By Sam Mellinger, Kansas City Star
September 15, 2011
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dick Vitale will wait until a quiet moment, away from the VIPs and the parents and especially the sick kids, to admit this, but he's not sure what to say. How could he be? The words aren't coming to him. How could they?
The people here at Children's Mercy Hospital invited Dickie V, the bald old man who has made a fortune connecting with people through television and college basketball, but he's looking into the eyes of kids younger than his own grandchildren who by rotten luck are fighting through struggles he can't imagine.
How could he?
He stutters, if only for a second. Pauses for a moment. The kids aren't responding to him, they aren't smiling at him — heck, they're hardly looking at him. Vitale is here to read the children's book he wrote and sign autographs for everyone in the room, but at this instant he's wondering what he possibly could offer to kids who might not see high school graduation.
This is the fourth hospital he has been to this year among a few dozen other speaking engagements. Vitale is 72 with a raspy voice that has survived the beginning stages of throat cancer and three decades of television. He hurt his knee the week before playing tennis and might need surgery, but for now he's trying to hide the limp. Nobody needs to see that, but when he says it wears him out, you understand the point.
You also should listen to Lorraine, who has been by his side for 40 years and knows her husband gets back as much energy as he spends at these things.
She thinks he needs this to keep going, to maintain a mind-blowing pace of basketball games and TV appearances and speaking engagements and charity work, and just look, the strut is coming back now because a boy who wears braces on both legs and came into this room on a wheelchair is raising his hand to be the first to read from Vitale's book.
"'A' is for 'awesome,'" he says, and Vitale applauds.
He has the room now. Everything is back to normal.
Vitale spent about eight hours in Kansas City. In between, he did interviews with about a dozen media outlets, gave a speech for the Make-A-Wish Foundation to about 500 people, signed a few hundred autographs, smiled for a few dozen pictures, told his life story at least three different ways, choked back tears at least twice and almost went into the women's bathroom once.
People want to know if the guy they see screaming catchphrases on TV is real, and it makes sense. Vitale has five grandchildren and one glass eye and became a senior citizen seven years ago, so how real could it be?
Those people don't know he taught sixth grade and still gets letters from former students who see their old teacher on TV. They don't know that the reporters who covered his NBA coaching career in Detroit say that if anything, he has mellowed out.
Nobody who knows Vitale can tell you a major difference between the guy on TV and the one in real life. He doesn't change when the red light goes on because to him, the red light is always on.
You want to know about why he's here? He'll tell you stories, dozens of them, with real names and real sicknesses that have touched him to the point of tears.
You want to know what he thinks about the upcoming college basketball season? He'll tell you that North Carolina is loaded and that Missouri will be strong and that he never counts out Kansas.
You want to know what he thinks of the Big 12 and conference realignment? He says it's greedy and sad that the same people who talk about protecting student-athletes are willing to make it so much more difficult with travel and missed class time.
Vitale is the face and voice of college basketball in a way that nobody else can touch, the symbol of something bigger than himself, and he takes this very seriously.
Lorraine jokes that her husband is the puppy who runs around yapping all day until crashing. This is a blessed life that gives him more money than he'll ever need, but the truth is he needs more than money.
If talking about college basketball is a frivolous way to earn wealth and fame, Vitale is hell-bent on using it on such substantial issues as cancer research and granting the last wishes of dying children.
He calls this the last chapter of his life.
"There is so much more I want to do," he says.
Vitale is saying he is "talked out" as he checks his Android phone and sees 217 mentions on Twitter, but being "talked out" for Vitale means he just needs a cup of coffee and a chair and then he's off talking some more.
On the way to the plane that is waiting for him at the downtown airport, Vitale loosens his tie and claims to be "worn out," but of course he keeps going. One of the kids back at Children's Mercy was hurt in the Joplin tornado, you know. Another just had his third heart surgery and sixth birthday.
Vitale sees these faces and hears these stories and wonders how in the world could he quit? He sees his own grandchildren in these children, shaken by the knowledge that the only difference is rotten luck.
If he stops doing TV, he loses this platform. If he stops hearing these stories firsthand, he loses the energy to crusade. So, no, he won't stop now and probably won't stop even after the four years on his current ESPN contract run out.
This is all he knows, so he unwraps a throat lozenge and pushes aside the cancer scare from a few years ago to finish a thought.
The plane is waiting for him, to take him to a speaking engagement in Omaha and then Las Vegas after that. There's no end in sight, just how Vitale likes it, so before his wife can pull him away to the airplane, he tells his publisher he wants to do another project on motivation for preteens.
"We gotta get started on that," he says, before walking toward the plane.
You can hardly notice the limp.
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