Dick Vitale was one of ESPN’S very first hires back in 1979. He had just been fired by the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and was looking for a Division I college coaching job when ESPN called. “ESPN, what the hell is ESPN?” he remembers thinking. “It sounds like a disease. I never heard of it. So, I said I wasn’t interested.”
The college call that Vitale was waiting for didn’t come and he grew increasingly restless. “I was watching Luke and Laura on General Hospital. That’s how desperate and depressed I was,” he says. “When ESPN called back, my wife nearly pushed me out the house. I agreed to do one game.”
That was 44 years ago. Since then, Vitale has worked more than 1,000 games and has become not just a broadcasting icon but a cultural icon. He’s been inducted into 14 Hall of Fames, including the big one, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. He’s written 14 books, appeared in dozens of movies, commercials, and video games and is an in-demand motivational speaker.
Most are aware of Vitale’s many accomplishments over the last five decades. What many don’t know about is the incredible string of health challenges he’s endured over the past 18 months. “It’s been a tough, tough year,” he admits. “But I’ve had so much support. Love and prayers from many caring people really got me through.”
In August of 2021, Vitale announced that he had undergone multiple surgeries for melanoma. “I looked like I was beat up by Mike Tyson,” he says. “And about the same time, I had bile duct problems. At first, they thought it was bile duct cancer, which is a very tough cancer to deal with. Fortunately, after scans, they determined that it was lymphoma, which is treatable, which is curable. I never thought that I would be jubilant hearing I have lymphoma, but I was.”
He didn’t have bile duct cancer, but he did have bile duct blockage which required several surgeries as he was dealing with lymphoma, his second cancer diagnosis in less than six months. While he was undergoing chemotherapy, he lost his voice. “That really crushed me more than anything. I couldn’t speak.”
Doctors determined that he had dysplasia in his throat, a growth on his vocal cords that could become cancerous if left untreated.
In the middle of multiple rounds of chemotherapy, he had two surgeries on his vocal cords and was unable to speak a word for four months. “It was great for my wife,” he says with a smile. “She loved every moment. She finally got a chance to speak!”
As his throat was healing, doctors ordered a comprehensive set of scans looking for any signs of cancer. “They went through my entire body and came out and said, ‘Dick, you’re cancer free.’ I burst out in tears, to be honest with you, because it’s been a tough, tough year.”
With his voice coming back and two cancer battles won, Vitale learned that he would be honored with the prestigious Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2022 ESPY Awards. The award is named for the late Jim Valvano, Vitale’s friend and former broadcast partner at ESPN. It was Vitale who helped Valvano to the stage 29 years ago at the very first ESPYs where he delivered his famous “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” speech, just two months before passing away.
After accepting the award from actor Jon Hamm, Vitale praised the Jimmy V Foundation which funds cancer research and told the worldwide audience, “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It comes after all. It will bring you to your knees. There’s only one way to beat it, my friends. We have to raise dollars and give oncologists a fighting chance.”
Those were not empty words. Vitale has become one of the world’s top fundraisers for pediatric cancer research. It’s a mission that he takes personally after watching Payton Wright, a 5-year-old girl in his Florida neighborhood, valiantly fight a rare form of brain cancer. “Payton changed my life” he says. “I went to her funeral, and I was a basket case listening to her parents, Patrick and Holly, talk about their little girl. I get choked up thinking about it. When the funeral ended, I was so emotionally taken, I ran to their car and said, ‘Look, we can’t save Payton, but we could save other kids. We can do research in her name. I promise you I’m going to raise a million dollars in the next six months in her name. We’re going to have research grants given to All Children’s Hospital where she had her treatment.’”
The next day, Vitale began reaching out to his friends who admired his passion but were skeptical that he could deliver against his ambitious promise. “They told me, ‘Man, you’re crazy.’ I told them we’re going to do it. We’ll get started with a big star. Someone we’re going to honor. I called Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and I said, ‘Mike, I need a favor.’ Mike said, ‘Just give me a date, man. Give me a date and I’ll be there.’ We raised $1.3 million, $1.4 million. And we’ve been doing it ever since.”
This year, the 17th annual Dickie V Gala raised $11.1 million. To date, the Gala has helped raise nearly $55 million for the Dick Vitale Fund for Pediatric Cancer at the V Foundation. Vitale doesn’t just lend his name to the effort. He doesn’t just twist the arms of potential donors. He sheds tears with families. He knows the names and remembers the circumstances of every child he meets, every mother and father he consoles. “I get to know these kids. They shouldn’t suffer,” he says. “I’ve always been moved by their struggle, but now maybe even more so because I’ve gone through a mini version of what they go through. I’m 83 years old. People have been good to me. I want to give back.”
In all he does, Vitale is driven by passion and powered by perseverance. His life hasn’t been easy. An accident as a child blinded him in one eye and led to constant bullying. His friends belittled his dreams of success. He believes that he’s been able to overcome every challenge and exceed every expectation because his parents taught him life’s most important lesson. “I grew up with a mom and dad that had maybe a fifth, sixth grade education, but they had a doctorate in love. I got so much love as a child. Every day they told me how much they cared about me and how I could be something special. Their love is the key to everything I have accomplished.”
Vitale starts and ends every day that same — looking at a photo in his bedroom and saying a prayer. “It’s a beautiful picture of me with my mom and my dad. I’m about three or four and I’m sitting on their lap. I thank them for the incredible love they gave me as a child. I thank them for giving me the greatest gift anybody could ever receive and that’s the gift of love.”
“My mother would say to me, ‘Never, ever believe in can’t. Don’t allow can’t to be part of your life.’ I’ve applied that to everything. When I was in the middle of chemo and alone and depressed at night, I heard her words and Jimmy V’s words. ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.’ Some will say, that’s corny. It might be corny to them, but it wasn’t to me. Hearing those words echo over and over gave me the impetus to want to get better.”
Vitale is anxious for the upcoming basketball season. He’s anxious to resume his speaking career. He’s anxious to raise more money and more awareness for pediatric cancer. His health scares over the past 18 months have made him even more aware that the clock is ticking, and every day is not just a blessing to be grateful for but also an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.
This article is featured in the October 2022 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.