It was just another book signing for Dick Vitale. There was plenty of banter that day in Florida last year for the man who has become the face and voice of college basketball while he posed for pictures, signed autographs and enjoyed some laughs.
Then the mood changed quickly.
"An older man, probably around my age, hey, I turned 70, do you believe that?" Vitale said Thursday as he started another of his stories that eventually get to a point. "He was with a couple of kids, I guess they were his grandkids, and he walked up to me and said, 'You're wasting your time.' I thought he meant something about college basketball, one of the teams I was talking about, or about me writing a book. I wasn't sure."
Vitale's voice dropped. It wasn't the one heard from packed arenas. There wasn't any "Get a T.O., baby."
"Then he said it again, 'You're wasting your time.' I said about what. He told me, and I was furious. He said, 'All the time you put into raising money to cure cancer. There will never, ever be a cure. You are wasting your time.' I looked at him and then at the beautiful children who were with him. I said, 'I hope and pray that in your life, and in theirs, that you won't need the help these dollars are producing because you are wrong.' "
There were tremors in his voice as he told the story. This wasn't the Dickie V who made his way into homes as an ESPN analyst the past three decades and into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as a contributor to the game.
"I was so upset," he said. "I kept on with the signing, but all I could think about were the children I had met over the years, the children who did nothing to get this disease yet now are in the fight of their lives. I thought of my friends who I had lost and all the loved ones others had taken away from them. I was really upset.
"About 10 minutes later, he came back and gave me a couple of bucks as a donation and said he was really sorry for what he said. Now I have to make sure I meet all those people who feel that way and get them on the right track."
His next fundraising venture is the one that makes him the most proud: the fifth annual Dick Vitale Gala on May 21 in Sarasota at the Ritz-Carlton Resort.
The first four of these celebrity-filled events all raised more than $1 million. That number will be at least matched again at the dinner where Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy will be honored, and where the guest list will include almost every big-name college basketball coach as well as those from other sports, the broadcasting industry and the public.
"What makes this so unique and special is that, in this day and age, all these guys come to us free of charge. They pay for their own flight, hotel and expenses," Vitale said, starting to sound more like himself.
"We will be the basketball capital of the world for one night. Are you kidding me? Gary Williams, Jay Wright, Bob Huggins, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Crean, Steve Alford, Mike Brey, Tubby Smith, John Calipari, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and, hey, we got John Saunders as MC and Erin Andrews will be here."
Among those invited are two of the current 12 million cancer survivors in the country: Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who missed last season as he battled a rare form of cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma, and Jake Olson, a 12-year-old who lost his sight to cancer but became a big part of the USC football team in the process.
Sitting in a breakfast restaurant doing a phone interview, Vitale again became so passionate about the disease he first started to fight when close friend Jim Valvano was diagnosed with it. ESPN and Valvano started The V Foundation for Cancer Research the night the coach gave his remarkable speech in 1993 when he insisted, "Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
Vitale says the task sometimes seems overwhelming.
"Pam Valvano said it best, that it's like a cross country train ride and we started in California and we're maybe to Nebraska," he said, referring to Valvano's widow. "With each dollar, with each day, we are getting closer."
Then came the voice so unlike the one heard on TV.
"I can't stop raising money. … I see those kids suffering. I see the families suffering. It rips my heart out. It makes me feel so guilty," he said, stopping to compose himself, dry his eyes and think how wrong that man at the book signing was. "We will raise over a million dollars at the Gala. We need more. We'll get it. We're not wasting our time. We're not."
For more information on the event, go to dickvitaleonline.com.