Living Treasure: Dick Vitale—In the Game of Life, You’re Awesome, Baby!
by Rachel Schaeffer
There aren’t many like him. You know it right away when you meet him, or hear him speak. His spirit shines through everything he does.
Dick Vitale, or “Dickie V,” is everything you could want in a friend, a coach, an ambassador, a teammate, an advocate, a grandpa, a person. He’s dedicated, enthusiastic, fun, captivating, and has a huge and caring heart. And, he’s consistent—you can trust him to be his endearing self whether he’s calling a college basketball game or calling for help to raise funds for cancer research. In the Game of Life, that’s rare and precious.
Since 1979, Vitale has been a college basketball analyst/broadcaster for ESPN. Part sports reporter, part entertainer, Vitale has called nearly a thousand games since ESPN’s first ever NCAA basketball game. He has been a head coach on every level including collegiate and professional. For his outstanding contributions to college basketball, media, humanitarianism, journalism, and philanthropy, Vitale could fill a room with his awards, countless honors, and inductions into eleven Halls of Fame—including the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In fact, a room has been named for him—the gymnasium at the University of Detroit where he was a coach from 1973-1977.
Vitale is also a prolific writer. He has written ten books including his recently released, Getting a W in the Game of Life (2012), as a columnist for ESPN The Magazine, Basketball Times, and as a guest columnist for USA Today. He’s also a highly sought after motivational speaker and since 1987 has had an exclusive contract with the prestigious Washington Speakers Bureau.
While at ESPN, Vitale became friends with Jim Valvano, affectionately known as “Jimmy V.” Valvano was the head coach at North Carolina State University who lost his life to cancer at age 47, just eight weeks after giving his inspirational 1993 ESPY Awards speech. At the awards,Vitale introduced him. Vitale lovingly helped him on and off the stage. In Valvano’s speech, he announced the start of The V Foundation for Cancer Research with its motto “Don’t give up…don’t ever give up.” Now in his ‘70’s, Vitale has never given up—not on his passion, not on his values, and not on his word that he gave Valvano two decades ago to help in the fight against cancer. Vitale is on the Board of Directors for The V Foundation, and his Gala alone has raised millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research since its inception in 1993. They award 100 percent of all direct donations and net proceeds of events directly to cancer research and related programs. In the war on cancer, Vitale is a valiant warrior.
We can all learn something from Vitale. Maybe it’s not to quit when you’re down. Perhaps it’s to love with your full heart and let people into your life. Or maybe it’s to be a part of something greater than yourself and make your life meaningful. For me, it’s all of the above, and the simple message to be the best person you can be in this lifetime. Vitale is a Winner in the Game of Life and a genuinely good man—someone anyone would want on their team.
PIM: How did you come up with your own language, your trademark lingo, what people call “Vitale-isms?
DV: I came up with them throughout my coaching career. I stole little bit from here, a little bit from there. “Awesome baby,” “get a TO baby” (timeout), he’s a PTP’er (prime-time player). There’s not a day in my life—whether I’m going to a store or to a restaurant—that someone doesn’t yell out: “You’re Awesome Baby” or “Am I Awesome Baby?” I always laugh, it’s hysterical.
PIM: You are so positive, fun and alive–your life energy is palpable! And you have so many passions. Were you always like that even as a kid?
DV: When I was a kid, I lost my vision in my left eye. People used to say that to make up for it, I was overly exuberant. I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve always had that energy, that enthusiasm. I love people. I love to see people do well. I hate to see people hurt. I hate to see people down and out. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up as a kid, but I felt like a billionaire because my life was good. If you’ve got health, you’re a billionaire, man, you’re a billionaire!
I was happy when I didn’t have any money. My values and my love for people have never changed. My wife always says, “He gets a bigger thrill from giving than the people who are receiving.” I like surprising kids. I like stopping on the playgrounds. If I see kids playing basketball, I pull the car over and the kids will say, “Dickie V’s here!” I love to surprise them and have a little fun. I like going to restaurants to meet people. I love people. I just love people. I always try to look for the good in people.
PIM: Who positively impacted you in your life?
DV: My greatest impact came from my mom and dad. My parents didn’t have a lot of education, but they had a Doctorate of Love. Their inspiration was their terrific love and their unbelievable work ethic. I can’t remember my dad or mom missing a day of work because of the flu or for any reason. Their work was physical. My dad would press coats in a factory, the heat pressing down on him, and then come back home and put on a security guard uniform and go to the mall to work as a security guard from 6 to 12. My mother—even when she had a stroke and was dragging her leg, would go down to the cellar and sew the coats my father would bring home. They were an inspiration–watching how everything revolved around their kids, watching the love they had for each other and our family. They set such an incredible example with their lifestyle.
PIM: I remember hearing you say that your mom gave you inspiring words to live by.
DV: My new book is Getting a W in the Game of Life—a “Win” in the game of life, for kids of all ages. There are so many inspirational stories—about kids with cancer and from people I’ve met over the years. I share two things that I learned at home. One is “Never, ever, ever believe in can’t.” I don’t allow can’t to be a part of my life. And secondly, my mom always said “Ritchie (she never called me Dick), be good to people, and people will be good to you!” And how true that is! I have learned that in my life extending a hand to people is always positive.
PIM: I love what you said when you were honored at the Little League Hall of Excellence. You were being inducted into your eleventh Hall of Fame! You said “I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t shoot, I have a body by linguine…if it can happen to me, it can happen to you, baby!”
DV: I had a fantastic time there! The kids were really sweet and all of my kids, grandkids, sons-in-law and of course, my wife were there. My number one priority in life is family. Anyone that knows me knows that everything centers around my family. Everything else comes after that. I believe so much in the family concept. If you have no one to share your success with, what good is success?
PIM: How did you get connected with Jimmy Valvano, the North Carolina University Basketball Coach and man who inspired The V Foundation?
DV: I didn’t know Jimmy that well early on in our lives–he was coaching and I was working in television. We became really close when he came over to ESPN and joined us after coaching. Then he came down with cancer and our relationship got a lot tighter and closer. We spent a lot of time on the phone with each other.
I’m very proud to be a member of the Board of Directors of The V Foundation. I’m very excited that the Board of Directors—they’ve all done an incredible job—raised over $120 million.
PIM: Wow! Your focus for the Dick Vitale Gala is for pediatric cancer research?
DV: Yes, it is. The V Foundation takes care of cancers of all kind. The family is still involved–Jimmy’s brother Nick has served as the CEO for years, his best friend Bob Lloyd is the Chairman of the Board. My gala, the Dick Vitale Gala is really a subsidiary of The V Foundation. All of our dollars go through The V Foundation, but ours goes to pediatric cancer. I selected pediatrics to be our number one goal because right here in this area where we live, youngsters I’ve gotten to know have lost their lives to cancer.
There’s a kid by the name of Adrian Littlejohn. I spoke at his funeral and it was the toughest speech I’ve ever had to give in my life. I’ve spoken all over—black tie, corporate events, and motivational seminars. But to watch a mom and dad lay their child to rest just tore my gut apart.
Until my last breath, I vow: I will beg, I will plead, and I will try to raise dollars for this cause. Right now, during this interview: please make a donation. Go to dickvitaleonline.com and any donation will be added to the dollars I raise at The Gala. Last year the total was $2.1 million. The monies go to All Children’s Hospital, to Moffitt Cancer Center and to UF Shands Cancer Center in Gainesville. You never know. Cancer strikes all—whether you’re rich or poor black white, it will bring you to your knees. I firmly believe that we all must unite in that vow.
PIM: You inspire me and I love the vow that you made! Tell me about your role in The V Foundation.
DV: I’m involved with The V Foundation because it touches so many people, and because its named after my buddy. And with The Dick Vitale Gala, we just got the highest rating you can get from Charity Navigator. Every dollar—not $.60, not $.80—every dollar we raise for research goes to research. We have a $17 million endowment and every dollar goes to research. I’m proud of that.
Cancer is such a vicious disease. Some of my family members have had cancer. Almost every family out there has been touched by it. But watching young kids—I can’t begin to tell you how painful that is. They had a Dickie V Day at All Children’s Hospital, and my wife Lorraine and I were in tears when we got into our car after seeing all these beautiful kids. They had me read my children’s book, Dickie V’s ABC’s and 1-2-3’s. I read the book and brought one for every kid in the hospital. It’s a very simple book for kids ages 2 to 6—“J” is for “Jump,” for example. Watching those kids run around, I told the nurses that to me they don’t look sick, but they’re all battling some form of cancer. Their parents sit at their bedside from 7 in the morning till 11 o’clock at night—just praying and hoping for a miracle. It would just tear me to shreds. My little grandson had nose surgery today and I was a nervous wreck. It just breaks your heart.
PIM: I was listening to Holly Wright speak at your Gala. She’s the mom of Payton Wright—a beautiful child who lost her life to cancer. There could be nothing harder in the world than that.
DV: They don’t know this, but I dedicate one of the chapters in my new book to Payton. She inspired me so much in her courageous battle. My office away from home is the Broken Egg restaurant in Lakewood Ranch, and I sell a lot of my merchandise there. I used to watch her come in twice a week. Then she came in a wheelchair, then she came in blind, and then she lost her life. It was heartbreaking. I feel so much for Holly and Patrick and what they have to go through.
PIM: I can’t even begin to imagine. The Gala has raised millions of dollars since its inception in 1993—with the mission to find a cure for pediatric cancer. What are you most excited about for the 2013 Gala?
DV: Each Gala gets better and better and better. I’d love to top the dollar figure! I’m the type of guy that always chases that big number. I work my butt off. I just spoke in Lexington, Kentucky at a Fantasy Basketball Camp for $25,000. They said if I came to it, they would give me a big check. The night before that I spoke for Vinny Lecavalier, the hockey player, who had a big event. That was another $15,000. All those dollars go toward my goal, which is a minimum of $1 million. People always ask me “How is that achieved?” Well it’s achieved by three factors. Number one: $1000 a ticket–we’ve sold out every year for seven years in a row, and we will sell out again this year. You don’t have to go to Harvard to figure out that you can’t get $1 million just based on the Gala tickets. If you have 800 people at $1000 per person, and you have to pay for all the food and everything, you need donations. Donations are the second part. I work for donations all year. I go to The Broken Egg and pass out flyers, and people fill them out. This guy gave me a check for hundred dollars today another for $50–that all adds up. The third phase is all of my merchandise that I sell at The Broken Egg–books, T-shirts, hats, balls–I autograph them. Any profit that I would make as a Dick Vitale profit, goes toward that million.
PIM: You’ve had such amazing people at past Gala’s–Magic Johnson and Kenny Chesney to name just two of well over a hundred stars. Who do you have planned for 2013?
DV: This year we’re honoring Bobby Bowden, Jim Calhoun and Bill Self! More big news now is we just signed Dennis Edwards from The Temptations, to play at our event. And we’re doing something new for the celebrities and donors that make a donation of $25,000 or more: they’re invited to a private party at my house on Saturday. We just confirmed yesterday that the Gatlin Brothers will be playing at our house. It’s not just a $25,000 donation. What they get is the following: ten tickets to the Gala, a full-page ad in the program, a meet-and-greet with the celebrities before the event on Friday, and they get invited with a guest to my house for a private party on Saturday. Plus, they get a great write-off –it’s a hell of a deal. It’ll be a blast!
PIM: You’ve done all these amazing things, you’ve been honored, recognized, and you’ve won all these awards, and you’re a proud husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather. I would imagine some folks would ask “isn’t it time to relax and retire now?” But you don’t? Why?
DV: Tomorrow I’ll be speaking at the Boys and Girls Club to five hundred kids. My wife and I give out five scholarships a year to the Boys and Girls Club, and have done so for the past sixteen years. Then, I have some press event for my book. And on Friday I’m off to South Bend, Indiana and I’ll be the guest speaker at the pep rally before Notre Dame plays Michigan. I’m going with my daughter Terri who went to Notre Dame. I try to keep busy and active. It keeps the mind challenged. As long as I feel good, and as long as I have the energy, and the health and the good Lord allows me to do it, I just gotta keep truckin’.
PIM: I’m sure your parents are smiling down on you. They would be very proud.
DV: I hope so. When I got into the National Basketball Hall of Fame, I spoke right from my heart with my whole family there. I told the crowd that you just don’t get to the Hall of Fame by yourself. You need a team. I’ve been blessed for forty-three years with my wife who is the most unbelievably gorgeous woman, I have two super daughters and two wonderful successful sons-in-law, and five grandkids. I’ve lived a blessed life and a life that’s good. Why shouldn’t I give back?
For more information, go to dickvitaleonline.com