Sunday, December 17, 2017

Vitale's mission: Stopping cancer

For a moment, you forget that this is Dick Vitale. His voice seems different. He seems different.

The ESPN college basketball analyst isn't going 100 miles per hour, hop-scotching from this topic to the next. He isn't yelling about some dunk. He isn't screaming "Are you serious!?'' after a half-court buzzer-beater.

This voice is cracking. It's shaky.

Then you realize what is happening. Vitale is crying.

"This disease,'' Vitale, 73, said. "This cancer! No parent should have to bury their child. I've seen too much of that. I've heard too many horrible stories. That's what I'm trying to stop and I will do whatever I can until my last breath on this earth.''

College basketball might be Vitale's livelihood, but fighting pediatric cancer has become Vitale's life mission.

Tonight in Sarasota, Vitale will host the eighth annual Dick Vitale Gala to raise money and awareness in his fight.

Back in 2005, Nick Valvano called Vitale with an idea. Valvano was the brother of former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who lost his battle to cancer in 1993. Nick, the then-CEO of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, thought Vitale might be able to help him round up 30 or 40 people around the west coast of Florida to raise money for his foundation.

Vitale agreed to help, but he thought he could drum up more than 40 people. So he called a few friends, folks such as Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan and Bucs star Ronde Barber. More than 300 people showed up and the gala was held underneath a tent in Vitale's backyard in Lakewood Ranch. They raised about $300,000.

"To be honest, I thought it was going to be a one-shot deal,'' Vitale said. "But we had a great time and I thought, well, let's try to expand it.''

Soon after, Vitale met a 4-year-old cancer patient named Payton Wright. After Payton passed away, Vitale told her parents, "I'm sorry I couldn't save Payton's life, but I guarantee you I will raise a millions dollars for cancer research.''

When Vitale got into his car, his wife, Lorraine, turned to him and asked, "Do you know what you just said? A million dollars?''

Tonight, the gala won't be held under a tent in Vitale's backyard. It will be at the Ritz-Carlton. And instead of 300, there will be nearly 1,000, including a who's who in the sports world. Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self and former UConn basketball coach and cancer survivor Jim Calhoun will be honored. The night will be hosted by ESPN's Dan Shulman. All the celebrities, Vitale points out, pay their expenses. Those who can't make it almost always send checks.

"I got one here just now from a coach everyone knows for $10,000,'' Vitale said.

Another coach — Vitale won't say who — offered to pay expenses for the families affected by cancer who are attending tonight's event.

But here are the numbers that show just how far this event has come: This year's gala should raise around $2 million, pushing the all-time total past $10 million.

"My mother,'' Vitale continued, "told me, even when I lost my eye as a kid, 'Richie' — she never called me Dick — 'Richie, never believe in the word can't.' And she also would say, 'Be good to people and people will be good to you.' But, mostly, I do this because how can you not do something?''

Vitale thinks that every time he sees his healthy grandchildren.

"Cancer doesn't care,'' Vitale said. "It doesn't care if you're rich, poor, black, white, Christian, Jewish. It doesn't matter. It's even worse when it goes after a child.''

This is when Vitale starts to cry again. He reels off story after story about the children he has met through the years. Some have survived. Many have died. Some of the stories are gut-wrenching. Most of them are inspiring. A few of them will be on stage this evening, telling their stories.

That includes 7-year-old Lacey Holsworth from Michigan, who was diagnosed on Dec. 28, 2011. Doctors told her parents that if she didn't begin treatment immediately, she might not live two weeks. Lacey — a miracle, according to her doctors — is alive and an inspiration to the Michigan State basketball team and its star forward Adreian Payne.

"We have the most courageous young people,'' Vitale said. "You could line up with any football team with these survivors.''

Tonight's gala is special for another reason. This year is the 30th anniversary of when Valvano's N.C. State Wolfpack upset Houston to win the 1983 NCAA championship. And it's the 20th anniversary of Valvano's legendary "Never Give Up'' speech at the ESPY Awards.

"(Tonight),'' Vitale said, "we will live by Jimmy V's philosophy and do the three things he said in his speech. We will be moved to thought. We will be moved to laughter. We will be moved to emotion, and there will be tears flowing here. I guarantee it.''

He also makes this guarantee: "We will do good. We are going to raise money to help families. We are going to raise money for research. We are going to raise money for treatment. And I'm going to keep doing this until I die or we beat this thing for good. That, I promise.''

For information or to donate to the V Foundation, go to

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