I didn’t watch very much of ESPN’s 24 hours of college basketball on Tuesday. I actually thought it might be fun to get up at 6 a.m. to watch a basketball game but then realized I had to get up at 6:45 anyway to get my son to school. I was out for most of the afternoon though I caught snippets of the Temple-Georgetown game and then watched Duke-Charlotte until it became a route (which was about five minutes in); a little bit of Louisville-Arkansas and a lot of Gonzaga-Michigan State. I didn’t stay up for Kansas-Memphis because, well, I had to get up at 6:45 again.
Maybe that was the game Dick Vitale did because I didn’t see him or hear him on any of the other games and there’s no way ESPN would televise 146 games on the same day without Vitale. Then again, maybe they sent him to New York for that bogus, ‘Coaches vs. Cancer,’ thing where the four teams advancing to the semifinals were pre-ordained by the promoters regardless of whether they won or lost their early round games. The network, believe it or not, doesn’t consult with me on these things.
It’s remarkable to think about how popular Vitale is and how IMPORTANT he has become to college basketball. I remember 20 years ago some people saying that his act was bound to wear thing, that 10 years was probably about enough and that he would be yesterday’s news soon.
Not exactly. Vitale’s been at it for 30 years now and if there is one guy that ESPN really can’t afford to lose its Vitale. Seriously. If the network decided tomorrow to tell Bob Knight he had to wear a jacket-and-tie like everyone else and he took a walk people would hardly notice. My friend Jay Bilas is very good at what he does but at ESPN it really doesn’t matter if you’re any good. They just put you on the air, promote you and promote you and promote you and eventually people actually think you’re good. Quality doesn’t really matter. ESPN is all about quantity.
But I digress. I know there are people out there who insist they can’t watch a Vitale game without turning down the sound. There are moments when he goes off on one of his tangents or starts promoting every assistant coach alive for a head coaching job or defends guys who are indefensible that you shake your head. I get that and I know there are those out there who would be happy if Dick retired tomorrow.
But here’s what you need to understand about Vitale: it’s all real. The enthusiasm, the love of the game, of the coaches, the players, the settings, the fans and of just getting to be DICK VITALE. He loves every second of it and, unlike a lot of guys who have become rich and famous, he truly appreciates it. He never moans about how tough his life is because he knows he’s been remarkably lucky even though he has had some serious health scares in recent years.
Let me say this: I didn’t always feel this way. Dick and I battled a lot years ago because I really did think it was an act and he was a shameless, self-promoter. We had a few shouting matches, most notably one night at Duke when he came out before the game and began throwing copies of his (first) book to the students (I refuse to call them the Cameron Crazies, they need less publicity these days not more) while they dove on one another to grab it because it was free and because it was from Dicky V.
I was standing at the end of the court watching all this when Vitale tossed the last book and walked over to me.
“Hey John, why don’t you do that with your books?” he said.
“Because people BUY mine Dick.”
It was a cheap shot and Dick correctly took it that way. We had a pretty good shouting match right there during which I probably said some things I shouldn’t have said and he probably did too. But I started it.
We also did the Larry King (radio) show together once—a booking neither of us was thrilled about—and that became a shout-fest too. I was on him for his association with Nike and he was on me for being on him all the time. King said it was great radio. I’m not so certain.
Fast forward a few years to 1993 when my mother died very suddenly. I had written a cathartic piece in Basketball Times about her and not long after it was published I received a lengthy, handwritten note from…you guessed it, Dick. He talked about my mom and how proud she must have been of me and said that even though he and I disagreed often he had great respect for my work and for my passion. “That’s one thing we share John,” he wrote. “We’re both passionate about basketball and what we do and I will NEVER not respect someone like you who brings those things to the table.”
I sat there and one thought ran through my head: he’s a bigger man than I am. I wrote back and told him that. We’ve been friends ever since. In fact, Dick came and spoke—for free, he usually gets huge fees to speak—at my charity golf tournament three years ago.
So while I still understand those who say their ears hurt after a Vitale game, let’s all be honest: if there weren’t Vitale games college hoops wouldn’t be the same. A lot of joy would go out of the game and if there’s one thing big time college sports needs more of it is joy. Everyone is SO serious about things (myself included a lot of the time) most notably coaches who take THEMSELVES so seriously.
Not Dick. Can you imagine Knight or any of the other ex-coaches who fill the airwaves being passed up through the stands in student sections around the country? The passion is genuine but so is the joy, the fun he is so clearly having. I know Dick loves being on the air, loves being at the big games (we all do) but I also know he loves standing around in a press room before a game arguing about teams and players and staying up long into the night doing the same thing.
So, I missed him last night. I thought maybe he’d have Michigan State-Gonzaga but it was Steve Lavin who definitely has better hair than Vitale but is no Vitale.
Actually no one but Vitale is Vitale. You can make fun of him, you can joke about him, you can hold your ears. In my first kids mystery, “Last Shot,” which is set at The Final Four, the boy protagonist, Stevie Thomas, is about to be introduced to Vitale by my real life pal Dick (Hoops) Weiss.
“Does he bite?” Stevie asks Hoops.
Actually there’s almost no bite in Dick Vitale. Just a lot of love and a lot joy. It isn’t a college basketball season without Dicky V. And if you disagree with me, that’s perfectly fine, but you’re missing out on a slice of Americana.
Long live—and long talk, shout, scream, revel in it all—Dick Vitale.