Unlike His Hairline, Dick Vitale's Persona Has Never Sounded Retreat
updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST
Maybe ESPN, the all-sports cable network, made Vitale famous. Maybe it was the other way around. Either way, his recognizability took a great leap forward this season when he began doing games for ABC on weekends. Now he can hardly take a step, in or out of a basketball arena, without being asked to sign autographs or pose for a picture. If perchance he isn't recognized, he'll go over and introduce himself to a clerk, a porter, a fellow airplane passenger—"Hi, Dick Vitale, nice to meet you!"—whomsoever is breathing.
"Hey, I love people!" says Vitale, 46, a walking testimonial to the exclamation point. "And I like the attention. The power of television still amazes me."
Vitale's contract with ESPN extends through 1990. In addition to the ABC spots, he does two weekly radio shows, tapes halftime segments for telecasts of the NBA's Indiana Pacers and receives from $3,000 to $5,000 per speaking appearance under a contract with Nike, the sneaker manufacturer. He also writes for an annual basketball magazine bearing his name, prepares columns for two other publications and is representing a nut distributor in a contest to pick "America's greatest sports nut." Occasionally it all gives him pause. "Maybe I am trying to do too much," he says. "It's scary sometimes, the way it's snowballing."
What has made Vitale so marketable is his burbling, irrepressible style. Whatever happens on a basketball court, Vitale has a name for it: A Mr. Pac Man will eat you up on defense; a PTP is a "prime-time player;" a "Dow Joneser" is a performer who is up one night and down the next. All this is delivered in a piquant New Jersey accent (Vitale is from Elmwood Park) in a tone that suggests roosters at dawn. TV sports critic Norman Chad wrote recently that Vitale's voice "could peel the skin off a potato, and when he's on one of his shrill rolls, he only brakes for small animals and commercials." Vitale's archrival and friend, Al McGuire, who does basketball commentary for NBC, recently sent a note to Dick's wife, Lorraine, promising to get her a book of recipes appropriate for her husband—all featuring ham.
Certainly, Vitale rarely passes up an opportunity to remind viewers that he's there, even if it's only to leave them bemused, as they must have been when he observed during a recent Big 10 game that "Wisconsin can be tough at home. They played very well in the Hawaii Classic."
Vitale's saving grace is that he never confuses himself with Edward R. Murrow. "We're not talking about brain surgery or war and peace here," he says. "Watching basketball is supposed to be fun, and it's my job to make it more fun." Moreover he knows what he's doing. Former Boston Celtic coach Red Auerbach once said of Vi-tale, "I don't know of anyone who's better at analyzing the game." Adds veteran play-by-play announcer Jim Simpson, Vitale's occasional ESPN partner: "Dick shoots from the hip a lot, but he's so well-informed that nobody can say the gun isn't loaded."
It was Simpson who broke in Vitale as a color man in 1979. Vitale had never played college basketball, having gradually lost the sight in his left eye after poking himself with a pencil at the age of 6. Following graduation from Seton Hall University, he worked briefly for an accounting firm and then turned to coaching, first at two New Jersey high schools, then as an assistant at Rutgers and head coach at the University of Detroit. All his teams flourished until he signed a $100,000-a-year contract to coach the NBA's Detroit Pistons in 1978-79. Pistons center Bob Lanier was injured most of the season, and the team wound up with a 30-52 record. Early the next season, Vitale was fired.
"When I met Dick," recalls Simpson, "he kept saying, 'I'm just a bald, one-eyed, fired coach.' I told him, 'A lot of people in this country are bald, and you're not going to win too many friends moaning about it. I'm sorry you lost your eye, but it's irrelevant. And all coaches get fired sooner or later. Nobody will have any sympathy for you.' "
Vitale admits he was devastated by the firing. "I was totally bummed out. Always before in my life, I had been on the way up. Now I had gotten the ax. I had gotten the Ziggy. I didn't know what to do."
If he had been considering a wounded animal act before meeting Simpson, Vitale went from depressive to manic when he joined ESPN. Broadcasting provided a perfect outlet for his natural workaholic intensity. At Rutgers, after all, he had once made more than 25 recruiting visits to a New York City high school prospect. And once, after a game in which his downtrodden Pistons lost to Milwaukee by 59 points, he was still screaming at his players on their way to the airport at 6 a.m. the next morning.
Working 65 events this season for ESPN, under a six-figure contract that pays him considerably more than the $350 a game he received in 1979, he usually arrives on campus a day before game time. He scours local papers, interviews coaches, watches workouts, talks to players—all the while scribbling notes in lingua Vitale.
For all his preparation, he is sometimes accused of showing his biases. UCLA coach Walt Hazzard has complained that eastern teams get too much exposure, and he is holding you-know-who responsible. "Our No. 1 goal," he once said, "has to be to shut up Dick Vitale." But Vitale isn't simply a cheerleader. He recently knocked Ohio State coach Gary Williams—who acknowledges that Vitale helped him land his job—after Williams went into a tantrum over officiating following a game against Illinois.
Nor is Vitale reluctant to take on the college basketball establishment. He criticizes as hypocrites big-time university presidents who pay lip service to the student-athlete ideal while rewarding coaches only for wins, not for seniors who graduate. He has vocally objected as well to the NCAA's new three-point shot, which he feels is too easy to make. "It's a joke, a farce, a mockery!" he says. "I plead, I beg on my eyes for them to move that Mickey Mouse line to 21 feet!"
Vitale originally got into broadcasting thinking it would tide him over until his next coaching job, and he occasionally thinks and acts like a coach. Before the Ohio State-Illinois game, he took aside Buckeye star Dennis Hop-son, urging him not to leave school without his degree: "Get that piece of paper, Dennis, walk down that aisle. Lots of guys see the pro money and nothing else. Be smart."
Otherwise, Vitale shows no inclination to go back to the bench. He and Lorraine have just built a $300,000 house near Bradenton, Fla., and he has most of the eight-month off-season to himself. The notion of becoming the basketball equivalent of football guru John Madden—whose income is a source of pleasant speculation to Vitale—appeals to him, although he is careful to take nothing for granted. "I love what I'm doing, and you know how it is in this racket," he says. "In a couple of years maybe I'll have to pay people to let me talk. Now I can make $3,500 an appearance." Like Mr. Pac Man, he plans to gobble it up while he can.