SARASOTA — When you think about it, what Dick Vitale has managed to pull off is amazing. He's just a college basketball analyst on ESPN. Popular, yes. Entertaining, always. But, still, just a college basketball analyst. Yet, Friday night, he turned Sarasota into the sports capital of the world.
And, incredibly, raised more than $1 million in the fight against cancer.
"What Dick has done,'' Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said, "is incredible.''
A who's who of college basketball coaches as well as former and current stars such as Tony Dungy, Magic Johnson, Derrick Brooks, Isiah Thomas, Doug Williams, John Calipari and Tommy Lasorda were among the more than 800 who turned out for the fifth annual Dick Vitale Gala at the Ritz Carlton Resort.
Friday's proceeds went to the V Foundation for Cancer Research, named after former N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who in 1993 died of cancer. This year's net proceeds from the gala will fund a collaborative research grant for pediatric cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Izzo and former Bucs coach Dungy were honored Friday, but the true star, as always, was Vitale, who has turned his career as a television analyst into something larger and more important.
"There is no one more passionate about this cause — no one — than Dick Vitale,'' ESPN Radio's Mike Greenberg said. "Twenty years from now, maybe we'll be here and no one will remember the (catch phrases like) 'It's awesome, baby.' But somebody will be alive because of Dick Vitale.''
All the stars showed up because Vitale called and asked. They all came on their own dime — they paid for their travel and hotel expenses. And they donated money. None were reimbursed for anything.
"You hear so many negative things about sports these days that something like this deserves to be publicized,'' Dungy said. "You see the good that can be done and how much people care. Something like cancer affects all of us, and it's great to have someone like Dick leading the charge.''
For Vitale, 70, it has been a self-proclaimed "obsession.''
"It's too important to not be obsessed,'' Vitale said. "Everyone here is a competitor, someone who hates to lose. When I coached, I hated to lose a game. Tom Izzo — you don't think he hates to lose? Or Tony Dungy? But that's just a game. You lose and there's another day. You lose with cancer, and it takes your life. Cancer takes your humility. It takes everything you have. It brings you to your knees.
"How can you not want to fight with everything you have, especially when you see a kid like Jake Olson?''
Olson is a 13-year-old boy from California who became nationally known last year after ESPN did a story about his relationship with the University of Southern California football team as he battled eye cancer. Olson lost his sight in one eye when he was 1 and had an operation on this other eye last year that left him blind for life.
Olson spoke Friday before the gala and called Vitale an inspiration.
That left Vitale in tears.
"No, the inspirational ones are the people like Jake and his family, and the other families who are here even though they have lost their children to cancer,'' Vitale said. "All I do is make the calls and ask people to come. I was told that with the economy the way it is that people might not be able to help us get to a million this year. But the economy goes up and down, the stock market goes up and down. But cancer never goes away, whether you're black or white, young or old, rich or poor, Christian or Jewish. It doesn't care. And I will do everything I can until the day I die to fight it.''
Judging by Friday's inspirational night, Vitale is fighting with everything he's got.