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The fight Dick Vitale will never surrender

Basketball announcer Dick Vitale looks skyward during a court dedication in his honor at Detroit Mercy in Detroit, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. Vitale guided the Titans to 78 victories in five seasons at the University of Detroit, as it then was called, when he coached the team (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) MICO101
Published May 6, 2017

The very first Dick Vitale Gala wasn't really a gala.

It was a gathering, 150 or so people crammed into Vitale's home in Lakewood Ranch back in 2005.

He did it as a favor to Nick Valvano, the brother of late N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano. Nick was running the V Foundation for Cancer Research. Maybe Dickie V could have a few influential friends over the house, raise awareness, maybe raise a few bucks.

So Dickie V called up some sports movers-and-shakers, guys like Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan and Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber.

"A great night,'' Vitale said.

By the end of it, they had raised a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Since then, the Dick Vitale Gala has grown. Really grown.

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Next Friday, Vitale will host the 12th annual gala, which these days is dedicated to raising money for pediatric cancer. For information, go to dickvitaleonline.com.

"Sarasota on that Friday night becomes the sports capital of the USA,'' Vitale said.

No longer held in his living room, Vitale has moved the gala to the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton. This time, 870 people will attend, including a who's who of college basketball and the sports world.

And here's the most impressive number: Vitale hopes the gala can raise more than $3 million.

If Vitale reaches his goal, that means he will have raised more than $21 million to fight pediatric cancer.

"It's an obsession,'' Vitale said. "I'm obsessed with this.''

Vitale, of course, is best known for calling college basketball on ESPN. He's a member of just about every Hall of Fame related to basketball and broadcasting. Not bad for a kid from Passaic, N.J. who considered himself an average player and coach.

"There's no question that working at ESPN is a thrill beyond belief,'' Vitale said. "But I can't tell you what an unbelievable feeling it is to bring a smile to someone's face and to maybe save some lives.''

Vitale's passion goes back to that first year and then getting close to the family of Payton Wright, a neighbor of Vitale's who passed away from cancer at the age of 5.

"That was the point when I said I would fight to the very last breath to fight this horrible disease,'' said Vitale, who still gets emotional when recounting the seemingly endless stories of children he knows who have been stricken by cancer.

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One such child and his family will be recognized this year. Benji Gilkey of Sarasota was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2015. He passed away in February. He was 9. The V Foundation is naming a grant after Benji.

"This is heart-breaking, but you also admire the courage of these kids,'' Vitale said. "That's what this is all about and this is why people help me fight this cause."

Sports celebrities pay for their own flights and accommodations to attend. Then they donate thousands upon thousands to the cause. Each year, Vitale honors those who are leading the fight.

This year's honorees include Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, whose wife is a cancer survivor, ESPN's Chris Berman and West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins, who has raised millions for cancer research in his late mother's honor.

The year's event will include a special presentation to the family of ESPN's John Saunders, who passed away last year at the age of 61. Vitale helped raise more than $600,000 and will donate three grants in Saunders' name to study brain cancer, neuroblastoma and bone cancer.

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"This one is emotional for me,'' Vitale said.

Saunders emceed all but one of the galas. Vitale choked up remembering the last time he saw Saunders. Every year, the day after the gala, Vitale hosts a post-gala party at his house.

"Last year, John was the last one to leave,'' Vitale said. "He and his wife, Wanda, and his daughters, they all stayed until like 1 in the morning. We just sat there shooting the breeze, talking about family, talking about whatever. It was so special.''

Vitale said his fight will continue. He's already working on next year's event.

"I'll never stop,'' Vitale said. "Never.''

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones

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