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Dick Vitale awaits decision after third grueling bout with cancer

The college hoops icon recently completed the last of 35 treatments for larynx cancer.
 
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale shows a sign he uses to tell people he is unable to talk (due to an ongoing bout with vocal cord cancer) while attending the Orioles-Rays game on July 21 at Tropicana Field.
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale shows a sign he uses to tell people he is unable to talk (due to an ongoing bout with vocal cord cancer) while attending the Orioles-Rays game on July 21 at Tropicana Field. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 5, 2023

SARASOTA — College basketball’s ageless, effervescent pied piper isn’t radiating on this humid Friday morning. Here at this branch of the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute, the r-word is a cold, clinical term.

It has consumed Dick Vitale’s life for the past six weeks: radiation, along with CAT scans, consultations and complete silence. Oh, how Dickie V yearns for the amalgamation of hoops, headsets and hysterical fans that long ago propelled him into pop culture lore. How he’d love to chat about basketball, his beloved Rays, his ongoing crusade to wipe out pediatric cancer, or just the weather.

But he remains on complete vocal rest. On this day, the most distinctive voice ever spawned by ESPN — that Jersey-drenched timbre with all the subtlety of a charging foul — is reduced to a feeble whisper.

Soon after his 35th and final radiation treatment for larynx cancer — a five-minute procedure requiring him to wear a cumbersome white mask and lay motionless beneath a large machine — Vitale sinks his 84-year-old body into a chair, whispers and weeps.

“This has been a tough three years, man,” a barely-audible Vitale says between sobs.

The man who carved out his own vernacular, authored more than a dozen books and earned enshrinement in a half-dozen halls of fame never has looked more vulnerable. Since the summer of 2021, cancer has come at Vitale three different times, in ruthless succession.

Melanoma was followed by lymphoma, which was succeeded by this current battle. Cruelly interspersed in that ordeal was dysplasia on his vocal cords, which required surgery in February 2022 and shut him down the remainder of that basketball season.

And while Vitale’s zeal for life, for broadcasting, for helping afflicted children hasn’t dissipated, one can’t help but wonder about his future. Dickie V wonders, too.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” he says.

Has this radiation successfully destroyed the cancer cells’ genetic material? Will his voice — Vitale’s most precious commodity — return at ample strength? Will he remain strong enough to continue all the legwork required to hold his annual gala to raise money for pediatric cancer awareness? Will he have the voice to even make phone calls to solicit dollars?

He won’t know for at least a couple of weeks, until the effects of nearly three-dozen radiation treatments have worn off.

“Right now, everything is so inflamed,” said Lorraine Vitale, his wife of 52 years. “The vocal cords and everything inside, you can’t even see what’s going on, the doctor said. It all has to calm down, then take a look and see.”

Until then, Vitale resides restlessly in limbo, communicating via social media and — in interpersonal settings — with a small whiteboard, a marker and the occasional whisper.

“I’m driven,” he says, “but I’m trapped.”

Optimism is rooted in the early detection of this latest cancer, and Vitale’s rigid allegiance as a patient. Mercifully, the site of his radiation treatments — Sarasota Memorial Radiation Oncology Center — is a five-minute drive from his Lakewood Ranch home.

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Dr. Matthew Biagioli, a radiation oncologist at the center, called the prognosis for early-stage larynx cancer “extremely good,” adding the cure likelihood this first time around is roughly 90%.

“Maybe a little bit better than that,” Biagioli added.

“So I’m very encouraged, in part because he’s such a compliant patient, that he’s definitely going to get his voice back. Will it get back to the quality that we’re familiar with? That’s the part that’s not to be clear, but having gotten to know the man, if anyone is going to be back calling games, I think it’s going to be him. So I give him good chances that he’ll be back calling games.”

While the radiation’s side effects have included a sore throat and periodic difficulty swallowing, Vitale hasn’t lost any weight, Lorraine said. He still partakes of his daily breakfast — scrambled eggs, potatoes, turkey sausage — at a local First Watch, and has subsisted on easy-to-swallow foods such as fish and pastas.

And while fatigue has remained a periodic side effect, Vitale has mustered the strength to attend a Rays game or two in the last month.

“He said, ‘I’m eating,’ ” Lorraine recalled. “So I bought all these smoothies, all these Ensure (drinks), all these drinks with protein, and he actually was eating a full meal, and then having (the drinks). And I said, ‘You’re going to gain weight.’ ”

ESPN college basketball announcer Dick Vitale, 84, undergoes the last of his 35 radiation treatments Friday at Sarasota Memorial Radiation Oncology Center.
ESPN college basketball announcer Dick Vitale, 84, undergoes the last of his 35 radiation treatments Friday at Sarasota Memorial Radiation Oncology Center. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

Yet the factors conspiring against Vitale — age, possible late side effects, the cumulative impact of three cancer battles on the immune system — remain undeniable, and this is what worries him.

Naturally, he’d love to call hoops again. At this stage of his life, the gig is like a medicine, a natural high that can’t be replicated. He wants it more than he needs it.

“I’m 84, I’ve made enough money, I’ve had enough awards, honors,” he whispers from a sofa in the oncology center lobby. “The games are fun to me. I have so many people tell me, ‘Why don’t you just resign or retire?’ Why? If I didn’t have my memory, if I didn’t know players’ names or (couldn’t) stay on top of it, I’d be the first to pack it in. I’d never try to embarrass myself.”

But whereas college hoops is a passion, helping kids with cancer is his mission.

And he shudders at any scenario that might impede that cause.

“I’m obsessed with helping these kids,” he whispers between sobs. “I want to do something positive with my life. Being on TV is one thing, but giving back, it’s my greatest satisfaction I get.”

With that, he passes out a colorful flier advertising the 19th annual Dick Vitale Gala, set for May 3, 2024, in Sarasota.

Time may ultimately catch up with Dickie V. So might cancer, or the caustic effects of radiation therapy.

Fear of the unknown won’t. Not on this day.

“He’s done extremely well,” said Tom Furno, a radiation specialist at the oncology center.

“Honestly, it’s because of what he’s done. The sleeping, the eating and doing what he’s supposed to do — as simple as it is — it’s hard with head and necks, because they don’t want to eat, they have a sore throat. Then it’s a snowball effect with that. But in his case, he’s fighting through everything, and he’s done a great job.”

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