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Meet Dick Vitale, the same guy you see on TV

The guests who walk into a showcase home at FishHawk Ranch on Tuesday will first hear that booming Italian voice, coated with enthusiasm and drenched in sincerity.

The familiar face and big smile will greet them, and someone will say, "There he is, Dick Vitale. Dickie Vee. Cool." Fans will rush to ask the ESPN basketball commentator about the NCAA Championship game and legendary coach Bobby Knight. They'll inquire about the University of Florida's chances of returning to the Big Dance, and maybe someone will congratulate him on recently being selected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

At some point, however, Vitale will flip the script. He'll go from offering opinions to asking questions. He'll want to know how the awesome accountant crunches numbers with such expertise, how the beautiful Realtor keeps her head above water and how the wonderful homemaker balances the demands of kids and spouse.

This is vintage Vitale. He's a man who can be as excited about a high-level attorney as he is about a high-flying dunk. I've known Vitale since my days as a television-radio columnist in the 1990s, and people always ask, "Is he really the guy you see and hear on television?"

Absolutely.

"I just love being around people and getting to know people," Vitale said last week.

Vitale brings his winning personality to FishHawk for a special evening at the Cellini showcase home. The event will be part of the 2008 Parade of Homes, but Vitale comes to be a drum major against cancer. Inspired by friend and former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who died from cancer in 1993, Vitale continues to crusade for the V Foundation for Cancer Research. He actually calls it an obsession.

"Cancer is in for the toughest fight it has ever faced," Vitale vows.

That commitment only intensified after Vitale met 4-year-old Payton Wright in his Bradenton neighborhood. Payton lost her battle to cancer in May, leaving an indelible imprint on Vitale's heart.

"She was running around Sea World in May of 2006 when she got a pain in her knee," Vitale said. "Never in their wildest imagination did her parents, Holly and Patrick, think it was a tumor on her spine that would eventually become brain cancer.

"Kids should be playing, running and jumping, not going to chemotherapy and radiation."

At Payton's funeral, Vitale promised Holly and Patrick that her battle wouldn't end with her passing. He's using her story to raise $1-million for the V Foundation and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.

John Fowke, a home builder who has Rays season tickets near Vitale's seats, offered to help, and Vitale said he would avail himself if it meant helping kids. So now Fowke is opening up his showcase home to help the cause.

"It's a chance for people to hear a message I can deliver," Vitale said. "I like to motivate people. I like to inspire people. I like to talk to them about the greatest game ever, the game of life."

Tuesday's event serves as a sort of precursor to the Dick Vitale Gala, a May 16 event at the Sarasota Ritz Carlton that will salute Knight and Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt and draw some of sports' top celebrities.

For now, the focus is on FishHawk and Fowke, who Vitale naturally calls a "beautiful guy."

In Dick's world, everybody is beautiful.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.

Meet Dick Vitale, the same guy you see on TV 04/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 4:30am]
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