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ESPN's Dick Vitale remains college basketball's PTPer, baby

GAINESVILLE

Dick Vitale stepped off a private airplane in Gainesville on Tuesday afternoon, and before his feet even hit the ground, his perpetually upbeat mood turned sour. ESPN had sent a sleek, black stretch limousine to pick him up and carry him to that night's broadcast assignment: Alabama at Florida.

"What's this?'' Vitale said. "No, no, I don't want this. Didn't they have a regular SUV or something? I hate this limo. Ah, man. I don't want all this fuss.

"This makes me look like I'm a big shot or something.''

Vitale, known as Dickie V to millions of college basketball fans, seems to be the only one who doesn't realize he is a big shot. For 32 years, Vitale has been the voice of college basketball. Along the way, he helped turn ESPN from a fledgling network into one of the most powerful entities in sports. Two to three times a week during basketball season, Vitale comes into our living rooms yelling out catchphrases — "Awesome, baby!'' and "Are you serious?'' and "He's a diaper dandy, a PTPer!'' — in his New Jersey accent. His infectious optimism and dogged work ethic have turned him into a champion for college basketball, a tenacious fundraiser for cancer research and one of the most recognizable people in sports.

He's 71 going on 7.

"You know how the Army says they do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day?'' said ESPN broadcaster Dan Shulman, who has been Vitale's regular on-air partner for the past nine years. "Well, that's Dick. And Dick does more in a day than anyone I know.''

So what exactly is a day in the life of Dick Vitale like?

He wakes each morning at his Lakewood Ranch home in Manatee County between 6:30 and 7 and works out — a strict regimen of sit-ups, weights and at least an hour of either walking or playing tennis.

Then it's off to the nearby Broken Egg diner, where he stays long enough to have breakfast and lunch. ("His second office,'' said ESPN producer and researcher Howie Schwab, star of the old trivia show Stump the Schwab who has been traveling to games with Vitale for 24 years.)

During his three-plus hours at the Broken Egg, Vitale reads five newspapers and countless stories online. He makes dozens of phone calls — to coaches, to media, to friends. He has learned how to use Twitter and tweets frequently.

He's interrupted constantly by people who want an autograph or picture or just to say hello so they can tell their friends they met Dickie V. He jots things down in notebooks. When he's out of notebooks, he uses scraps of paper. When he's out of scraps of paper, he uses napkins.

"Those notes,'' Schwab said pointing to a napkin, "will be good as long as he doesn't have to blow his nose.''

•••

Vitale pays out of his own pocket for a private plane to take him to and from games so he isn't spending half his life in hotel rooms. During the 35-minute plane ride from Sarasota to Gainesville on Tuesday for the Gators-Tide game, Vitale reviews his notes with writing only he can decipher. He mentions his throat surgery four years ago and says, "I got to save my voice for the game.''

But almost immediately, Vitale launches into a rapid-fire series of stories. Every one punctuated with: "I'll never forget it.'' He talks about how he met his wife of 40 years, Lorraine, who is making the trip to Gainesville and goes to about 10 games a season even though she says she's not really a sports fan.

"I watch games if Dick is doing it, but if he's not calling the game, I'd rather watch a movie,'' she said.

Vitale then talks about his two daughters and their husbands and pulls out a photo album of the grandkids. He talks about his upcoming annual "Dickie V Gala,'' which draws a who's who of sports celebrities and raises about a million dollars a year for cancer research.

He tears up talking about his late mother and the confidence she instilled by telling him he had "spiritful life.'' He talks about Manny Ramirez and his favorite baseball team, the Rays. On and on, one story morphing into the next, some funny, some inspirational, some poignant, all captivating.

He talks about being young and wanting nothing more than to become a college basketball coach. He has been broadcasting so long that younger generations don't realize he coached.

After paying dues as a high school coach in New Jersey, Vitale got his first break when he was hired to be a Rutgers assistant in 1971 for only $11,000 a year. He then became head coach at the University of Detroit for five years and the NBA's Pistons for a little more than a season before he was fired, which might have been the best thing that ever happened to him other than meeting Lorraine.

That's when a little network named ESPN, launched only three months earlier, came calling. ESPN executive Scotty Connal hired Vitale, who called his first game on Dec. 5, 1979.

Since then, he has made millions as a broadcaster.

"I learned very early that you are who you are and you have to be who you are,'' Vitale said. "Scotty told me that you have to do two things, educate and entertain. I was just myself, and Scotty said, 'Dick, you connect with people. Don't ever forget that, and don't lose that.' ''

That connection can be seen the moment Vitale steps out of that stretch limo at the O'Connell Center two hours before tipoff. Students, security, arena workers all reach out for a high-five. Vitale treats each one like a best friend.

While Vitale is taping a report to be shown later that evening on SportsCenter, students are let into the arena. After banging out the report in one take off the top of his head, Vitale climbs into the stands. Students surround him like a rock star.

Just as quickly, Vitale climbs down to the court to hobnob with players warming up for the game. Moments later, he's trading stories with Gators coach Billy Donovan in the Florida locker room. Before Vitale leaves, Donovan hugs him and says, "Dick, we appreciate everything you do.''

Vitale can't walk 5 feet without making that personal connection for which he is known.

"He's like the fifth Beatle,'' Schwab said. "Everyone wants to meet him. Everyone wants to talk to him, get a picture, whatever. You should see when there are celebrities around. Dick wants to meet them, but what he doesn't realize is they are more excited at meeting Dick.''

•••

If there's a criticism of Vitale, it's that he's too positive. But that might be more perception than reality. During Tuesday's broadcast of the Florida-Alabama game, Vitale is quick to point out mistakes. He criticizes Florida's shot selection, Alabama's carelessness with the ball and a couple of iffy calls by the officials.

Along the way, he mixes in his famous catchphrases with 10-second bursts of analysis.

Many of the things he says on the air are taken directly from those napkins and scraps of paper from the Broken Egg. Points he made during the airplane ride to Gainesville find themselves repeated almost word for word during the broadcast.

Occasionally, Schwab hands him a piece of paper with something Vitale can use on the air. Suddenly, you realize his performance is way more substance than style.

"You don't last 32 years by just saying 'Awesome baby' or 'Time for a T.O,' " Vitale said. "It takes a lot of preparation. And you have to be excited to do it. I couldn't do this job if I didn't get excited for every single game. I love it. Haven't even thought about when I might retire.''

He recently signed an extension to keep him with ESPN until 2015.

"He has talked about doing this when he's 90,'' Schwab said.

At halftime, Vitale and Shulman retreat to an empty locker room to relax. Vitale wants something warm for his throat and asks Schwab for a cup of coffee. Schwab says they don't have decaf, so he's giving Vitale only half a cup.

"This could be a mistake,'' Schwab says with a smile as he hands the cup to the already-amped Vitale.

Vitale returns to the floor for the second half and is greeted by more cheers from the fans, especially the students who reach out their hands like he's running for office. Gators star Chandler Parsons prompts Vitale for a fist-bump right before inbounding the ball during the game. The exchange seems like a bigger deal to Parsons than Vitale.

The Gators use a big second half to turn a 30-30 halftime score into a 78-51 rout. Vitale and Shulman wrap up the broadcast. More students ask for Vitale's autograph. The Gators cheerleaders drag Vitale into a group photo.

The smile never leaves his face as he and his traveling party pile back into the stretch limo. You keep waiting for Vitale to let his guard down, to stop being "Dickie V,'' but it never happens. The guy you see on the air is the same guy off the air. Dickie V is Dick Vitale, and Dick Vitale is Dickie V.

He says he wished the game had been closer in the second half, but he thought it was a good broadcast anyway.

Now it's back to the airport, back to Sarasota and back to bed. On Wednesday, there's another game: North Carolina at Florida State. And another day in the life of Dick Vitale.

ESPN's Dick Vitale remains college basketball's PTPer, baby 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 9:14pm]

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