Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What You Need to Understand About Dick Vitale: It’s All Real

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.


Steve from South Jersey said...

John, Dick Vitale has long been a promoter of college basketball as well as himself. With that said he truly is passionate about the game and has a unique love for it. I couldn't envision college hoops without him. Thanks for giving Dickie V or should i say Dukie V his propps.

case said...

though he is real , my mute button got its first use of this year's cbb season last night during the memphis-kansas game.
did those schools have recent scandals ? you won't hear it from dickie v

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for that mid-January Wake-FSU game he does when 3/4 of his broadcast is a promo for the Duke-UNC matchup coming up in 3 weeks!

Anonymous said...

At the very end of Georgetown's one point defeat of Temple, with .03 seconds left, up by one point, a Georgetown (Monroe?) player missed on purpose the free throw, making Temple throw one up from 3/4 court to win the game. What does the foul shooter do. After missing on purpose, he puts his hands up in the air and walks right into the Temple player who had just retrieved the rebound. If I'm the ref, I'm calling it and giving Temple two shots to win the game. Are there any brains in the Hoyas players this year? That was a total bonehead play like none other.

Dana King said...

I don't watch a lot of college basketball, so I rarely see Dickie V, but he's kind of fun to listen to because he seemed real, and the students obviously love him.

Then I was watching a weekday baseball game a year or so ago from Tampa. Erin Andrews was the sideline reporter (do they call them something else for baseball), and Vitale was in the stands. She went over to chat him up, let him get in a few plugs, as ESPN is wont to do.

He talked all through the next half inning about...Erin Andrews. Her parents were there, and I guess he met them and I'm sure he knew her from other events. He was effusive (as always) about what a fine young woman she was, how proud they must be of her, and would not let her direct the interview back to be about him. He was obviously delighted to talk about her and her family (I htink she's from Tampa or St. Pete) it was touching.

I remember zip about that game, but for his interview. I've been a big Dickie V fan ever since.

My all-time favorite analyst is still Al McGuire. Do you have any good Al stories? And why has Lefty Dreisell done some TV. I expect he'd be great.

Jim in the Cuse said...

There's such an odd dichotomy when it comes to Dickie V. On the one hand, his exuberance and sheer joy is a wonder to behold and certainly creates an atmosphere of mirth. On the other is the very real and warranted criticism of said exuberance reaching headache-inducing levels. The moniker "Dukie V" was certainly earned in the lates 90s, but lately he seems to be spreading the wealth to include a number of big league teams. It'll be a said day indeed the night of his last broadcast, but something tells me he'll have a season long campus-to-campus going away party rivaled only by Kareem's year-long gift-fest when he retired.

On a side note, John, what is it specifically about the "Coaches Vs. Cancer" tournament that you take issue with? That's not a loaded question at all, I'm truly interested. Is it the loading of the top-heavy teams or is there something inherent in the charity end of it that is shady?

Thanks again for this blog, John. It's become a daily event to stop here.

deepvalue said...

I'll take Dick Vitale over Bilas any day of the week. Bilas can't get the BCS chip off his shoulder, and that annoys mid-major fans.

Note on DC area hoops - GW vs. GMU is coming up soon and GW went so far as to put up a website aptly named "". The metro DC area has enough teams that these local matchups should be on the schedule every year.

Little nitpick - rout vs. route.

cd1515 said...

sorry John, I know he's a nice guy but I can't listen.
it's all shtick, all act, the nicknames, the catch-phrases, I get the feeling he's barely watching the game, except to look for a spot to insert more shtick.
listen to an old Vitale game on one of the classic channels... he absolutely knows the game and USED to be a great analyst.
now he's just a clown with a tired act (which means he fits in perfectly with Berman and others at ESPN).

charles pierce said...

My Dickie V story:
In 1975, when I was a senior at Marquette, he brought Detroit in to play at the old Arena. Five minutes into the game, he and Detroit are getting absolutely robbed by the refs. (Irv Brown was one of them, IIRC). Vitale is completely up the wall. Finally, there's another call, and Vitale takes his tie off OVER HIS HEAD without a) undoing the knot, and b) knocking off his glasses which, in those days, looked like twin Motorolas. (I have since asked him to do it again. He says he doesn't remember doing it THEN. But it was like watching David Copperfield.) Brown T's him up, throws him out, and I turn to the guy I had tickets with throughout my career as an obnoxious Marquette fan and say,"Wow, he's nuts. We'll never see him again."
Call me Kreskin.

Lowell said...

Great article John. I was lucky enough to meet Dickie V in college when he came to do a small speaking engagement during the Lynn Nance era. (Well, it wasn't really an era...but what do you call it?)

I was in the car that took him to the airport. His passion for college basketball was genuine. And you're right, he never complained about the travel. He told us he was one of the luckiest guys alive.

At the end, Dickie V asked the three of us in the car for our addresses. He said he'd send us his book. (Because people don't buy it...?) We figured we'd never hear from him.

About two weeks later, we all got autographed copies. He called me a PTPer, baby! I have to say it's one of my fondest memories of college, and I will always be a Dickie V apologist. He's the real deal, even if you don't like his style.

gunnar said...

I do appreciate DV's contribution to College Basketball and his affection for his good friend Jim Valvano. I can listen to Dick Vitale before a game for about 3 minutes, and have to hit the mute button for the actual game. I really like the guy, but I cannot listen to him.

Lowell, I was also at UW during the Lynn Nance years. I would also shed the "era" title for something more like prohibition. It is tough when a University hires and then has to fire an alum and former player. It should not happen to Lorenzo Romar, at least not for many, many years.