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Hit the volume

Dick Vitale is done being quiet, baby. He's ready to weigh in on college hoops again after throat surgery.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008


LAKEWOOD RANCH

Dick Vitale sat at his usual table at The Broken Egg Restaurant, his home away from home, and enjoyed a welcome return to normalcy.

He poured through a stack of newspapers. He worked on a couple of online columns. He ate a simple lunch, pausing occasionally to put his ever-handy black Sharpie to good use and sign autographs. And he talked to a reporter.

Yes, talked.

Vitale, the voice of college basketball for almost three decades for ESPN, had throat surgery to remove noncancerous ulcerated lesions last month and wasn't allowed to utter a word let alone bellow a "That's awesome, baby" until his doctor gave him the go-ahead 3 1/2 weeks later. He's set to return to the airwaves for the Duke-North Carolina showdown in Chapel Hill on Feb. 6.

"I feel really good," Vitale said Wednesday, looking and sounding every bit like his usual self. "And I can't wait to get back and mingle with the students, the coaches, the players, the fans. That's my heart. That's my soul."

Vitale's voice always has been raspy, but as this season began in November, he struggled to talk. It was painful.

He saw Daniel Deems, an ear, nose and throat doctor in Sarasota, who was wary enough to refer him to Dr. Steven Zeitels, a Boston-based, world renowned throat specialist whose patient roster includes Julie Andrews and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Vitale, a blue-collar worker, was reluctant at first to try to squeeze in a trip there in the midst of his season, but did get an appointment on Dec. 5, the morning after he worked the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader in New York.

"You have ulcerated lesions," Zeitels told him, "and I have to be honest with you, they could be cancerous."

Vitale, 68, who has relentlessly raised money for cancer research in the years since his good friend Jim Valvano died of the disease, for the first time heard that dreaded word in connection with his own health. Worse still was that he wouldn't know the diagnosis until Zeitels performed a biopsy during Vitale's laser surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital on Dec. 18.

Talk about a long 13 days.

"Neither of us could sleep," his wife, Lorraine, said. "You just think the worst."

But the possibility that he would have to deal with cancer didn't totally sink in until he found himself, clad in a surgical gown, sitting in a room with others scheduled for biopsies the same day. He knew their results, like his own, could be life-altering.

"I'll be honest, I was scared," he said. "When I woke up from the anesthesia, Dr. Zeitels put his arm around me and he didn't say it was noncancer. He just said, 'Dick, whoever you pray to, keep praying to him because it's working.' I was fortunate to get good news, but a lot of those people weren't as fortunate, and that's why I'm obsessed now more than ever with helping research."

He hopes his third annual Dick Vitale Gala on May 16 at the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton means $1-million for pediatric cancer in memory of Payton Wright, a local youth who died last year.

"I'm in the last stage of my life, my last chapter," he said, "and I want it to be the best chapter."

- - -

Back home after his surgery, Vitale couldn't believe the outpouring of support. He has been inundated by cards and calls from coaches and fellow broadcasters and encouraging notes from fans and players, even one from his high school coaching days four decades ago. The Dallas Cowboys sent an autographed helmet.

"And, oh my goodness, all the baskets," Lorraine said.

Candy. Flowers. Wine. Cheese. The Vitales could open their own gift store by now. They've also spent about $2,000 on postage; every well-wisher has received a handwritten thank you note. Good practice, as it turned out. Vitale was ordered to stay mum, so he wrote, mainly on a dry-erase board about the size of a newspaper broadsheet.

"I had dust from it flying all over the house," his wife of 36 years said with a laugh. "He wanted to write as fast as he talks, and you can see all that emotion he has with capital letters and exclamation points."

Plus, his scribbling is doctor-esque.

You know, tough to decipher at times.

"She was my master communicator," he said.

"Dick didn't say a word for over three weeks," Lorraine said. "It was amazing. But he's pretty disciplined."

For the times he would go to The Broken Egg, he prepared a small sign that offered an apology and explanation to fans for why he wasn't talking. As for ordering food, well, the staff needed little coaching.

They know his omelets are with Egg Beaters. It's turkey sausage, not bacon. He passes on the potato chips that come with the Dicky V Burger. He also likes the Dicky V Fruit, which isn't on the menu, but includes apples, assorted berries and bananas instead of the cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple combination.

Vitale finally saw Zeitels again on Jan. 13 and was told he could in fact let it loose and test out his pipes. But the guy who's seemingly never at a loss for words couldn't find a one.

"It was a fear of not knowing what was going to come out," he admits.

His doctor finally told him to calm down and simply count to 10. The seconds passed until his old voice, albeit a bit softer, filled the room with "1-2-3 ..." Vitale was teary-eyed.

"He's doing tremendously well," Zeitels said. "They (the lesions) absolutely can come back; it's not uncommon, but we can manage it. The key is to know it's not cancerous."

Vitale has started to take voice lessons to learn how to speak from the diaphragm and ease the stress on his vocal cords. Zeitels plans to use a device of his own design to measure the trauma Vitale does to his cords during a two-hour game. (He used the beeper-sized device on Tyler, recording 780,000 collisions in a 65-minute concert.) More precise data means more precise monitoring. Vitale also will watch his television schedule, eliminating games on consecutive nights and minimizing doubleheaders. If need be, laser treatments can be used again.

"I was coached by the best," Vitale said. "My wife. My doctors. Bob Knight, John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan, Gary Williams, it goes on and on, all these guys calling and saying, 'You've got to get back. Listen to the doctor. Do the right things.'"

Well, he was also advised to ease back into the talking.

Yeah, right. He and his wife were at a dinner party this week and she said to let other people carry the conversation. Vitale ended up giving a speech. Then there he was the next day, talking to a reporter for more than three hours. She playfully chastised him about resting.

"He knows one speed," she said. "In everything he does, he knows one speed: full-speed or stop. The doctor said start off slowly, but he's bypassed that."

- - -

Not talking and the eventual resumption of talking ultimately were the least of Vitale's issues. He developed a serious bladder infection as a result of the anesthesia within days of his operation. On Dec. 22, his temperature spiked to 103 degrees and his wife rushed him to hospital. A few weeks later, he had noncancerous prostate surgery.

For a guy who doesn't smoke or drink and is active, the last month of seeing doctors instead of basketball games has been frustrating beyond mere words. He did, however, get a positive report on Wednesday afternoon and returned to the tennis court for a Thursday workout.

"My TV career is going to come to an end; I realize that," said Vitale, who has another six years on his ESPN deal.

"But I don't want it to end on a situation where it's a physical problem."

He started working as a college basketball analyst for the fledgling cable network in December 1979, about a month after the Detroit Pistons fired him as coach. He has done countless games since, but this coming Duke-UNC game will be unlike any other.

"I'll probably have more anxiety for the game I will do than any game I have ever done," he said. "There will be the fear about what's going to come out and how it's going to come out."

"Dick had the shock to his system that he might never broadcast another game," his wife added. "I think he really felt that way, that the door was just slammed. Now that the opportunity is there, he might get a little emotional."

But then Vitale is emotional. Those who don't know him say it's pure shtick. It isn't. He's naturally demonstrative and genuinely passionate. Sometime this week, he plans to tune into a game, mute the volume and ply his craft so he can begin to get back into the rhythm of when he should jump in with analysis and when to let his counterpart hold court.

"It will be great to have Dick back on the air - the games on ESPN haven't been the same without him announcing," Duke's Krzyzewski said. "There's no better ambassador for the sport of college basketball than Dick."

"His passion for the college game is unmatched by anybody else," echoed UNC coach Roy Williams. "He's willing to say it. He's willing to show it. He feels it. That's great for us. The other thing is here's a guy who's had some adversity and he's bouncing back and coming back to something he loves."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.