What is college basketball without the voice of Dick Vitale? When you find the answer, I hope you let me know — because for as far back as I can remember, his voice has been the soundtrack of my life in this sport.
My first time meeting Dick was in 1982. I’d grown up watching him on TV, calling all these huge games from all these historic arenas. Then suddenly I was a freshman at Duke, and found myself stepping into those same arenas to play teams like North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland — and I almost couldn’t believe it: Everything I was doing in the game, good or bad, Vitale was there narrating it from the announcer’s table. It was surreal.
I’ll never forget that thrill. Or the thrill of watching highlights, later that night or the next morning, and hearing Dick’s voice over a big play our team made. I’ll even take it a step further…. and maybe some other players will agree with me on this: I can still remember specific plays from specific games I was in, and tell you the specific calls Dick made. Whether it was an AWESOME BABYYYYYYY!!! or an UNBELIEVABLE!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!!! or any of the other countless ways that Dick could make a moment feel special.
Simply put: The guy is one of one. And he’s been embedded into the backdrop of more college basketball history than anyone else I can think of.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dick changed the way broadcasting was done. Instead of the sport feeling uptight and serious, he brought with him a type of energy that actually made it feel fun. Of course, basketball is already fun — but until Vitale came along, it wasn’t always presented that way. Dick made every broadcast entertaining. He could make all of these great basketball points, for the college hoops obsessives.... but he could also make it so that even a non-basketball lover wanted to be tuned in. His style really was something that most of us hadn’t seen before. I mean, he literally created his own language for college basketball. Who does that?!
You’ve got “Diaper Dandy” (translation: impact freshman). You’ve got “PTP’er” (translation: prime-time player). You’ve got “M&M’er” (translation: mismatch). And then you’ve got all the variations of him giving some nickname to the best big fella on the floor. I remember when Shaq started to become so unstoppable as a young player, Dick gave him at least three different nicknames: Diaper Dandy, PTP’er and Giant. Seriously — imagine being 17, 18, 19 years old, and receiving a stamp of approval on national television from Dickie V. That’s as good as it gets.
It’s been an honor, truly, not just to have played in games called by Dick, but to also be his colleague and friend. And I can tell you — as someone who’s spent a whole lot of time around him — that he’s unforgettable on and off the air. Vitale is almost incapable of making a normal entrance when he walks into a room. Trust me: You’re gonna know when he’s there. It’s this aura that he has about him. His personality isn’t just loud…. it’s infectious. And it’s never not special to get to witness it.
But I’m probably telling you stuff that you already know. So here’s something that people might not know about Vitale: He has a wicked sense of humor. And probably not the kind of humor you’d expect.
I’ll give you a quick example. A few years ago, our GameDay crew is all boarding this plane — we’ve just wrapped that day’s show, and now we’re heading to the next game. It’s me, Fowler, and a few other people. So Chris and I are getting into our seats, Chris a row or two in front of me, when Dick makes his way onboard.
And as he’s walking by, he just looks at Chris, and he says: “Hey — if this plane goes down, you know what the headline is gonna be? VITALE INJURED IN PLANE CRASH. And then in very small letters it’ll say, Also on the plane, Chris Fowler.”
The look on Fowler’s face was priceless…. our entire plane couldn’t stop laughing. And that’s Dick’s way of joking around. I think it’s also kind of his way of communicating that, yeah, he’s Dickie V, he’s larger than life. But in another sense he’s just Dick. He’s one of us.
That’s one of my favorite parts about him: Dick doesn’t only make people feel special when they’re watching him on TV. Back in the day, when he’d fly commercial, if someone noticed Dick in the airport and came up to him, he wouldn’t just take a picture and say hey. Nope, he’d get their name and address, so he could send them all of this personalized Dick Vitale gear — autographed basketballs, books, bobbleheads, the works. I’ll also never be able to say enough about the incredible job Dick has done to uphold the legacy of Jim Valvano, and to facilitate cancer research through his work with the V Foundation. As usual, Dick does not know how to do anything halfway: He’s made it his personal mission for almost 30 years to help people in their fight against cancer.
Which is why it’s that much harder to accept the fact that Dick is now fighting his own battle against this awful disease.
And yet he’s never lost his spirit.
I remember his first game back after being diagnosed with lymphoma. It was last November, the Gonzaga-UCLA game in Las Vegas. I was working the Maui Tournament (also in Vegas in 2021), so I decided to stop by with some other folks and see how he was doing.
He didn’t disappoint. He was in the green room with his wife, Lorraine — and in classic Dickie V fashion, the moment he sees us he’s talking NONSTOP. Sitting in this big chair they’ve put out for him, in the center of the room, just holding court and rattling off story after story. And at first I think we’re all wondering if we should try to slow him down. I’m thinking, Hey, maybe you should save some of this for the air? Don’t you want to take a nap or something?
I’ll give you one guess if Dick took a nap. Really the only reason he stopped telling stories was because he had to start prepping for the game. And I know some people saw that game live, but for those who didn’t, let me just say: When he walked out there on that court, it was one of the loudest outpourings of applause and support I’ve ever seen. It was a great reminder of how much Dick has meant to so many.
And I wanted to write this now, because, well — it’s March. It’s college basketball’s signature month. It’s Dick Vitale Season. And honestly, it’s just not quite the same this time around. I miss hearing his voice. I can’t really wrap my head around the idea of a March without his voice. It’s a voice that has made us all feel so much joy over the years — as players, as fans, as colleagues, as friends. And it’s a voice that has inspired countless people along the way, including myself.
So, to Dick, if you’re reading this: We are all so proud of you for continuing to fight. It’s simply awesome (sorry: AWESOME, BABY!) to hear that you’re in remission. We cannot wait for you to be back. And just know that this entire sport — and pretty much anyone who’s watched TV over the last 40 years — has got your back.
And to everyone else reading this: While you’re saying a prayer for your bracket over these next few weeks, please say one for Dickie V as well. We need him to make a full recovery, as soon as possible. We need to hear an “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” again soon.
We need Dick to know that, as much as he loves college basketball…. college basketball loves him that much more.