PONTIAC — Media members formed a semi circle in a back room of the Pontiac Elks Club on Thursday, attempting to anticipate their target’s next move.
Yet Dick Vitale, the 78-year-old basketball broadcaster with boundless enthusiasm and Texas two-step moves of overflowing energy, could not be contained.
Those toting television cameras were tested trying to keep Vitale in the frame and those holding tape recorders could only hope Vitale stayed within range to have his thoughts captured.
“I’m 78 and I act about 12,” Vitale volunteered in a media session before his appearance raised money for both the Basketball Museum of Illinois in Pontiac and the V Foundation. “I’ll match my energy tonight with anybody in this room. That’s the way I’ve always tried to take life.”
No one who has heard Vitale broadcast a game could argue that.
But Vitale admitted he might never have slipped on a headset if former ESPN producer Scotty Connal had not tried a second time to convince him to join the broadcast for ESPN’s initial college basketball game in 1979.
And it didn't hurt that Vitale’s wife, Lorraine, strongly encouraged him to pursue the opportunity after being fired by the Detroit Pistons.
“I told them I wasn’t interested. I wanted to go back to coaching in college,” Vitale said. “Lucky for me, two weeks later he calls me again. My wife (Lorraine) literally threw me out of the house. I was watching Luke and Laura on General Hospital I was so down and out.”
Vitale called his first broadcasting experience “unbelievable. What a moment.”
Thirty-nine years later, Vitale has in effect been given a lifetime contract with ESPN.
“(ESPN president) John Skipper met with me the day before the national championship football game (in January) and told me ‘you have a job for life. Tell us when you don’t want to work anymore,’ " Vitale said. "It brought me to tears.
“I would like to keep going and going. But the man upstairs will have some say about that. To walk into an arena and hear kids chanting ‘Dicky V, Dicky V’ it gives me goosebumps.
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Vitale’s infectious love of basketball resonates with fans of all ages.
“I looked at my high school yearbook the other day. Under my picture it said ‘Everybody’s buddy.’ I’ve always tried to be that way,” he said. “My parents taught me as a kid if you’re nice to people, people are going to be nice to you. I learned to treat people in a positive way, with respect.”
Vitale has long been active with the V Foundation, which was created in honor of former coach and ESPN broadcaster Jim Valvano. Vitale holds a gala every year to raise money specifically for pediatric cancer. To date, the event has raised $21.3 million for the cause.
“There is just not enough raised to help kids. Only four cents out of every dollar raised for cancer goes to pediatrics,” said Vitale. “I’m blessed. I have five healthy grandkids. At this time in my life, there is nothing more important to me than helping kids battle cancer.”
Vitale considers raising money for the budding Pontiac museum and cancer research in the same evening a win-win.
“Having the museum here is going to bring an identity for the city in terms of basketball,” he said. “They have a (holiday) tournament that is highly acclaimed, but having that museum here is going to be really special.”
When asked to recount the brightest stars in Illinois basketball history, Vitale first pointed to former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan and then called the 1989 University of Illinois “Flying Illini” squad “one of the five best teams I have witnessed in my 38 years at ESPN that did not win a national championship.”
Vitale is wary of recent talk to change the NCAA rule regarding transfers in college basketball so players would not have to sit out a year after transferring.
“I think it would cause such chaos,” he said. “The big argument is coaches move on. But you don’t have hundreds like you would players. I don’t know if it will pass. A lot of things still have to happen.”
Vitale would favor an exception being made if a coach gives his approval for a player unlikely to see extensive playing time with his current team to transfer.
Vitale had his wife, two daughters and four of five grandchildren with him in Pontiac. He did not want any of them to remain in Florida with the danger of Hurricane Irma approaching.
"My heart goes out to all those people," he said. "It is really scary."