Dick Vitale sounds on the phone exactly like he sounds when he calls a Duke–North Carolina game. He can’t help himself. He’s eating breakfast at First Watch café in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., on the morning of the first Sweet 16 games, trying to explain how Purdue can stop Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield. When he hangs up, he’ll talk hoops with anyone who strolls past and notices that telltale bald head and foghorn voice. But with the basketball conversation will come a flier and a more serious message.
The only thing 79-year-old Dickie V cares about more than college basketball is raising money for pediatric cancer research. He considers that his full-time job. Since he held his first gala in Sarasota, Fla., in 2006, he has raised $25.2 million. At this year’s gala on May 10, Vitale expects to raise another $4 million. If he hits that number, it will be because he and his team spent another year asking everyone they meet for help. This frustrates Vitale. He believes it shouldn’t be this hard to raise money for a cause this worthy.
“If Clemson, if Alabama, if Notre Dame, if Ohio State, if Michigan called a meeting and said they wanted to raise millions because they wanted to elevate their football facilities, they’d get it in no time,” Vitale says. “I’ve got to beg and plead. ... And it’s needed. It’s so needed.”
He passes out fliers, rattling off the names of the children shown—children who have lost their fights against cancer. Vitale can also list the names of success stories, those who fought and survived. He hopes that someday he can make the second list longer than the first.
Vitale began working to raise money for cancer research after friend and former NC State coach Jim Valvano was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer in 1992. But Vitale threw himself headlong into fundraising for pediatric cancer research after watching his five-year-old neighbor, Payton Wright, fight medulloepithelioma, a rare form of brain cancer. Payton died in 2007. “I saw what her mom and dad went through,” Vitale says. “When the funeral ended, I went to [them] and said, ‘We’re not going to let her die in vain.’ ”
Payton’s father, Patrick, chuckles when he meets people who think Vitale’s chief passion is basketball. “It pisses me off when I meet people and they go, ‘All he loves is the ACC. I can’t stand that guy,’ ” he says. “You don’t even know what he does, man.”
I attended my first Dick Vitale Gala in 2011. I had to cover it for SI, and I didn’t want to be there. Cancer took my mom in ’06, at age 57. I had seen up close how viciously and indiscriminately it kills, how it can suck the soul right out of a person. I didn’t understand why anyone would try so hard to beat a foe that obviously couldn’t be beaten.
But as I listened to the stories of cancer survivors and fighters and of parents who lost children, and then saw that crazy bald man screaming on the stage for more donations that will lead to more studies that will lead to more treatments, I began to feel something different: hope.
If people like Dickie V and families like the Wrights are willing to fight this hard, maybe cancer isn’t unbeatable. Maybe those people just need a few more of us to join them.
To donate to pediatric cancer research through The V Foundation, visit dickvitaleonline.com.