NEW YORK — Dick Vitale’s iPhone screen is specked with his own blood; a railing nicked the back of his hand as he walked through Madison Square Garden security. He’s on doctor’s orders only to whisper before this basketball game, as he is before every game. Still, he asks someone to hold his phone and record him live on the internet, because there’s an audience out there and Vitale has something to say.
A close friend appears who wants a hug and kiss. He grabs her around the shoulder and points her toward the phone, and, yes, there is a basketball game going on in the background, but he’s off anyway, keeping her in the picture like he’s running a studio segment: What a great crowd, what a great event, what a great game for a great cause with great teams and great people. He snatches the phone back and keeps walking.
This is who Dick Vitale has been for 80 years now, the past 40 as a broadcaster at ESPN, reveling in his audience and his connections. Many of his contemporaries have retired. It’s well past time when a reasonable person working this hard, compensated this handsomely, admired this widely would have said farewell. But Dick Vitale can’t stop now.
“I want to do this until I’m 100!” he said. “People laugh at me. I say, ‘Don’t laugh at me. I’m going to be sitting here at 100 saying, ‘They’re awesome, baby!’”
Vitale broke into broadcasting when chutzpah in the booth was king. Howard Cosell was at the top of the profession. ESPN built its brand with anchors such as Chris Berman, Linda Cohn, Kenny Mayne and Stuart Scott, massive personalities who filled up the camera. And Vitale became synonymous with his chosen sport, his rise mirroring the growth both of ESPN and of college basketball.
ESPN is different now, and so is college basketball, but Vitale has endured. He had vocal cord surgery in 2007, the second existential crisis of his professional life. He was 68 at the time, three decades into his broadcasting career. The surgeon who rescued the next 12 years and maybe more, Steven Zeitels of Massachusetts General Hospital — the same man who rescued pop star Adele’s voice in 2012 and Sam Smith’s in 2015 — handed down a set of rules.
The first: no more doubleheaders or long studio sessions. When ESPN hosted the NCAA Tournament in the 1980s, Vitale sometimes spent 12 hours in studio with co-host Bob Ley, whipping around the action of the tournament’s first two weekends. During the regular season, Vitale was known to call eight games in seven days.
The second rule: No speaking on game day until the red light turns on. So Vitale should not be staging his own Periscope broadcast in a Madison Square Garden tunnel.
He’s supposed to speak quietly until he gets on the air, or write notes on scraps of paper. He’s not supposed to kibitz with players at morning shoot-arounds, to tell stories in the green room, to visit coaches in the locker room. He isn’t supposed to be screaming and laughing with the Indiana players lining the tunnel leading to the floor at the world’s most famous arena. He does all these things anyway.
After the surgery, he was forced into nearly two months of silence as his vocal cords recovered. Lorraine, his wife and constant travel companion, bought him a whiteboard. She spent six weeks getting tapped on the shoulder as he scribbled things down furiously. By the time he flew back to Boston for his follow-up appointment with Zeitels, their home, she said, was covered in the black dust scrubbed off the board.
“It was like the way he talks,” Lorraine said: “He has to get it all out.”
Sure, Vitale goes into broadcast mode when he senses a camera — he sent friends a Christmas greeting video, neatly framed with perfect lighting; his tone discussing the holiday season sounded like he was analyzing Duke’s new point guard — but it’s not that different from the man off the air, who cannot help pour out his thoughts to those who care to listen.
Sometimes he’ll log on to Periscope for a live broadcast from his phone after breakfast at First Watch or Another Broken Egg, restaurants practically across the street from one another near his home outside Sarasota, Florida. Sometimes it will be while Lorraine drives them home from mass, to talk about his favorite teams this season or the last coach he spoke to on the phone or this season’s outlook for the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Don’t do that, Dickie V!” a Twitter user once commented, worried Vitale was broadcasting while driving. He flipped the phone around and showed Lorraine steering unperturbed, the world flying by while Vitale narrated.
He pops up in arenas like the fairy godfather of college basketball, seemingly enhancing the atmosphere with his presence. Turn your head away, and some burly Madison Square Garden security guards will have spirited him through a back tunnel out to the broadcast table, and then suddenly, there’s his bald head under the lights and he’s surrounded by fans.
“He gets a little strut in his step,” said David Ceisler, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. “It’s almost a warmup, like, ‘We’re playing a big game here.’ You see it. There’s a look that, ‘I’m ready to play.’ When he walks out, he starts to shake every security guard’s hand out there. And it’s a rush.”
So, you try getting Dick Vitale to whisper.
* * *
Vitale’s rise and fall through basketball is itself a product of another time. In nine years, he went from a middle school teacher and junior high coach to leading the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, with stops in between as an assistant at Rutgers and head coach at the University of Detroit.
But 12 games into the 1979-80 season, with the Pistons off to a 4-8 start, team owner Bill Davidson fired him. He felt so awful about it, he told Vitale, he offered a position in the team’s front office. Vitale turned it down and vowed to get back into college coaching, where, at age 40 and after sustained success at the University of Detroit, he assumed he’d be a hot name on the market. But after two weeks at home watching soap operas, Lorraine told him to try broadcasting just to get him out of the house.
ESPN, which had only launched two months earlier, was televising its first college basketball game. Alan “Scotty” Connal, one of ESPN’s early executives, recruited him at the recommendation of broadcaster Curt Gowdy and former UCLA coach and television partner John Wooden.
Vitale never went back to coaching.
In the 40 years since, that distinctive North Jersey accent has been the clarion call of college basketball. Sometimes when they’re out, Lorraine said, a fan’s head will perk up because they hear Vitale before they see him, and that means college hoops, or at the very least one man’s unbounded enthusiasm, is close at hand.
Connal once pulled him aside at a Final Four in the early ‘80s and told him to look at the autograph lines and groups of fans chanting his name. “You connect,” Connal told him. “Forget coaching.”
And Vitale did. The energy he poured into working coaching circles — he met Lorraine at a bar packed with other coaches; when they wagered he couldn’t get Lorraine to dance, he offered her his winnings if she agreed to one song — he invested in relationships in the television world, and with his growing fan following.
He was an early mentor to George Bodenheimer when the future ESPN president was working in the mail room and shuttling talent from studio to airport. He sat with Ley and John Saunders learning the art of broadcasting, how to present information succinctly, how to get in and out of news segments, how to remain himself in this new world.
“Richie,” he remembers his mother saying over the kitchen table as a child. (He’s still Richie to close friends, rarely Dick.) “Richie, be good to people, and people will be good to you.”
Once he got on TV, his popularity exploded, and becoming an octogenarian has done nothing to change that. As he walks through airports and sits in restaurants, fans hound him for pictures. He crowdsurfs through student sections and conducts pep bands. He takes selfies. He talks ball with anyone who approaches.
“To watch him walk into a college space, it’s unreal the reaction,” said Ceisler, ESPN’s senior producer. “The student bodies still revere him.”
“Pure craziness,” said Brent Musburger, a former longtime broadcast partner and the managing editor of gambling news service Vegas Stats & Information Network.
Dan Shulman, his main ESPN broadcast partner, said working a game with Vitale is like jogging on a treadmill whose speed is all of a sudden pushed to the max. “You got to get used to the stream of consciousness,” he said, “but it’s great.”
Of the figures synonymous with ESPN’s rise during cable television’s expansion, few remain in regular rotation with the network. The modern analyst often melts into the background rather than demanding attention. Some broadcasts now favor silence during big moments to let the camera and the crowd say their piece, but Vitale screams like he himself is part of the scene.
“As the sport has exploded, he’s been right there alongside it,” said Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s vice president of production. “There will be other media people, broadcasters, what have you. There won’t be another Dick Vitale.”
* * *
There are cliches that keep Dick Vitale feeling young. His father spent 12 hours a day in a coat factory, then worked the night shift as a mall security guard. His mother worked as a seamstress until she suffered a stroke, then devoted her life to the Catholic church.
“My mother and father worked,” he said. “Their son has not worked. Their son has played and has had fun and has done things that I love to do.”
After he lost the vision in his left eye in a schoolyard accident, his mother gave him a prayer card for St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes. Pray to St. Jude to protect your other eye, she told him.
He prays to St. Jude for everything else, too. He starts every morning with prayer; he hasn’t missed Sunday mass since he and Lorraine have been married, she says. He carries the St. Jude card with him everywhere; he won’t leave the room if it’s missing.
He had it pinned to his hospital gown when he went for his vocal cord surgery. Zeitels joked before putting Vitale under, “I’m Jewish, this saint isn’t going to help me.” After the surgery, when Zeitels told him the procedure was successful, he told Vitale: “Whoever that is, it worked. Always keep it with you.”
Dick Vitale doesn’t know what he’s going to do when he stops broadcasting basketball games. He’s written four books. He’s raised tens of millions of dollars to fight pediatric cancer in the name of the V Foundation, established to honor his late friend, former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. He’s an active public speaker. He lives down the block from his children and grandchildren. Some of them are off to college soon.
“This has given me life,” he said of broadcasting. If he kept on coaching, he said, he would have been dead by 50 from the stress.
“When the last game’s over, I’m not worried about some recruit or some players,” he said. “I’m going to live my life.”
ESPN and college basketball have wrapped him in a hug to celebrate his 40th anniversary on the air and told him, Stay as long as you like. But time passes. Vitale now seems more a guest in an era rather than its host.
Even while pledging to work until he’s 100, he’s also imagined the day he’ll have to pick up the phone and say, “I’m done.” Ceisler, who coordinates ESPN’s college basketball broadcast pairings, will be on the other line.
“He’ll be crying, and then I’ll cry on the other end. You only have connections with him,” Ceisler said. “I think my reaction would be just, ‘Thank you. It’s been an honor. It’s been a real privilege.’ But who am I to say to him, ‘You are done’ or ‘You’re not done?’”