Before we consider the phenomenon of ESPN's Dick Vitale, who without question is the loudest, most verbose, most opinionated basketball broadcaster yet produced by Western Civilization, we'd better tiptoe through his fantasy world of initials and pet expressions. Otherwise, we couldn't rack up a big W for understanding DV.
Now W, of course, stands for win and L for loss. There's TO for timeout, OT for overtime, PT for playing time and T for technical foul. You've got NC for no contest, as when ESPN play-by-play man Roger Twibell tries to get a word in edgewise. An M&Mer is a mismatch, as when Vitale, who does analysis for Twibell, goes one-on-one with the English language. You've got Mr. Po and Uncle Mo, for players with potential and teams with momentum, respectively. You want great players, as in GAA-RRRREAT players? Then you've got Rolls-Royces, blue-chippers, solid gold, perfect 10 Bo Dereks! No Phyllis Dillers. Just supers!!! Get the picture? This Dick Vitale is a thoroughbred talker. I'm tellin' ya, Roger, he's out-RAGE-eous! Put it in the book, stamp it and send it in, because it's NC. Ain't no one like him on the tube.
Had enough? Well, DV wouldn't be through yet.
The other part of his fantasy world is the dialogue he invents for players and coaches in game situations.
May 13, 1984
Take last week, for example, when Vitale was working the NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series between New Jersey and Milwaukee. The Nets' Darryl Dawkins fouled the Bucks' Paul Pressey and then looked aghast at referee Earl Strom, who had made the call. It was make-believe time for Vitale: "Darryl said, 'Who, me? I don't believe it! I didn't do anything! Please, Earl, I didn't foul him! No! No!' " With such creativity, who needs courtside mikes?
One definition of phenomenon is "an object or aspect known through the senses rather than by thought."
That sounds suspiciously like Vitale, formerly coach of the University of Detroit and the Detroit Pistons, who is concluding his fifth controversial year as ESPN's premier analyst. He also does college games, which gives him two audiences to divide. With Vitale, as with ABC's Howard Cosell, you either love him or loathe him. But whereas Cosell can appeal to the intellect, Vitale only assaults the senses. You either like his act or, find yourself turning down the volume control (an L for the VC, no doubt).
One doesn't listen to Vitale so much as experience him. In a certain sense, that's his great strength, and the reason ESPN just gave him a new three-year contract. His energy and enthusiasm (E&E?) level is so high he explodes through the screen. He's a tactile talker a la John Madden, although compared with Vitale, Madden is a mute in a straightjacket. Still, Vitale's enthusiasm is so full of good cheer that it's hard to dislike the guy. And he desperately wants, with almost a puppy-dog intensity, to be liked. Ever notice how he's always smiling, with his head slowly turning, during the pregame standups with Twibell? He's like one of those dolls with a bobbing head in the rear window of a car.
Vitale's other chief asset is his candor. He may not be a great thinker, but he says exactly what's on his mind, and his opinions are firmly held. What with his bald head, Coke-bottle glasses and big mouth, there's a tad of James Watt in DV, minus the arrogance. This year he told North Carolina fans to pack their bags for the Final Four minutes before their team's game with Indiana; Hoosier fans sent him an athletic supporter when Indiana won. Last week he said the Knicks' Truck Robinson "has taken a step backward" and questioned whether other teams now would want him. Let's see DV pull this remark out in OT.
A few weeks ago, in a letter to Vitale, a viewer compared him with the nonstop talker in the Federal Express commercial. Incredibly, this buoyed Vitale's spirits. "I am a motormouth," he says agreeably. "I'm Hollywood [with a North Jersey accent, no less], I'm shtick, I'm mustard, I'm hot dog. I have to be Dick Vitale. They [the viewers] get the total package of me."
Unfortunately, that's precisely where this particular roller-coaster goes off the tracks. Vitale comes prepared and is reasonably insightful, at least to the casual fan, but unlike Madden he isn't first and foremost an imparter of information. He's essentially an entertainer. Not that an analyst can't entertain, it's simply that the balance must tilt toward analysis.
But no. Vitale tends to relate everything to himself. Does Michael Jordan put on a move? Michael's mother kissed Vitale for saying nice things about her son. Is Rollie Massimino coaching tonight? Rollie and Vitale rapped in a restaurant last week. Refreshing initially, Vitale and his lingo eventually wear thin. You hear his entire bag the first few starts, then endless repetition. In the name of all that's holy, how often can Dr. J be described as "Mo-bile, a-gile and not fra-gile"? And loud? You've never heard loud until you've heard VITALE-LOUD. Unless somebody reins him in, we'll all get a big D, for deafness.