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  1. Sports

Dick Vitale’s gala rises above college hoops’ dark clouds

The iconic college basketball analyst hopes to raise $4 million Friday for cancer research

College basketball's image is getting pummeled in the corner. One shining moment has been supplanted by one shiner after another.

Terms such as wiretap, agent-runner and subpoena have dominated the sport’s lexicon for the better part of 18 months as a federal probe into college hoops corruption segued to a trial.

More than ever, most are convinced the game’s dirty. And more than ever, it needs a counter-balance. Benevolence is needed to offset the bag men. Some altruism might take the edge off the cynicism.

It needs an infusion of compassion and kindness. This calls for gobs of money being handed out for noble ― instead of nefarious ― causes.

Dickie V’s got the call.

“You can definitely tell that he cares,” 16-year-old cancer conqueror N’Jhari Jackson said.

Friday night at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, college hoops’ most recognizable ambassador will work the room like there’s no tomorrow. For many of those he’s trying to help, tomorrows are at a premium.

Hence the reason he’ll sermonize, sob, plead and exhort to a celebrity-studded banquet hall at the 14th annual Dick Vitale Gala.

Last year’s event raised a record $3.7 million for cancer research. The goal for this year’s gala ― which will feature Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, ESPN’s Chris Fowler and dozens of other sports luminaries ― is $4 million.

Related: Related: Tearful Leonard Hamilton joins cancer crusade at Dick Vitale Gala

Reaching that objective requires Vitale to bring his A-game. Say what you will about his on-air shtick, his antiquated vernacular (“diaper dandy”) and maddening tendency to digress.

When the gala tips off and Vitale recognizes the pediatric cancer survivors he calls his “heroes,” he’s polished, crisp and on point.

“He doesn’t stumble, he doesn’t have to go, ‘Umm,’ or think of the kids’ names,” said veteran Sarasota Herald-Tribune sports columnist Doug Fernandes, who himself survived a childhood form of cancer (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) diagnosed when he was in his 50s.

“I mean, he knows this information cold, and obviously he researches this before the big night.”

Jackson can attest. A Carrollwood Day senior who has earned every merit badge offered by the Boy Scouts of America, Jackson has battled an autoimmune disorder ― resulting in periodic tumors ― for more than a decade. This year, he’ll be a gala guest again.

Last year, he was floored by how much the host ― who turns 80 next month ― knew about his backstory.

“Somehow, he had details I might not have even remembered, which is super cool,” said Jackson, who has been accepted at the University of Florida.

“You can definitely tell that he cares. Throughout all his organizations ― his auctions, galas, whatever ― you can tell he just has this drive and determination.”

Related: Related: Autoimmune disorder won’t sideline CDS’ N’Jhari Jackson

Jackson and his mother will attend this year’s gala, along with several other “heroes.” As sure as Tom Izzo scowls, Vitale will ask each special guest to stand, then deliver a heartwarming elocution on each: their age, condition, hobbies, extra-curricular endeavors.

By any measure, it’s astounding.

Some might even deem it awesome, baby.

“He’s got a great memory for recall, basketball knowledge and players and stuff, but he’s able to remember every detail about (the kids),” Fernandes said.

“Some of the guys are the same every year...and some of the faces are brand new, and Dickie V knows the itinerary on all these kids very, very well.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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