Hall or not, Vitale's mother would be proud

Published March 24, 2006

Irrepressible ESPN analyst Dick Vitale will learn next week whether he has been invited into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor. Whether or not he makes it in - and this is his second appearance on the ballot - Vitale will leave the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis with only one regret: That his mother never got a chance to see how much he achieved in the sport he has always loved.

"I came from a family filled with so much love," Vitale said this week, just before boarding an airplane to return to the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn. "My parents were uneducated. They taught me to chase your dreams and have a passion. My mother (Mae, who died in 1983) would be so proud if she were living today."

The Sarasota resident is 66 and, he acknowledges, likely in the "last chapter" of his career. He has a family he adores and a life and opportunities he sometimes can't believe, but the memories of harder times are still fresh.

As a young high school coach, Vitale would write to dozens of colleges asking for a job. The rejection letters piled up - he had no connections, after all, and he'd never played beyond a little high school ball - and his friends were not encouraging.

"But mom would say "Richie,' - everybody called me Richie - "you have something they can't take away. Your spirit, your energy. Someday son, you're going to make it. Never, ever believe in the word can't,"' Vitale said. "I've followed that philosophy all my life."

If his relentlessness came from his mom, his tirelessness came from his father, John, who died in 1997. John Vitale was a factory worker and security guard, and "I learned so much about work ethic, family, loyalty" from him.

Vitale values loyalty, and said that's why he didn't blink when ESPN denied CBS Sports president Sean McManus' request to "borrow" Vitale during the early rounds of this year's NCAA Tournament. For all he has done, Vitale - who has been with ESPN since it first went on air in 1979 - has never gotten as far as the Big Dance. But rather than be annoyed, he said he was more flattered that ESPN deemed him its "signature voice."

Despite that voice - love it or hate it - and his enthusiasm, Vitale has always had a cadre of detractors. He needs to earn 18 of 24 votes to be inducted into the hall of fame. Whether or not he is honored with the "highest enshrinement," as he puts it, he said he knows he has the support of many in the game who are enshrined in Springfield, Mass. Besides, he said, "I'm just honored to see my name (on the ballot) next to Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins."

His passion for basketball is undeniable, but Vitale may be even more passionate about fighting cancer. He is on the board of directors of the V Foundation, named after his late friend Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach. The V Foundation has raised $51-million for cancer research.

"Cancer brings you to your knees," he said. "(Research funding) is the only way we'll ever beat it. To me it's important to use my celebrity in a positive way."