It is 4:25 in the morning, and Dick Vitale is about to do something so incredible, so unthinkable, so unbelievable, baby, that you will scarcely believe your ears. He is going to shut up.
Vitale, 54, posts up St. Jude on the bedside table, boxes out the standing lamp and begins to pray. Five minutes every morning and five minutes every night—Marriott or Holiday Inn, Chapel Hill or West Lafayette—100,000-watt Radio Vitale actually goes dark. Of course, in five minutes the phone will ring and The J.P. McCarthy Show in Detroit will be ready for Vitale's twice-weekly visit, and the red light on Vitale's life will flip on again and you will offer to pay for silence like this.
It is important that Vitale get up at such a skinny hour to do Detroit radio, lest somebody in America not hear him today, with or without electricity. First thing you have to know about Dicky Vee is that he never turns down an audience or a paycheck, on account of his belief that the Big Ride could end tomorrow. For the same reason, this year he will do 50 college basketball games for ESPN and 15 for ABC, 30 or so speaking gigs, half a dozen appearances for Adidas, at least 30 interviews a week, promos for his three books and his computer game, a once-a-week Indianapolis radio show and daily one-minute national radio spots. He also has his own college hoops magazine, not to mention the columns he writes for Basketball Times and Eastern Basketball, which he has done for 15 years and for which he gets a whopping $50 a column.
March 7, 1994
But right now there is nobody hanging around but God, so Dicky Vee gives Him an earful.
Second thing you have to know about Vitale is, he worries more than any three Brighton Beach mothers, and this morning is rich with fret. He will pray for the earthquake victims here in L.A. and the freezing victims back East; for his tennis-playing daughters at Notre Dame, so they won't get stuck outside in the snow; for Jimmy Valvano, so he'll save Dick a place Up There; for his mother, who never should have had to go through what she went through; for his wife, so the lump won't come back; for the kid in Tampa, so he'll live long enough to use the tickets; for the kid in Indianapolis, so he won't have to have that 61st operation; and for himself, so he won't be fired again. Especially that last one.
Al McGuire always said that Vitale "never had the good inside. If he did, he'd still be coaching." McGuire was probably right. The outside, of course, has always been cake for Vitale—the famously bald head, the orange turtlenecks under bright blue suits, the lime-green convertibles, the voice that could make runs in a pair of nylons 100 feet away, the distinctive call of a big basket: "Ohhhh! Oohhhhhh! Unbelieeeeevable, baby!" Dicky Vee's outside has always been as subtle as a Macy's parade.
This was the East Rutherford (N.J.) High School coach who celebrated his first state championship by riding through the streets on the back of a fire truck, yelling louder than the siren. This was the University of Detroit coach who would be introduced last at games, running out under a single spotlight and swan-diving into his players' arms. This was the Detroit Piston coach who would disco-dance on the floor after a rare win.
These days Vitale's outside is bigger than ever. He is the hottest thing in college basketball since body paint. On campuses they put up signs at games he's not attending: WHERE'S DICKY V.? If Vitale's in the house, the occasion is large. This year a newspaper columnist pooh-poohed a big Oregon-Oregon State game by writing, "If this game is so big, how come Dick Vitale's not here?" That means Vitale not only covers the biggest games but also defines them. He's kind of a human Goodyear blimp. "I guess you could say that," says Oklahoma basketball coach Billy Tubbs. " 'Course, Vitale's got more hot air."
But all that honking and waving and trash-can-beating on the outside has always been a way to keep anybody from getting a good look at that inside. Dicky Vee worries. He fears. He bleeds. At East Rutherford he lost five pints of blood through his stomach in one night of worrying about a loss. He didn't have one bleeding ulcer. He had three. Man coached the New Jersey state high school basketball championship game in 1970 with a half-gallon of milk next to his chair. Typical Dicky Vee. Never let 'cm see you bleed on the outside.
Who else carries a little laminated St. Jude card in his right pants pocket no matter where he goes? Vitale will miss a flight rather than leave without the card. For Catholics, St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases. What exactly does a man clearing a very lovely seven figures a year have to feel hopeless about? Who else knocks wood a dozen times a day? Who else is crushed so easily, forgives too easily, tries too hard? Who else cried at the end of Rudy? Who else gets fired only once in his life and broods about it every day thereafter?
37,000 Feet, Somewhere over Colorado
You are trying to catch a little Rip Van Winkle, as Vitale calls it, because Vitale called you in your room at 7:15 this morning to ask if you wanted to hear him do another radio talk show, and this was after he kept you up until one telling stories at some high-garlic Italian joint. Now, just as you start drifting off, Vitale starts reading USA Today. Aloud.
"Oh, man! Oh, man! Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett! Unbelievable! What a mismatch, huh? Lemme tell you something, Lyle Lovett gives every guy hope. Now, no matter what a guy looks like, he sees a beeyoootiful girl and says, 'Hey, I got a shot.' "
Right. But I'm feeling a little sleepy, and....
"Time to check the stocks, baby! Ohhhhh! Go, Mickey! Up another quarter point!"
Tragically, Vitale was born without a delete key. Take the night of Jan. 18. He had just finished doing a grueling 2½-hour ESPN call of Purdue's overtime victory over Indiana. Must have said about, oh, 59,000 words. Talked to the Purdue coaches. Talked to all the players. Talked to fans. Chatted up the referees. Talked to radio guys and beat writers and even a couple photographers. Talked to the Purdue players' girlfriends. Talked to Bob Knight, who had knocked Vitale on his keister the last time they'd met, at a movie taping, and never apologized. And, after all that talking, not three minutes after the wrenching game was over, Vitale went into the men's room and, while facing the wall, if you know what we mean, never missed a paragraph.
"Whoo, boy, what a game, huh?" he said to the guy next to him. "Unbelievable! Incredible! That was something man. Wow! I don't know, though, if I'm the General, I would have got a TO. I really mean that. But he's in the, whaddyacallit, the Hall of Fame, and I'm not, baby!" Flush.
His wife and two daughters, who love him dearly, know when it is time to turn the other ear. "Dad's messages always go right to the beep," says 20-year-old daughter Sherri, a sophomore tennis player at Notre Dame. Says Dick's wife, Lorraine, "I'm kind of used to it. We make a good balance. I take five words to answer a question, and he takes five paragraphs."
Dicky Vee is such a world-class talker that he is famous among singles at ESPN, who routinely ask him to break the ice for them with the opposite sex. ("Hey, c'mon! Why don't you give him a chance. He's good-lookin'! He's got hair!") Vitale talks so much, he forced the invention of the Vitale Count: If Dick Vitale is in the studio and you are the floor director and there are 20 seconds left, you give him the "15 seconds" sign, because when Vitale starts smashing sentences together like freight trains and exhausting the world's supply of exclamation marks, all those words do not just stop on a dime. They have to screech over the cliff a ways and then scramble back, like in the cartoons.
"What can I say?" says Vitale. "Let's face it. This is what I do. I talk. I like to talk. I talk, I talk, I talk. That's me, that's what made me what I am today. Knock wood. You know with me you're going to hear me talk and yell and talk some more. I mean, there are times when I want to shut myself up! I'll be in the middle of a game and say to myself, Why did you say that? Even my wife tells me sometimes, 'You're talking too much. You don't have to talk so much.' I don't know why. I just do."
Could be it's the eye. When Vitale was a child, he accidentally poked himself in the left eye with a pencil, eventually causing the eye to go blind and to wander. He hated it and was ashamed of it. "I remember," says his sister, Terry, "Richie would play basketball, and the kids would always go toward the side he couldn't see on." When he spoke, he would look at people's feet. In high school the eye became infected, and he was forced not only to wear a patch but also to miss his junior year. He was so embarrassed that he switched schools. "I overcompensated," he says. "I tried to make up for it with enthusiasm. I just wanted to be the most enthusiastic guy about everything."
So Richie the Worrier hid behind loud clothes and loud speech. Bright green checked slacks, bright yellow shirts and booming soliloquies. He was the most gregarious, most argumentative one-eyed Italian in all of Garfield, N.J. Considering the house he grew up in, that was saying something. His father, a garment presser, was one of eight kids. His mother, a seamstress, was one of nine. All of those siblings lived in the same area of town. After church the bagels would start warming and the coffee would start brewing and the uncles would start laying out all the sports sections and Howard Cosell on the radio would start roaring and Lindsey Nelson on the tube would start saying, "Neither team advanced the ball, so we move to further action in the fourth quarter." After that, it was basically The Sports Reporters times four. You needed some big decibels in that house to be noticed. It was, come to think of it, a lot like cable TV.
But even after he became a cable star, shame over his own face continued to drive Vitale. In one of his first years at ESPN, somebody called and left a message with the switchboard operator: "Get that one-eyed guy off the air. He looks hideous." Vitale cried. So, at 47, he underwent radical surgery on his good eye to try to get it to move in concert with the bad one. Lorraine was against it. "If something goes wrong, you'll be completely blind," she warned. Vitale risked it. It worked.
The bad eye is not really noticeable anymore, but the insecurity is. Vitale is mortally afraid of the momentary silence or the lull in conversation. He wants to like everybody and for everybody to like him. In an airport van in Indianapolis one day, silence reigned for...had to be four, five seconds. Vitale could not stand it. He noticed the woman sitting across from him. "Gee, look at you," he said. "You got those beeyoootiful eyes."
This is not a come-on. It's just that among the most open and friendly celebrities in America, Vitale ranks first through 10th. If people don't come to him, he goes to them, and they invariably have "that great smile" or "such a beeyoootiful face" or "all that hair," which, he always adds, "if I had, I'd be Tom Cruise." And soon he is engaging some poor plumber, who was just working on the lobby drinking fountain, in a conversation that usually ends with Dicky Vee saying, "Hey, you got kids'? Give me your address. I'll send you some, whaddyacallit, some stuff, a ball or a hat or something."
Right. Lines like that are uttered one million times a day across America. But Dicky Vee actually comes through. In a week of traveling with Vitale, you will see him take 50 addresses down. And you will meet another 50 people who have received Dicky Vee's stuff through the mail. Vitale spends $700 a month out of his own pocket in postage alone to send people basketballs, books and, whaddyacallits, hats. And he pays for it all himself—discounted by the manufacturer, of course, but nonetheless coming to another $10,000 per year.
Anyway, the woman in the van in Indianapolis blushed and quietly said, "Thank you."
"Dick Vitale," he said, extending his hand and a huge smile.
"Hello," said the woman.
"What kind of work are you in?" Vitale said.
"I sell software to insurance companies," she said. "And you?"
"I'm a fired NBA coach. Detroit Pistons."
"Hey, you got kids?"
Vitale cannot let go of that day, Nov. 8, 1979, when Piston owner Bill Davidson arrived at Vitale's house in a big black limo, stepped out, touched Vitale lightly and warmly on the shoulder and whispered, "Made a coaching change today."
Remarkably, Richie the Worrier never saw it coming. "Just like that!" Vitale says now, still amazed. "Made a coaching change today.' Unbelievable! Man, that was hard. My whole life, I had just gone up and up and up and had nothing but success, and then all of a sudden somebody's telling me, 'You're zero, baby! You ain't worth nothin'!' "
But what Vitale doesn't tell you is that he worried himself right out of the job. The ulcers were bleeding, and Vitale was calling Davidson nightly from the road, saying, "You oughta fire me. I'm not gettin' it done for you."
Pink-slipped, Vitale was inconsolable. He stayed in bed for a week. And a month later, just when he wondered what he might do with the rest of his life, he got the luckiest call of his life. ESPN. "Sounded like a disease," he remembers. It was a call that changed Vitale, college basketball and the careers of ear specialists forever.
And yet even today, as the most outrageous and recognizable college hoops color man ever, Richie the Worrier frets about pink slips. "What would I do?" he says. "There's not a job in America that I could do if I got fired from this. I mean, where's a guy doing college basketball color on cable supposed to go?"
And so he has one rule. Never stop. The big black limo could be right around the corner.
A man, seemingly with all his faculties, is actually asking Dick Vitale to open his mouth.
It's Vitale's dentist, Dr. Daniel Cohen, who has a drill in his right hand and Vitale at his mercy. And just as Dr. Cohen is about to get busy, he stops. "Do you know how many people would love to be in this situation?" he says.
For its volume of work, Vitale's mouth should be studied and preserved by the Smithsonian. A fan recently took the time to database every Vitalism uttered over an undefined period of time (presumably, as much time as the fan's wife could stand). The fan found that during this stretch, Vitale had used 36 different "times" to describe events in basketball games, including Maalox Time, Pine Time, Trifecta Time and ZZZ Time; 68 different "teams," including All-Airport (those who look good in the airport but get no playing time), All-Pickpocket, All-Lunch, All-Bart Simpson (underachievers) and All-Randy Newman (short); 413 turns of phrase the fan had never heard before (don't ask); 17 "cities," including Cupcake City (easy schedule) and Lock City (game's over); half a dozen promises, including "I'll stand on my head if Austin Peay beats Illinois" (it did, and he did), "I'll scrub the floors of Allen Fieldhouse if Larry Brown stays at Kansas!" (he didn't) and "I'll put tape over my mouth and not speak for a day if Princeton beats Villanova" (please).
Generation X seems to love the shtick. Kids do not just come up to Vitale and say hi. They need a running start. They begin yelling their Dicky Vee impressions from 25 feet away and then close in. "Uh-oh, gotta get a TO, baby!" a hat-backward UCLA student hollered one day as he ran to Vitale from across the street. "Dicky Vee! I'm a PTP'er, baby! Are you serious?!? Give us your John Hancock, baby!" Sometimes when Vitale signs, the signee takes the liberty of rubbing Vitale's head. Former Indiana star Calbert Cheaney did it once and said, "Always wanted to do that." (You think he ever rubbed Bob Knight's head?)
When a Syracuse communications professor recently asked his class to name the one sports announcer in America they would like to write about—remember, Syracuse turned out Bob Costas, Marv Albert and Dick Stockton, among others—70% of the students chose Vitale, who never took a single journalism class anywhere.
And it's not just fans who want to meet him. Players do too. At Purdue, Kenny Williams, a senior forward, sidled up to Vitale. "Yo, Coach," Williams said. "Can you talk to [Purdue] Coach [Gene] Keady? I need some PT, man! I'm All-Pine!" After UCLA beat Arizona on Jan. 20, star Bruin forward Ed O'Bannon waited patiently for an evaluation of his play from a man who hasn't coached in 15 years. "Move more," said Vitale. "Easiest guy to guard is the one who won't move." O'Bannon looked like he was going to go right back to his locker and write it down.
But does Dicky Vee know basketball? "Absolutely," says ESPN studio host Bob Ley. "You just have to listen for it."
"Hard to say," says Keady. "He's pretty good on defense. But offense has passed him by."
"If Dick Vitale knew more about basketball," Oklahoma's Tubbs once said, "he'd still be coaching in the NBA instead of making an ass out of himself on ESPN."
Not that Adidas really cares. Out of the whole giant pool of slam-dunking millionaires in the nation, the shoe company picked Vitale to be its main endorser. He now stars in Adidas's "Adventures in Dickland" series. "We think Dick is the most recognizable personality in the game," says Adidas executive Sonny Vaccaro. "And I'm including coaches."
Nobody at Adidas cares much about the Vitale Ceiling, either. The Vitale Ceiling is what most Americans seem to hit just after age 30, when they suddenly realize how much Advil they need to sit through a Dicky Vee game. All that ranting, replaced occasionally by all that raving, really gets to the sinuses. With Vitale, every game is Armageddon, and Armageddon is a little much after you've had to deal with the damned Hibbings account all day. Of course, how much perspective do you want from a guy with one eye?
"I like him," says Boston Globe basketball writer Bob Ryan. "College basketball owes him a huge debt. But what he says is absolute, 100-percent bull."
No matter. Dickland continues to annex territory. Ronnie Henderson, the LSU roundball star, was in an airport recently when he ran into Billy Packer, the distinguished longtime CBS basketball analyst. Henderson, though, couldn't quite place the face. "I know you're on TV," said a puzzled Henderson, "but you're not Dick Vitale."
Packer is on network TV. Vitale is not, except for 15 games a year on ABC. Packer has called a lifetime of Final Fours. Vitale has called zero. Packer is an astute teacher of the game. Vitale tries to fit the game in between tonight's list of All-Diaper Dandies and his signature bellows. And yet Vitale owns the kids.
Because Vitale in person is so eminently likable, no broadcaster will publicly criticize him, but how's your between-the-lines reading? McGuire says some announcers work too many games: "That would be very, very difficult for me. Then your work becomes more charades than true enthusiasm. More of an Ed Sullivan kind of thing, with a lot of applause signs going off."
Packer thinks some announcers lose track of the game itself: "It's like refereeing. You're a good referee when you do the game, and afterward people say, 'Now that was a helluva game. Who reffed it?' It's the same with a broadcaster. You're a good broadcaster when they turn the TV off and say, 'Now that was a helluva game. Who called it?' "
Maybe it's all part of the act, but at ESPN there is something of a Vitale Cushion between the journalism-school guys and Dicky Vee. The J-schoolers all smile and laugh and stand just an extra six inches away from him. Ley once introduced Vitale as the man "recently given the Lifetime Achievement Award by Sony for doing the most to promote the use of the mute button." During the Indiana-Purdue game, Vitale was amazed that one of the players had a 1,300 SAT score. "You and I together might be a 1,300," said Vitale.
"Yeah," said his broadcast partner, Mike Patrick. "My 1,200 and your 100."
The print media has generally killed Vitale. Norman Chad, sports-television critic of the Washington Post, rips Vitale regularly ("He's the Lhasa apso barking at your feet," Chad once wrote). "I don't understand it," Richie the Worrier says glumly. "I know I'm a good person. I love people. People who know me are my biggest asset. It's the people who don't know me who don't like me. Writers can be really cruel, man."
But it is a little hard to treat Vitale as Winston Churchill. He does to the English language what Nell Carter does to a strapless teddy. He strings too many words together too fast without pausing to inhale. Would that life, like answering machines, had a beep on the tape. During the Purdue game, Vitale had this to say about Indiana's 7-foot center, Todd Lindeman: "He's not a real true 7-footer. He may be 7-foot in size, but he's also got that big, big, like, the neck and the head, and therefore he loses a couple of inches versus a true 7-footer with the long arms." Beep.
Norm Crosby would like Vitale. Here's Dicky Vee on....
•The rich atmosphere of Allen Fieldhouse: "I mean, you can practically reek the tradition."
•His plans for his next trip to Las Vegas: "I really want to see that whaddyacallit, that magic act, Sigmund and Freud."
•His routine on the afternoon of a game: "I like to go up to the room and just make some mental reservations about the game."
Basically, Vitale is a former C-plus student with a very large mouth and an even larger heart who swallowed a microphone and therefore cannot be turned off. And Vitale knows it.
"I break all the rules," he says. "I never went to broadcasting school. I'm not blond and good-looking. I'm ugly. I'm not polished, and I talk too much. But I must be doing something right, baby, because the phone rings off the hook. Knock wood."
Vitale's phone rings off the hook because in the age of 57 channels and 500 more coming, the wilder, the nuttier you are, the more chance you have of being noticed. Like other cable creatures—Dr. Ruth, Pauley Shore, Morton Downey Jr., Beavis and Butt-head—Vitale is just whacked enough to stop remote clickers cold. Cable opened a crack in the pop landscape, and Dicky Vee stuck his bald head through.
So who cares whether Vitale knows basketball? Vitale is killing under-30 Hoop America not because he knows how the high-post screen works. He is killing under-30 Hoop America because these college basketball fans don't need to be told about the high-post screen. These college basketball fans are already knowing. With 298 major colleges playing ball, you must follow the sport devoutly to make any sense of it at all. And if you follow it devoutly you don't really need anybody telestrating you how to break a 2-2-1 press. What the under-30 fans want is somebody as hopelessly touched as they are, somebody who is doing exactly what they would be doing if they were down there with a mike: screeching, "Rock 'n' roll, baby! Hold me down!" What they want is Dicky Vee.
And Dicky Vee is infectious. Even adults cannot help themselves. When Valvano sat next to Vitale during Valvano's first year of studio work, he began sounding like Vitale on the air. "Jimmy would call me up and say, 'I'm doing Dick all the time.' " says Art Kaminsky, who was Valvano's agent. " 'How do I stop?' " Try it sometime. Spend one week around Vitale and you, too, will find yourself at the breakfast table going, "Dish the margarine, baby! I'm in Toast City here!"
None of which impresses Richie the Worrier. "Lemme tell you something," he says. "I'll probably end up a bum. I'll be trying to tell people, 'Hey! Twenty years ago they used to holler my name on the streets!' I've just been fortunate. Knock wood."
You think you know loud? You have not even met loud until you have heard Dicky Vee commit a speech, which he is just about to do at the Peabody Hotel here to about 500 innocent convenience-store operators.
"Is there any way we can turn that mike down?" Vitale asks the organizer. "I can be pretty loud."
"It's no problem," says the organizer.
"Well, O.K.," says Dicky Vee.
Wrong. Dicky Vee blows them back three feet in their chairs. Chandeliers rattle. Women at the front tables hold their ears. Dicky Vee has it one notch past a Noriega stakeout and just under cerebellum damage. It's not his fault. It's just that he feels everything he's saying. This is how he is anytime. He reads you a letter from a sick kid; he's crying. He talks about his daughters; he chokes up. He tells you about Jimmy Vee; he has to stop.
He's trying to tell these people how lucky they are to have their health, not to be like his mother, not to be like Jimmy Vee, not to be like the kids who write to him from hospital beds. It sounds like schmaltz, but it is too schmaltzy to be schmaltz. His shirt is soaked in sweat. He has probably given this speech 300 times, and he still gets tears in his eyes. And 35 minutes later, the people wonder how long it will take for that ringing to go away.
Vitale has seen sorrow at every turn of his life. Growing up, he watched his mother try to walk to Mass every day with tuberculosis, failing kidneys and a rheumatic heart. After he was married, he hurt for Lorraine, who during an earlier marriage had to spend days in a maternity ward watching new mothers feed their babies, knowing she would deliver a stillborn child. Several years later, when Dick and Lorraine's first daughter, Terri, came out healthy, he cried. When he got the call from Jimmy Vee saying he had cancer, they cried together on the phone. "You look at a guy like that, so full of life, and then he's just struck down, and your heart breaks!" Vitale says. "And you think, My God, that could be me!"
In December, when the doctors told Lorraine about the lump, she didn't tell Dick for the first three days. "I knew he'd start panicking," she remembers. When she finally told him, he drove the lab people nuts, calling on the half hour for results. When the lump turned out to be benign, Dick and Lorraine cried.
No wonder Richie the Worrier's emotions go coast-to-coast. No wonder everybody he meets has "beeyootiful eyes" or "that great smile." No wonder he can't help but call and cry with the sick kids he hears about, then cram their hospital rooms with gifts. Like Peter Boone's room in Indianapolis. Peter, 18, hasn't spoken for seven years. Instead, he clicks with his tongue. Born with spina bifida, he has had 60 operations and was going for 61 when Vitale sent him books, tapes and a basketball, then mentioned his name on the air.
Unbelievable, eh, Pete? Click.
Were you amazed at what Mr. Vitale did for you? Click.
He's your favorite broadcaster, huh? Click, click, click.
In Tampa, Dave Phillips, a starter on the Chamberlain High School basketball team, learned recently that he has a rare form of malignant lymphoma. Vitale not only sent him the usual assortment of whaddyacallits, but he also phoned the kid, worked to get one of the boy's heroes, Charlie Ward, to call him, and arranged for Dave and his family to see the Phoenix Suns play the Orlando Magic in March if Dave is up to it. The boy's aunt, Barbara Gray, said Vitale's call "was like a hand that came out of nowhere and just reached in and pulled Dave up."
You think those boys think Dick Vitale talks too much?
Incredibly, while Vitale was away on this most recent trip, his 10,000-square-foot mansion did not burn down, and his dog was not run over, and ESPN didn't fire him. Knock serious wood. He is home for a whole day to unpack, pack again and send out a few dozen more packages of whaddyacallits to people who are sure they'll never get them. But enough of this off-time. Next week Vitale will add one ABC game a week to his usual two for ESPN. Sleep might just have to be eliminated altogether.
Someday, the Vitale Curtain may close altogether. The big black limo will pull up, and someone will touch Dicky Vee on the shoulder and say quietly, "Made an announcing change today," and a lot of people will say it's about time. The red light will finally flick off, and then it will be just Dick and Lorraine and St. Jude. But stay calm, Dicky Vee. You will not really be a hopeless case then. Because, when you think about it, Al McGuire was wrong. You do have that good inside.