“An appetite for life, the energy level, a sort of unique way of being. Dick Vitale embodies all of that. … The more time you spend with Dick, the more you understand him and the more you appreciate him. Doing so helps you understand why he is able to connect with people with such a genuine passion and compassion and authenticity. It’s so powerful.”
~Chris Fowler, ESPN college football and tennis commentator, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
Richard John “Dickie V” Vitale is a Hall of Fame broadcaster for ESPN. This New Jersey native worked his way up through the basketball ranks as a coach at the high school, college and professional levels. In March 1977, Dick coached his last college game when his University of Detroit team lost to a University of Michigan team coached by Johnny Orr in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The game was televised by NBC with Curt Gowdy doing the play-by-play and coaching legend John Wooden handling the color. Johnny Orr would later leave Michigan to accept the head coaching position at Iowa State University where he led the Cyclones to unprecedented success. Meanwhile, Dick moved across town after that 1977 game to become the head coach of the Detroit Pistons in the NBA. It turned out to be a fairly short stint as the Pistons fired him early in the 1979-80 season. In a truly odd twist, the team had just launched a “ReVITALEized Pistons” marketing campaign a few weeks earlier.
Dick’s abrupt firing (or “getting the ziggy” as Dick refers to it) just 8 games into his second season as an NBA coach may well have been kismet. It put him in a position to join an upstart television enterprise called ESPN. He now jokes about what he thought at the time, “You kidding me, what is ESPN? Sounds like a disease, man!” But as things would play out, Dick had a key role in the very first college basketball game ever aired by the network: No. 1 DePaul (with Coach Ray Meyer and All-American Mark Aguirre) versus intra-state rival Wisconsin. Nobody could have imagined at the time – most of all Dick – that he would go on to have a long and distinguished broadcasting career. He has worked thousands of games, all the while becoming a household name due to his colorful style, crazy antics, and genuine passion. In real life, Dick is exactly the same as his TV persona: a “slam, bam, jam” kind of a guy. His genuine exuberance for all facets of the game of basketball and, especially, for people from all walks of life is the cornerstone of his success.
The Vitale legacy may, however, have less to do with college basketball and more to do with finding a cure for cancer. In particular, he is a tireless advocate and fundraiser for pediatric cancer research. “The biggest priority in my life – the biggest – is raising dollars to help kids battling cancer,” Dick has repeatedly said to me. His passion flows from an undying commitment to The V Foundation. It is ironic that the very first Final Four that Dick covered for ESPN was in 1983 where heavily-favored Houston was upset by a North Carolina State team coached by Jim Valvano. As fate would have it, he and “Jimmy V” would later go on to work together at ESPN/ABC and become the closest of friends. In 1993, almost exactly ten years later, Valvano and ESPN announced the founding of The V Foundation for Cancer Research (see their WINNER profile). Due to the efforts of Dick Vitale and other leaders on its board, the Foundation has since funded nearly $300 million in cancer research grants nationwide. An endowment covers all administrative expenses allowing it to award 100 percent of all direct cash donations to research and related programs.
It has been gratifying to work with Dick and Lorraine Vitale on behalf of The V Foundation over the years, including his annual Gala. The 17th Annual Dick Vitale Gala in May 2022 was another sold-out affair that honored former NFL player and ESPN host Keyshawn Johnson, tennis hall of fame member and analyst Chris Evert, and Baylor University men’s basketball coach Scott Drew. In addition, ESPN college football analyst Rod Gilmore was presented the V Foundation John Sanders Courage Award. “My agenda tonight is about gratitude and perspective,” Dick said beforehand. His voice was still not back to 100% following recent vocal cord surgery. Moreover, he was just coming off months of scans, bloodwork, surgeries and chemo related to his own battle with melanoma and lymphoma. These personal experiences allowed him to share the perspective of the young boys and girls on his All-Courageous Team, all of whom battled cancer and won their fight. The 2022 event was an incredible success with a record $11.1 million raised for pediatric cancer research.
Dick has talked with me often about his parents and humble upbringing. “I grew up in a great family with a mom and dad who were uneducated, (but) they had a doctorate in love,” Dick would say. “Their words always echo, ‘Richie, be good to people so people will be good to you.’ I’m in 14 halls of fame now, and I can’t run, jump or shoot. People have been so good to me, and I feel like that makes me want to give back. I want the last chapter of my life (to be one) where people will say, ‘Wow, he loved his basketball; he was energetic about his games, passionate.’ But I hope they’ll also be saying, ‘You know what? He never forgot where he came from and was always willing to extend a hand with love in his heart to help other people.’ To me, that’s priceless.”
Dickie V is what he himself might call a ‘Three-S’ Man: Super, Scintillating, Sensational. In 2008, he received the sport’s ultimate honor when he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. And in May 2019, Dick was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 40th Annual Sports Emmy Awards. “To have my name listed among the giants in sports broadcasting and to receive this prestigious award leaves me speechless, and you probably know that doesn’t happen to me often,” Dick said with a smile at the time.
But what was perhaps Dick’s most poignant honor was the presentation of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance to him at the ESPYS in July 2022. “Dick is one of a kind,” said Jimmy Pitaro, Chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “He has embodied the spirit of the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance his entire career, and his fight against cancer has been no different. … It’s fitting that we present this award to him almost 30 years after he stood by Jimmy V’s side on the ESPYS stage.”
“When I received the call from Jimmy Pitaro about receiving this award, I was absolutely blown away,” Dick said. “I remember that day almost 30 years ago, when I stood on stage at the first ESPYS, introduced Jimmy V and witnessed him give that incredible speech we all remember. I reflected on his speech many times during my seven month battle – ‘don’t give up, don’t ever give up’ – and I remembered my mother and father, who taught me never to believe in ‘can’t’. Jimmy V was special and his legacy lives on.”
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo once said, “Most people know Dick Vitale for his unmatched passion for basketball. And while that is certainly remarkable, what truly impresses me is his passion for life and for helping other people. It’s a lesson that should serve as an inspiration to us all.”
The role Dick Vitale plays as college basketball’s most recognizable and vocal ambassador, and his undying commitment to The V Foundation and many other philanthropic efforts, make him an indisputable WINNER with a capital “W”.
ABC “Good Morning America” Anchor Robin Roberts talks about the inspiration provided by Dick Vitale
ESPN “SportsCenter” Anchor Kevin Negandhi talks about Dick Vitale’s passion for fighting pediatric cancer and his commitment to The V Foundation
What do Michael Jordan & Dick Vitale have in common? 2018 Dick Vitale Gala honoree Mike Greenberg explains…
Vitale by Dick Vitale with Curry Kirkpatrick (Simon and Schuster, 1988)
Dick Vitale’s Living a Dream by Dick Vitale with Dick Weiss (Sports Publishing LLC, 2003)
It’s Awesome, Baby by Dick Vitale with Dick Weiss and Joan Williamson (Ascend Books, 2014)
Vitale, Dick (November 17, 2014). “The Cauldron: Never Forget What Matters Most” Retrieved from www.medium.com
Fernandes, Doug (May 15, 2015). “Tears and determination at Vitale Gala” Retrieved from www.heraldtribune.com
Church, Bill (May 16, 2015). “Editor: Vitale’s enthusiasm is contagious” Retrieved from www.heraldtribune.com
Peterson, Randy (June 22, 2016). “Peterson: Dick Vitale and Gary Thompson – together, they’re battling cancer” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com
Serby, Steve (March 10, 2018). “Dick Vitale on paying players, working at 100 and being awesome with a capital A” Retrieved from www.nypost.com
(February 12, 2019). “Dick Vitale Sports Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree” Retrieved from www.emmyonline.tv
(May 9, 2022). “Dick Vitale to be honored with Jimmy V Award at 2022 ESPYS” Retrieved from www.espn.com
Last Updated: October 30, 2022