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Dick Vitale embraces Jim Valvano's pledge to help pediatric cancer research

In 1993, sportscaster Dick Vitale greeted his friend and fellow sportscaster, Jim Valvano, with a big hug at the base of the stage where Valvano was to receive the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at ESPN's Espy Awards.

The hug turned into assistance as Vitale wrapped his arm around Valvano's waist to steady him as he climbed a half-dozen steps to the podium. Once Valvano was secure at the podium, Vitale stepped back out of the spotlight but stayed within arm's reach of the terminally ill Valvano, who accepted his award and quickly moved on to announce the formation of the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research.

An upbeat Valvano, whose humor and candor belied the end stages of his painful bone cancer, pleaded from that podium to the celebrity audience that had been on its feet since he had taken the stage to help the V Foundation find a cure.

"Its motto is 'Don't give up, don't ever give up,' " said the former head basketball coach at North Carolina State University who led his team to its Cinderella 1983 national championship.

Eight weeks later, at age 47, Jim Valvano died.

The "Don't Give Up" motto wasn't lost on Vitale.

A New Jersey native who now lives in Lakewood Ranch, he annually hosts the Dick Vitale Gala to raise money — he has raised more than $10 million so far — for pediatric cancer research.

This year's gala will be May 16 at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota. For details (you can buy a raffle ticket for a Mercedes), gala tickets (if still available), or to make donations, go to dickvitaleonline.com.

We tracked down the 74-year-old Vitale — in the middle of March Madness, even — to ask him a few questions about the upcoming gala and his friend, Jim Valvano.

Patti Ewald, Times staff writer

1 If Jim Valvano was looking down from heaven on the progress that has been made in cancer research — especially with the help of the V Foundation — what would he say?

There's no doubt that Jimmy Valvano would be ecstatic that his buddies didn't let him down. When he passed, he said "Guys, don't forget me! Just raise as many dollars as you can." He'd be jumping for joy knowing that the V Foundation has awarded $115 million for cancer research.

2 Who was at the first gala and how did the event grow in just nine years into the cannot-miss event that it has become?

The first gala was a little party at my house with about 300 people. Many sports celebrities supported the event, like Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan, Ronde Barber, Tino Martinez and many people from ESPN and from the sports world. After that first year, it became so popular that we decided to move on to a bigger facility — the Ritz-Carlton. Now it's a huge sellout, with more than 800 people every year.

3 How do you choose the sports figures — this year, all college coaches — who are honored? In fact, what led to bestowing honors on sports figures at the gala?

We like to honor coaches who are successful and those who are committed to giving back and extending a hand. There are three Dickie V Gala honorees this year. The first two are Mike Brey and Tom Crean, two outstanding coaches with amazing dedication to the V Foundation — they are even members of our President's Club. I'm also really proud to honor Nick Saban, who is a superstar in his popularity, fame and success as a coach, known for winning national titles and his willingness to give back. The first year, the gala honored Coach K — Mike Krzyzewski. The second year it was Bobby Knight and Pat Summitt. We also loved honoring "mentor" Rick Pitino and "pupil" Billy Donovan, as well as legends Tom Izzo and Tony Dungy. All of these superstars have helped us raise dollars for kids who are battling cancer. There is nothing worse than parents watching their child suffer. We have to stop this disease.

4 What celebrities or other surprises can this year's attendees expect?

This year we're going to have a major, major event. Coaches and celebrities will be attending from all over. Locally, we're proud to have the support of the Buccaneers and Lightning. These celebs dedicate time, energy and money. They don't receive any compensation from us. They should be saluted for this. Also, we're going to have that phenomenal group, the Four Tops, as our post-gala entertainment. Our goal is to raise dollars — and lots of them! I tell you, man, when cancer hits, it's unreal. To a mom and dad whose child is facing cancer, it's a 24/7 battle.

5 If you could tell people anything you want about yourself, Jim Valvano, the V Foundation or cancer research, what would it be?

I have been obsessed with raising research dollars for kids and pediatric cancer. In my hometown alone (Lakewood Ranch), I went to the third funeral of a child who battled cancer. His name was Eddie Livingston, and he was only 5 years old. His mom and dad will be with us to present a check for pediatric cancer research. This way, we keep Eddie's name alive, and use his battle to help other kids. But, of course, it's not just here that innocent children are afflicted by this terrible disease. I have spoken everywhere. It is so hard to watch a mom and dad lay their child to rest. That's why I've dedicated myself to pediatric cancer research.

OT Tell us something we don't know about Dick Vitale.

People know that I love basketball but they would probably really be surprised to know I'm also a music lover. I love concerts. Country music is awesome — I love Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks — but I also love Beyoncé. Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Josh Groban. Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey. I love music and I love watching people perform. I just went to see Tony Bennett — he's my idol and he's going strong. I love watching artists. They have control of the audience and have the crowd in the palm of their hands.

Dick Vitale embraces Jim Valvano's pledge to help pediatric cancer research 04/16/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 6:44pm]
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