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  1. Sports

Dick Vitale unplugged is just as manic as the televised facsimile

John Romano | Spend an afternoon at Dick Vitale’s house and you learn what it means to live and love at 12,000 words an hour.
If there is a patron saint for college basketball, Dick Vitale has the job sewn up. A favorite of college students around the country, Vitale goofs up with Duke students before a game against Notre Dame last month in Durham, NC. [HENRY HAGGART | Special to the Times]

BRADENTON — So anyway, this is a story about a conversation with Dick Vitale.

Which is exactly what conversations with Dick Vitale sound like. They come at you quickly and they are never linear. Every thought, every memory, every point leads to some other thought, memory or point. You don’t engage in conversation with Dickie V. as much as you hang on for dear life.

“So anyway …,’’ Vitale will say, which is a segue he might as well have invented.

We are sitting in the office of his magnificent 12,000 square foot home a few miles off Interstate 75 adjacent to Sarasota County, ostensibly to talk about his 40th anniversary as a broadcaster with ESPN. I say ostensibly because you really don’t need an excuse to have a conversation with Vitale. Just a few hours and a willingness to be charmed.

If you think the enthusiasm, passion and good cheer you get from Vitale on television is a schtick, then you don’t know Vitale. In some ways, he’s even more enthusiastic and passionate in person. At least there’s no director in his ear telling him it’s time for a commercial break.

On TV he might love college basketball but everywhere else he loves people and the life he’s created for himself. The boundless energy and patter might not be your thing, but it’s sincere and, ultimately, endearing. If he was a cartoon, he’d be an amphetamine-fueled version of Jiminy Cricket.

At one point, I ask him about a New York Times article from 1979 when he was the coach of the Detroit Pistons. The article was a portrait of a tormented man, unable to come to grips with the pain of coaching a losing NBA franchise. I tell him most of America has never seen a downcast Dick Vitale, so I ask what that might look like.

He answers. And answers. And answers. My tape recorder times it at 45 minutes, 14 seconds and roughly 8,000 words without stopping. Or with any hint of hubris or self-aggrandizing.

“Oh, it was brutal. I was brutal,’’ he begins. “I would have been dead by 50 if I stayed in coaching.

“You have to understand my background though …’’

And from there, he takes off. Somehow, the answer includes baseball memories of Ron Swoboda. The accounting office at McBride Plumbing. Taking a pay cut to teach and coach. State basketball championships at East Rutherford High in New Jersey. Howard Garfinkel, the legendary guru of the Five-Star camp. Rejections letters. The Candlewick Diner. Taking another pay cut to coach at Rutgers. Recruiting Phil Sellers. Former Connecticut star Maya Moore. The money his father used to put aside for Friday night pizza at Barcelona’s in Garfield, N.J. His Hall of Fame induction speech. Magic Johnson. Amalie Arena. The Sweet 16 in 1977. Luke and Laura on General Hospital. Broadcasters Curt Gowdy and Jim Simpson. St. Jude. Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Crying like a baby when he was fired. Getting a call from ESPN.

And finally, more than 40 minutes later, he returns to my question about being miserable.

“So anyway …’’

It’s January 1979 and the Pistons are playing the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. His mother Mae has a house full of friends, family and food waiting after the game. But Detroit blows a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter and loses 111-110.

“My mother says, 'Richie are you coming to the house.’ I said, 'I can’t come to the house ma, I’m devastated.’ She had all of these people there for me,’’ Vitale said, and begins to cry. “To this day, I am so sad that I never went. I apologized five million times after that. But that’s what losing did to me.

“I have a routine I do every game. When the game ends, I don’t watch the winning coach. When he leaves, I don’t look at him. I look at the guy who lost and I say to myself, 'Man, am I lucky I’m not doing that.’ Because I know that feeling and, oh, I couldn’t handle it. I blamed myself for every loss. I’m not kidding, I would have been dead, and all of this would not be around. My wife, our family, none of this.’’

Crying is a part of any lengthy conversation with Vitale. You. Him. Probably the fly on the wall. It’s neither maudlin nor disruptive. It’s just part of the package. When you embrace people and life the way Vitale does, you can’t help but feel sorrows and joys at a heightened level.

And now we’ve gotten to the heart of Dick Vitale. His empathy, in both winning and losing, is what makes his style work on television. He may be more bombastic than the next guy, but he is never insincere. And that also explains the V Foundation and Dick Vitale Gala dedicated to pediatric cancer research.

It began in earnest when Vitale learned of a nearby family in Sarasota whose four-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with cancer and he held a fundraiser to help with their expenses. Less than a year later, Payton Wright had passed away and Vitale promised her parents he would raise $1 million for cancer research.

It’s now a dozen years down the road and the target will be $5 million (bringing total donations to nearly $35 million) when the Dick Vitale Gala is held May 8 at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota. For Vitale, this is not a once-a-year project. He handwrites letters to area CEOs almost daily to implore them to donate and attend. He visits children’s hospitals. He donates all the money from his book sales. He keeps a growing portrait in his office of the children who have attended his gala and have since passed away. He has been asked to speak at more than one funeral for a child who has fallen to cancer.

On the night before his gala, Vitale and wife Lorraine host a $25,000-a-head party at his home with TV and sports personalities as the attraction. Three years ago, 17-year-old cancer patient Tony Colton asked Vitale if he could address the 100 or so high rollers at the event.

“I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that, Tony,’ and he says, ‘I do.’ He gets up and tells the crowd, ‘Please, I beg you, listen to coach V. Please donate. Don’t let other kids suffer like I’ve suffered.’ ’’ Vitale said. “All of these coaches standing there, Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“So anyway, two months later, I get a call. Tony’s in the hospital. Things are getting tough. Lorraine and I visit him, we walk in and he’s hooked up to tubes, he’s getting morphine to kill the pain. He calls me to his bed, he could barely whisper, and he says to me, ‘Don’t stop what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Tony, I promise you to my last breath I’m going to beg and plead for dollars.’ Those were the last words he ever said to me.’’

You want heroes? Vitale has a headful. His All-Courageous team he calls it. Kids who battle cancer without complaint. He knows their names, and he knows their stories. And he’s got a drawer full of mass cards for the ones no longer here.

You want survivors? How about Holly Wright, who continues to raise awareness for cancer research a decade after her daughter Payton passed on.

“Holly asks me one year if she can speak at the gala. I get all these coaches to come. (John) Calipari, Bill Self. Kenny Chesney was at that one. Magic Johnson,’’ Vitale said. “So anyway, she gets up there and says ‘All you guys, all you coaches, you lose a game and you think it’s the end of the world. And to you, it should be. It’s your job, it means so much to you and there’s nothing wrong with that.

“ ’But coaches, you’re going to get another game to coach. I am never, ever getting a chance to hold my little girl again.’ My God. How powerful are those words? Think about that. That’s why we have to keep working. That’s why we can’t stop.’’

He’s up and moving now. He’s explaining his philanthropic work by going back to his life again. At age 80, there’s no stalling his exuberance but his body could use a reprieve. He leans on your shoulder as he moves from room to room, offering a running commentary on daughters, grandchildren and the world.

Coming down a hallway, he has you look both ways to make sure Lorraine doesn’t see the tour extending into the master bedroom. And there he shows you the black-and-white portrait of his parents with three-year-old Dick propped on a cushion between them. His parents were second-generation Americans with elementary school educations who worked blue-collar jobs their entire lives.

Every day, he says, when he gets out of bed he goes to that picture to thank his mother and father. He thanks them for their love, he says and then begins to cry. He thanks them for guidance and inspiration and support. He would give anything, he says, if his parents could see him today. Not to bask in his wealth or fame, but to see how their devotion shaped his life.

“There is nothing more important to me than family. I learned that from my mom and dad. They were the greatest — you’re Italian, you know — the love is unreal in the family. I miss my mom, my father, every day,’’ he said. “All of this? It just means I made a few bucks. It doesn’t mean anything about my character. I’ve told family members who are close to me, 'You kick me in the ass, you shake me up if I ever lose my perspective of where I came from.’ That is not going to happen.

“The bottom line is I’ve always had the drive to be excited about what I do and that has not stopped. Every day I wake up excited about what’s to come. It’s going to break my heart the day I pick up that phone — and I know it’s going to come — and say to my bosses ‘The party is over. It’s done.’ I worry about that because I don’t want to lose the drive I have.’’

He pauses, but only for a moment. And then the thought is gone, and he’s remembered something else.

“So anyway … ‘’

Dick Vitale stands a group of pediatric cancer survivors at his annual fundraising gala in May. Last year's gala raised $4.3 million for pediatric cancer research. [JOEY KNIGHT]

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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