Battling cancer, Dick Vitale is back for UCLA-Gonzaga, and it’s awesome, baby!
As the cadence of his voice careens through T-Mobile Arena and into the homes of millions of television viewers, Dick Vitale gushing about diaper dandies and PTPers as only he can, the veteran college basketball analyst will energize someone new after all these years.
It’s gonna be awesome, baby, when the 82-year-old known for a thick glossary of catchphrases gets to push aside his recent cancer diagnosis for several hours to call what might be the biggest game of the regular season. Only a few days after having a fourth round of drugs pumped into his body to fight lymphoma, Vitale will be courtside Tuesday night in Las Vegas for the ESPN broadcast of No. 1 Gonzaga versus No. 2 UCLA, providing the sort of jolt no treatment center can match.
“It’s great medicine, right?” Vitale said earlier this week during a telephone interview. “And that’s how the doctors feel too. They told me, ‘All the tests about how you are — your EKG, your heart, your organs, they’re all great, so there’s no reason why you cannot go on and live your life, be active and let us worry about chemo and let us worry about the cancer. You do what you normally do at 82 — enjoy yourself.’ ”
Vitale intends to do exactly that before making his season debut as part of an abbreviated lineup of games. There’s a dinner with his wife and another couple, allowing some relaxation before the following night’s rematch of the epic Final Four game that Gonzaga won on Jalen Suggs’ 40-footer at the overtime buzzer.
Vitale acknowledged the possibility that he might get a little emotional when partner Dave O’Brien asks him about his ordeal during the broadcast given the burden he’s carried the last month since receiving his diagnosis.
“Cancer affects so many people,” Vitale said. “I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again — it sucks.”
Having been ordered by doctors not to overexert himself, Vitale won’t attend the teams’ shootarounds, instead gathering his pregame intelligence through phone calls with the coaches. He compiled a detailed scouting report long before tipoff.
“I think the question is very simple: Can UCLA contain Timme inside?” Vitale said, referring to Drew Timme, Gonzaga’s star big man. “I think Timme is the odds-on favorite to be the national player of the year early, so that will a big factor.
“I think on the other end, you look at them, they have a veteran team and the part that’s really impressed me with UCLA is the mental toughness of the team and that’s all reflected by the leader. [Coach] Mick Cronin brought a special culture to that program about discipline, about toughness and he also was smart enough based on the talent level to play a little up-tempo — they play fast-paced basketball and he’s got veterans who have been there, they know what it is in tough situations.”
A cancer crusader who has raised more than $44 million for pediatric cancer treatment and research, Vitale found himself ensnared by the disease on Oct. 12. Initially, Vitale was thought to have bile duct cancer after doctors found a blockage there and considered his symptoms of yellowed skin, intense itching and unusually colored stools and urine.
Vitale braced for surgery before further testing revealed the lymphoma diagnosis. It was considered good news because the disorder can be treated strictly through six months of chemotherapy.
Prayers and best wishes poured in from around the world, Kentucky coach John Calipari lighting a candle at mass and a 12-year-old girl named Emily sending a heartfelt letter that brought Vitale to tears.
“People say, ‘Well, what does that do?’ ” Vitale said of the support. “It gives you such an emotional lift because there are times you get really down about it; chemotherapy’s no fun.”
ESPN colleagues who have battled cancer provided tips, Holly Rowe advising Vitale to take walks after each round of chemotherapy even though he might feel tired.
The disease’s devastation had long been familiar to Vitale, a close friend of former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. Vitale and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski helped a weakened Valvano onto the stage for his “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” speech at the ESPYs before his passing in 1993.
“He was so sick,” Vitale said, “we were shocked beyond belief that he was able to go up there and give that speech.”
Vitale overcame melanoma this summer but knows he’s in for a more prolonged fight this time. A body scan scheduled for later this week will determine whether the current course of chemotherapy is working or whether more intense drugs might be needed.
Having called thousands of games for ESPN since working the network’s first college basketball broadcast — No. 1 DePaul vs. Wisconsin on Dec. 5, 1979 — Vitale doesn’t intend to put his microphone down anytime soon.
His hope is that he has even more to say than usual at his annual fundraising gala on May 6 in Sarasota, Fla.
“I hope I can make an announcement at that event when I get up to speak and tell that crowd I just got great news: I am cancer-free,” Vitale said. “That’s my goal.”
It would just be Dickie V. doing his thing, bringing the “W” once more.
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