Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 11, 2013
SALISBURY — It might be easy for the cynical types to think that Dick Vitale’s enthusiasm is solely made-for-TV.
All the terms of endearment, including “it’s awesome baby” and “diaper dandies,” have generated countless exciting moments on ESPN for college basketball. You can pretty much add an exclamation point to the end of all Vitale’s sentences, but that doesn’t mean the 34-year color commentator lacks heart or substance.
“He’s one of the most genuine people I know,” said ESPN’s Dan Shulman, who has done games with Vitale for the last 12 years. “He loves kids. He loves the students. He loves the players. He loves the coaches. Anyone who doesn’t think he’s genuine has never met him.”
That passion has jumped out of television sets for decades and Monday night it leapt through his sports coat at Catawba’s Goodman Gym for the 54th annual NSSA Awards Banquet and Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. It was a good weekend for Vitale, who celebrated his 74th birthday Sunday night with a grandiose ice sculpture that channelled the larger-than-life persona that college basketball fans have come to know him by. Those who are familiar with him say his zeal for the game and the causes he supports, such as The V Foundation, say he’s quite sincere.
It’s one of the reasons he was this year’s NSSA Hall of Fame sportscasting inductee.
“This is my 12th Hall of Fame,” Vitale said. “I can’t run. I can’t jump. I got a body by rigatoni but I’m in 12 Hall of Fames. Why? Passion and pride. Doing something you love is very unique and very special.”
Be it at the high school, college or professional level, hoops comes natural to Vitale. He’s never considered himself a broadcaster, just a guy given a microphone to voice his thoughts on a game he’s indebted to. He’s always been at his best in North Carolina, the sport’s hotbed. Vitale has been there for just about every Duke/Carolina game in recent memory and can still see pretty well from the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium despite having only one functional eye for much of his life.
Vitale is as close to a college hoops ambassador as there is and is well-connected as anyone in the sport. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky coach John Calipari sent him congratulatory text messages Monday and student sections across the country chant his name when he’s in the gym. Vitale was close friends with late N.C. State coach Jim Valvano and spearheads functions and activities with The V Foundation. He’s almost as adamant about fundraising for cancer as he is for basketball. The Dick Vitale Gala is a big production that Vitale is proud of.
“His love for the game doesn’t mean it’s safe from his critique. If there was a state of the union address for the sport, Vitale would address implementing a faster-paced game that included a 30-second shot clock. He’d pounce on the physicality that’s allowed and he wants incoming players to stay at least three years before joining the NBA. The season could also start after Thanksgiving when the sports scene isn’t as dominated by the NFL and college football.
“The athletic ability of athletes,” Vitale says on what’s changed the most since he’s coached. “Years ago if you were 6-7, 6-8, you played in the low post. Today we have 6-8, 6-10 guys handling the ball. Some of the fundamentals aren’t what they used to be and that’s got to improve.”
The state of college sports is in a transitive period, in which schools are switching leagues at a frantic pace. Vitale hates seeing the regional rivalries that gave the sport its soul, such as Georgetown-Syracuse and Missouri-Kansas, become a casualty.
“It’s absolute chaos,” Vitale. “It’s something I’m against. Geographically, it makes no sense at all. A lot of it is for no rhyme or reason except for piles of cash and football.”
Vitale was on the call for the first college basketball game on ESPN in 1979. Since the mid-2000s, he’s done about 40 games a season. When Vitale’s spirited and whimsical stylings run dry, which doesn’t appear to be anytime soon, that’s when he’ll decide to step away.
“Only the man upstairs can dictate that,” Vitale said. “I will match my energy and enthusiasm right now with any 30, 35-year old. I still get goosebumps walking into arenas hearing kids chanting.”