The mouth of Tampa Bay has reopened for business.
Legendary college basketball announcer Dick Vitale, whose "AWESOME, BABY'' exclamations have become a fixture of the sport, has recovered from the throat surgery that turned his world upside down only three months ago.
The discovery of growths on one of his vocal cords left the resident of Lakewood Ranch, near Bradenton, fearing that he had cancer — and unsure of what lay ahead:
Was his live-wire commentating career on ESPN over?
Could it be even worse?
We caught up with Vitale for a few minutes by phone two weeks ago as he took a break from another March Madness — the succession of conference tourneys leading to the 65-team elimination bout that crowns the NCAA champs. We can report that the man known to millions as Dickie V is doing, well, AWESOME, BABY!
He's a vigorous 68-year-old who tries to be with his five grandchildren every day, watches what he eats, works out daily — even if it means walking the corridors of his hotel — and has a renewed appreciation of life.
What were your thoughts when you first heard you had a problem?
It was absolutely the fear of the unknown. On Dec. 5, I really thought my career was probably coming to an end. I was really, really scared.
I saw Dr. Steven Zeitels of Boston — he's nationally acclaimed and has seen people like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Julie Andrews. And after looking at me, he said, ''Dick, you have ulcerated lesions — growths on your left vocal cord — and I don't know until we do surgery whether they will be cancer or not.''
I was devastated. I cried like crazy for three hours, flying home from Boston — just scared, not thinking about basketball, but about family and where you're going with your life.
For two weeks, the fear of the unknown just drives you nuts.
How did you get yourself through it?
It was really tough. I was just trying to prepare for the surgery. I work out a great deal — I'm a fanatic for discipline every day, whether I'm playing tennis singles, or exercising upstairs in my workout room with my Nautilus machines. I really try to do all I can.
I don't eat red meat. I try to stay away from drinking and smoking. I try to do all the right things.
I'm 68 — and for two months while I was laid up, I felt 68. Now I feel back to being a 12-year-old kid again, having a blast with all the kids on the campuses.
How did you get the news that you were okay?
Right during surgery they do the biopsy, and Dr. Zeitels was able to tell me then (Dec. 18) that he felt it was noncancerous. It was a great feeling to hear that.
But then I developed complications from the anesthesia. I ended up with problems with my bladder and for four weeks I had to wear a catheter, which I wouldn't wish on anybody.
And I ended up hospitalized on two occasions in that period. I had prostate surgery to get my urinary tract to flow better and that became really a nightmare.
I was going through a period of four weeks where I (was not allowed to) talk. So I'm writing notes in the hospital to nurses and doctors. It was tough.
When did your voice return?
The first time I had to go back to Boston to say my first words after four weeks of not talking — which is hard for a guy like me — was really a very emotional moment. Because when he told me to talk, I couldn't get anything out.
I was scared. And they told me that psychologically, that's just the normal situation. I didn't know what I was going to sound like.
Finally, he just said, "Count to 10.'' And I counted to 10 — and I've been talking nonstop since.
How has the experience changed you?
I feel so blessed. Every event I do, every game I do, I feel it's a bonus. I feel it's just a gift. . . .
It's been a great run. I know it all eventually comes to an end. But you like it to come to an end where you just feel, "I'm tired of traveling, or this or that."
Right now, I still have the energy and excitement, like I can't wait until it's tomorrow morning, when I go to the ACC Tournament.
When I lose that excitement, I want to pick up the phone and say, "Hey man, it's time for me to stay home and enjoy the beautiful sunshine of Florida."
How do you maintain the intense pace each week?
Well, last week I had quite a bit of travel. I was in California for two appearances — San Diego and Palm Springs — and then I was in Carolina for the Duke-UNC game.
You know, it's just part of life. But it's great. I haven't worked a day in my life. It's like stealing money, man. Don't tell my bosses.
I mean my father and mother, they worked: My father worked in a factory pressing coats, my mother sewed coats down in our cellar.
I learned about family. I learned about love. I learned about loyalty. I learned about togetherness. I learned about work ethic. I observed so much from my parents, who were uneducated — a fifth-grade education at best, but with a doctorate in love.
They taught me about giving your best, and that's what I've tried to do.
What kind of tips do you have for people to live a full, healthy life?
I think every day you have to do something for your cardiovascular system. It makes you feel good.
I listen to the experts, and there will not be a day as long as I'm healthy where I don't walk a minimum of an hour a day — unless I'm playing tennis. I don't play doubles, by the way. And I play two sets whenever I'm home.
In addition, I always, every day, work out in the exercise room. If I'm on the road, I'll walk the stairs of hotels, or I'll walk in the corridors of hotels.
I try to do something every day. If I don't, I feel like I've really let myself down.
So many people struggle to keep with programs. How do you stick with it?
The key is discipline. People get so wrapped up in their jobs or everyday dealings. Organizing time is really crucial.
I do a lot of motivational speaking and . . . I'll share with them about managing time, organizing your day. If you have a game plan every day, and goals you want to achieve, you can do it.
But I also chart in there every day an hour to myself. I think I deserve an hour for me — selfish. I'm going to take care of myself.
I watched my dad work all his life and he always cared about the family — and he talked about what he'd do when he retired. When he did retire, he sat in a big chair, and never got out of the chair, and then his legs couldn't move.
And it was sad watching that, and I see a lot of people fall into that category. I have a saying: If you don't care about yourself, who's going to care about you?
What kind of foods do you eat?
I eat basically fish, chicken, vegetables and pasta. I've done that for more than 15 years. Prior to that, I was a bad eater. You can change.
I try to stay away from eating late at night. I want to live, man. It beats the alternative.
What role does family play in your life?
There's no greater gift in life than health and family. If you have that, you have it all.
I've been married 36 years. My two girls . . . married two quality guys; one is an orthopedic surgeon, one is a prosecutor. They all live five minutes from my house.
We have the five grandchildren, 2 to 6 years of age, who I see every day when I'm home. There's nothing like family.
You also place a lot of emphasis on charity in your life.
My wife and I didn't come from wealth, and we've been lucky. A lot of good things have happened to me, and I try never to forget where I came from. Giving back is so important.
One of the big things now is the Dick Vitale Gala, to raise $1-million for pediatric cancer in the name of little Payton Wright, who lost her life at age 5. She was from right here in Lakewood Ranch. She died May 29, 2007.
I got to know Payton and her family really well and I vowed to them after the funeral that I would raise $1-million in her name to keep her spirit alive and help other kids battling cancer.
So if anybody wants to come to the event or make a donation, check out my Web site (www.dick
vitaleonline.com). No child should have to be going to radiation and having chemotherapy. They should be out running, jumping and playing and having a ball.
Can you go out around Bradenton, or anywhere, without being stopped by fans?
I love being with people. I'm not going to let my celebrity stop me from going to Rays games — I have season tickets by the dugout.
I have season tickets to Notre Dame football, to the Bucs. I go to shows. I go out. I don't get annoyed if somebody comes over and wants an autograph or picture. I love it.
It's part of me and who I am.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8541.