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IOWA CITY, Iowa - I first met Dick Vitale at Wisconsin Fieldhouse in 1988.

Iowa Coach Tom Davis introduced us before the Hawkeyes played Wisconsin, a game that was televised by ESPN as part of Big Monday.

Vitale’s popularity at the time was through the roof. His off-the-charts enthusiasm for college basketball was unmistakable. Some coaches felt his non-stop verbiage was over the top. The casual fan, not so much.

As I started to interview him before the game, Vitale stopped me in mid-sentence. “Watch this,” he said.

Vitale approached Wisconsin’s student section, called “Bucky’s Bleacher Creatures” at the time, and got swallowed up in a sea of handshakes and back slaps.

“I don’t try to treat it like war and surgery,” Vitale said after escaping the crowd. “I love people, and I think the fact that I do has really helped me in this game. I’m a little wacky, you know that. But I have a heck of a lot of fun doing what I’m doing.”

Fast forward 33 years later. Vitale was courtside for last Tuesday’s meeting between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA at the Good Sam Empire Classic in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was Vitale’s first game of the year. On Oct. 18, Vitale learned he had lymphoma, months after having several surgeries to remove melanoma.

The basketball world put its collective arms around Vitale when he went public with his diagnosis, offering good wishes and prayers for the six months of chemotherapy that awaited. “I will do everything in my power to win this battle,” Vitale said on social media. Vitale was moved by the public response to his diagnosis, and he was emotional at the start of the Gonzaga-UCLA telecast.

“I didn’t want to cry,” Vitale said, tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here. This is really a big thrill for me.”

I am among the hundreds of journalists who have Vitale’s cell phone number. I called him dozens of times for iinterviews when I worked for the Des Moines Register. I still have an enthusiastic voice mail he left when I missed his return call one time.

“Hey, Rick, it’s Dickey V…”

Vitale’s rise and approval rating reflected the power of TV. After coaching the University of Detroit to great success, Vitale was hired by the Detroit Pistons in 1978-79. But 12 games into his second season, Vitale was fired.

“I didn’t even get a chance to put sugar in my coffee when they gave me the ziggy,” Vitale told me many years later.

Vitale’s firing was perfect timing for ESPN, just getting off the ground. Vitale was approached about doing some work as an analyst on the network, and had to be talked into it. His first appearance was in a game between DePaul and Wisconsin in December of 1979. And the rest, they say, is history.

Vitale’s debut at Carver-Hawkeye Arena came on Feb. 15, 1988, for another ESPN Big Monday game between Iowa and Purdue. But he’d been to Iowa City before.

Iowa Coach George Raveling brought Vitale in to be the keynote speaker at the 1984 Iowa basketball banquet.

“I’m putting pressure on you, George,” Vitale said. “I picked you to be in the Top 10 nationally last year, and you let me down.”

Vitale had also picked Iowa to win the Big Ten title. The Hawkeyes finished in a tie for seventh and were 13-15 overall.

Vitale has a style all his own. Here’s an example from that 1988 game in Madison. “Boy, that’s a Michael Jordan play right there,” Vitale gushed. “A little hang time, baby. Roy Marble with a little acrobatic move. It’s the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Here we go, up, up and away.”

And this one.

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“Is he a dandy, baby. Coast to coast, B.J. Armstrong. There goes the B.J. show. No. 10. A little shake and bake, spin and down the lane. Oh, yea, great move.”

In some ways, Vitale became bigger than the game itself.

He was courtside for Iowa’s 86-82 victory over No. 2 Illinois in 1989.

“It always shines bright when I come to Carver-Hawkeye Arena,” Vitale said. Before an Iowa-Ohio State game in 1989, Windex sponsored a Dick Vitale Sound-alike Contest at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The winner got $500. And a lifetime supply of Windex. Vitale’s unabashed style made him a polarizing figure, long before the advent of social media. “There are those who don’t care for him,” Iowa’s Davis said in 1989. “But at least he gets their attention.”

Vitale wasn’t afraid to sick his nose in the fray, either, He criticized Big Ten officiating during the 1988-89 season. Bob Wortman, the Big Ten’s supervisor of officials, took exception. “When did he become such an expert on officiating?” Wortman wondered. “He’s a big mouth.” Responded Vitale, “To get involved in name calling, that’s immaturity.”

There had been talk that the Big Ten needed to make the supervisor of officials position a fulltime job.

“Maybe we should hire Dick Vitale,” Davis said.

The last time I called Vitale was to get his response to Fran McCaffery’s hiring by Iowa in March of 2010. But Dick’s number remained in my phone directory. I wasn’t sure it was still a working number, but I tried it last week because I wanted to wish him the best in his fight against cancer. It didn’t take him long to reply.

“I appreciate so much your words of encouragement,” he said. “How’s Tom (Davis) doing? I plan on winning this battle.”

Watching Vitale’s teary Tuesday return punched my emotional buttons.

“You were awesome, with a capital “A,’” I texted him that night.

He responded with a heart emoji.

Whether you like him or not, you have to greatly admire where Vitale’s heart is. He has raised millions of dollars for the fight against pediatric cancer over the years. And he’s done it with a heart of gold. He’s hosted fundraisers several times in Cedar Rapids, and another at Blue Top Ridge in Riverside.

And he’s always been quick to say yes to a request. Here’s an example. Patrick McCaffery, son of Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery and his wife, Margaret, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer on his 14th birthday in 2014.

That was about the time one of Patrick’s friends and North Central Junior High classmates, Austin Schroeder, was diagnosed with stage 3 T-lymphoblastic lymphoma. Patrick is now a sophomore on the Hawkeye basketball team. Austin died in 2015. Before he passed, Coach McCaffery reached out to Vitale and asked if he could call Austin to encourage him.

Vitale called Austin in his hospital room and did all he could to inspire the young man. Austin smiled for the first time in weeks.

Coach McCaffery shared that story with me after Austin had passed away. Vitale has done the same thing hundreds of times, and never once promoted himself for doing a good thing. It came from his heart, not his ego.

Now, Vitale’s fight has become personal.

“If you see me, please just give me a fist bump and say a prayer that I can return from being 82 years old to acting like I’m 12,” Vitale said when revealing his diagnosis. “Thank you so much for your love.”

So here’s a fist bump and a prayer, Dickey V. You deserve it.