dick_Vitale
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the world of sports, Dick Vitale and college basketball are synonymous. That’s understandable given that he’s devoted over 50 years of his life to the game in one capacity or another.

“Basketball has been a vital part of my life,” says Vitale. “Basketball has given me a lot more than I have ever given basketball.”

And he certainly has given a lot. In fact, former college basketball coach Bob Knight credits Vitale with making the game as popular as it is today. In a video tribute for Vitale’s 2008 induction in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, Knight said, “I don’t think there’s any single person who has been more important in the development of the popularity of college basketball than Dick Vitale.”

St. Anthony Messenger talked with Dickie V, as he’s often called, in mid-December about his love for basketball, his family, his desire to give back and the importance of his faith.

Discovering a Passion

His love for sports, he says, was developed as a young boy. After Sunday Mass, his aunts and uncles would gather at his home in East Rutherford, New Jersey, for coffee and bagels.

“My uncles were fanatical sports fans,” he recalls. “We would sit there after Mass from the time I was a youngster and battle over who was the best player in the country. It was terrific. I miss those times.”

But it wasn’t only his love of sports that his family taught him, he says.

“My family represented the fabric of what our country is about: hard-working, blue-collar, family-oriented people,” he recalls.

His parents, John and Mae, he says, “were uneducated, but had a doctorate of love. They taught me, in this great country, to never, ever believe in can’t! Always treat people with respect and people will treat you with respect.”

His father pressed coats in a factory during the day and worked as a mall security guard at night.

His parents also offered an example of strong faith. Vitale recalls the impact of seeing his mom walk to church every day, dragging her leg following a stroke. He talks about a love for Sts. Jude and Anthony that his mother passed on to him as a young boy. It’s a love that he still has today.

“St. Jude is with me every day. The card is in my back pocket,” he says in reference to a holy card he carries with him. He recalls how he lost the vision in his left eye when he was young due to recurring infections after being poked in the eye with a pencil.

“My mom said, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Other people have it worse. Just pray to St. Jude.’ I start off every day with a prayer to St. Anthony and St. Jude,” he says.

In fact, the two saints seem forever twinned for Vitale. When he mentions one, he always mentions the other.

A Career Is Born

Because he lost the sight in his left eye, Vitale never played basketball, but it certainly didn’t affect his passion for the game. He says he “really zeroed in on basketball when I was a young teacher-coach back in New Jersey, over 40 years ago.” The school was Mark Twain Elementary School in Garfield, New Jersey. In addition to teaching, Vitale coached junior high football and basketball. From there he began coaching at the high school level at Garfield High School (1963-1964).

Between 1964 and 1970, he returned to his alma mater, East Rutherford High School, where his teams earned four state sectional championships, back-to-back state championships and 35 consecutive victories.

Vitale continued to climb the basketball ladder, serving as an assistant coach at Rutgers University for two years before moving on to the head coaching position at the University of
Detroit.

In 1978, the NBA came calling, naming Vitale head coach of the Detroit Pistons. He coached at the highest level for a season and a half, but was fired in November 1979. And then came the call that changed college basketball as people knew it.

ESPN, then a fledgling sports network in Connecticut, asked Vitale to announce their first-ever NCAA basketball game—Wisconsin at DePaul—on December 5, 1979. The rest, as they say, is history. Since that first game, Vitale has called close to a thousand games, including a few NBA games.

He is known for his in-depth knowledge of the game, enthusiasm and extensive list of catchphrases such as “diaper dandy” (a sensational freshman) and “P.T.P.” (primetime player).

And though Vitale eventually homed in on basketball as his sport of choice, he is still passionate about other sports.

“I’m a sports junkie. I love all sports,” he confesses.

That bears itself out in the fact that he goes to around 45 baseball games a year, as well as about three Notre Dame football games. (Vitale’s two daughters, Terri and Sherri, attended Notre Dame on tennis scholarships and earned MBAs.)

Faith and Family

If you ask Vitale what’s most important to him, though, he emphatically answers that it’s his family, or his “Dream Team,” as he refers to them.

“My life revolves around my wife, my daughters, my grandchildren, my family,” he says. He and his wife, Lorraine, will be married 40 years this May.

Of his daughters, he says, “I can see so many similarities in the way they are raising my five grandchildren. It is in the same fashion that we tried to raise them, passed on from my mom and dad to me.”

For Vitale, that means Church is an important and vital part of his life.

“I believe in my religion strongly and respect others’ beliefs,” he says. “I respect people in whatever belief they may have. Mine were instilled in me by my parents.”

Helping Others

Vitale also believes strongly in giving back.

“I think you have to give back. People have given to me. It’s part of life. You don’t get into the Hall of Fame without being surrounded by a team of people all your life that made that happen,” he says.

And he has given back in spades. Each year since 1993, he has helped raise $1,000,000 for pediatric cancer and various forms of cancer as part of the V Foundation (www.jimmyv.org). The foundation honors the late Jim Valvano, a friend of Vitale’s who died of cancer in April 1993.

Last year’s event featured former basketball star Magic Johnson, country singer Kenny Chesney, former NFL coach Tony Dungy, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, John Calipari of Kentucky, and Bob Knight. “It’s an incredible night when all these people give up their time and effort, free of charge, to help us for one night to raise a minimum of $1,000,000,” says Vitale.

This year’s benefit is scheduled for May 20 and will honor basketball coaches John Calipari, Roy Williams of North Carolina and tennis coach Nick Bollettieri. In addition to that, and a number of other charitable works in which Vitale takes part, he and his family have endowed the Dick Vitale Family Scholarship at Notre Dame. The scholarship is presented annually to an Irish undergraduate who participates in Notre Dame sports or activities and does not receive financial aid. Past recipients of the scholarship have included the school’s leprechaun mascot, cheerleaders and band members.

And just days after our interview, Vitale and his wife opened their Florida home to about a dozen boys and girls from the Sarasota Boys and Girls Club. The couple hosts this annually.

According to the Bradenton Herald, Vitale told the kids, “If you have passion and you’re good to people, a lot of beautiful things can happen. Your reputation and your values are more important than the car you drive or the house you live in.”

Leaning on His Faith

In December 2007, Vitale once again turned to his faith—and his patron saints—for comfort. After experiencing trouble with his throat, which had originally been diagnosed as reflux, Vitale got the news that he had ulcerated lesions on his left vocal cord. At the time, the doctors weren’t sure if the lesions were cancerous or not.

“It was a tough time. What has been good to me—my throat—and has given me a career and helped me succeed in my dreams was now in a position that it might end not only my career but also my life,” he recalls.

“I had a lot of fear then. I was in tears most of the time because I was fearful of cancer of the throat. I was blessed and lucky that St. Anthony and St. Jude pulled me through. The miracle worker in things of the spirit is St. Jude.”

But Vitale also credits “some of the best throat specialists in the world. Dr. Steven Zeitels of Boston is the Michael Jordan of what he does,” says Vitale. Dr. Zeitels is the director of the Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

On February 6, 2008, Vitale returned to the announcers’ seat for the Duke-North Carolina game on ESPN.

Vitale reports that last December he had just gotten back from an evaluation with Dr. Zeitels, and that “things have been going good. Cross my fingers, I hope they continue.”

Hall of Fame Recognition

Looking back on his career, Vitale says the thing he’s most proud of is his induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

“It was an incredible moment to be part of the ceremony. The only thing I wish was that my mother and father could have been there. I know how proud my mom and dad would have been to see me inducted into the Hall of Fame. There is no Hall of Fame or career in my life without the motivation and inspiration I received from my mom and dad.”

At the closing of his Hall of Fame induction speech, Vitale credited his parents “for giving me that drive, that determination, that desire to chase my dreams, to believe in a simple formula in life: passion, plus work ethic, plus good decisionmaking in your personal life equals W—win—in the game of life.”

A Love for the Game

This month, Vitale will be busy doing analysis and announcing for March Madness. After all, that’s what he does best. And he’ll be loving every minute of it.

“I love the emotion, passion, spirit. I think it embodies my feeling about life. There’s something about the energy, enthusiasm and absolute passion about the big-time college game,” he says.

And that spirit is a perfect match for him. “I may be 71, but I act about 12,” he admits.

It doesn’t look as if Dickie V is going anywhere soon, either. “I’ve just completed my 31st year with ESPN,” he notes, and adds, “I just signed a contract that goes to 2015.”

But at the end of the day, he says it’s not his basketball knowledge or catchphrases that he’d most like to be known for. So what would Dickie V like his legacy to be?

“For being a passionate guy who loves people, loves helping people,” he says. “I believe in that so much.”


This article first appeared in the March 2011 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.