Posted: Friday May 27, 2011 2:42PM ; Updated: Friday May 27, 2011 3:50PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Vitale using influence, passion to lead charge against cancer

Story Highlights

Say what you want about Dick Vitale's on-air personality; off the air he's a hero

Vitale has become the public face of the V Foundation's fight against cancer

Vitale has used his influence to raise large sums of money, but he isn't done yet

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Dick Vitale has helped the V Foundation raise more than $100 million for cancer research.
Dick Vitale has helped the V Foundation raise more than $100 million for cancer research.
AP

SARASOTA, Fla. -- On stage, Dick Vitale is most of the things you'd expect Dick Vitale to be. Excited? He's yelling so loud his voice cracks. Demonstrative? His hands fire out in opposite directions every time he jams more emphasis on a syllable.

But Vitale isn't smiling. He isn't talking about Diaper Dandies or Primetime players. He's choking back tears.

Behind him stand three couples. Three sets of parents who buried their children in the past six months because of a disease Vitale swore to his friend he would help fight.

"I want to be humorous here tonight," Vitale yells into a microphone. "I can't be humorous. Why can't I be humorous? Take a look at what's right here. These are three beautiful families. Three beautiful moms and dads who had to go through the ultimate pain."

That last word -- pain -- catches in Vitale's throat the same way "dandy" or "player" does when he's dropping his catchphrases on ESPN. So he blasts it out. Everyone in the ballroom at the swanky hotel on May 20 feels it. By the end of the night, Vitale will have raised another $1.5 million for the V Foundation for Cancer Research, the organization that honors former N.C. State coach and ESPN analyst Jim Valvano by working to strike down the disease that claimed Valvano at age 43 in 1993. As much as Vitale cares about basketball, he cares more about this.

And that's saying something.

When he introduced Valvano at the 1993 ESPY awards show for the speech that announced the creation of the V Foundation and moved millions to tears, Vitale called Valvano "emotional and passionate." An understatement, sure, but it takes one to know one. A lot of people in the media business have an on-air persona and an off-air persona. Not Vitale. He gets just as excited whether he's calling a game at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium or eating breakfast at The Broken Egg in Siesta Key, Fla. And he has thrown every ounce of that emotion and passion into supporting the fight Valvano started.

So say what you want about whether Vitale supports certain teams over others. He knows people call him Dookie V. Criticize his on-air bombast if you'd like, but when you're done, call Vitale what he is: a hero. Only a few people use every bit of their influence for a noble cause. Vitale is one. He has thrown himself headlong into the war on cancer. When he hears about families with children fighting cancer, he calls the parents and cries with them. He goes to hospitals and reads to youngsters whose heads are as bare as his because of chemotherapy. Earlier this month, Vitale spoke at the funeral of Adrian Littlejohn, a 14-month-old struck down by cancer. Last week, Adrian's parents, Anthony and Ivette, stood behind Vitale as he pleaded for support for the foundation.

Just as important, Vitale uses his access to the rich and powerful to bring in more money for cancer research. For the past six years, Vitale has staged a gala to raise funds for a foundation that has raised more than $100 million for cancer research. (This is not your average celebrity charity, either; the foundation has consistently received high marks from Charity Navigator.) V Foundation CEO Nick Valvano considers Vitale the ultimate public face to carry on his brother's legacy.

"What Dick has done in the last six years to raise the awareness of the need for research for pediatric cancer is probably as important as the money," Nick Valvano said. "The people call him because they know he cares. They also know he doesn't know the word 'no.'"

It helps that no one in college basketball and few in sports can say no to Vitale. "When Dick Vitale talks, it's the same as the Pope talking," said longtime Vitale friend and legendary tennis coach Nick Bollitieri, an honoree at last Friday's gala. "When the Pope talks, everybody listens." Because Vitale has the largest audience of anyone who covers college hoops, he has more influence than almost anyone in the game. Just how much power does he wield?

• Last week, VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart missed his fifth anniversary to attend the V Foundation gala.

• West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins, for whom every day is casual Friday, donned a suit for the gala.

• Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun called Vitale "relentless." According to Calhoun, Vitale began hammering him to attend the event while confetti still lay on the floor after the Huskies' national title win in April. "He might have been in the locker room," Calhoun said. "I don't know. He was that much on me."

But Calhoun, who has yet to decide whether he'll coach next season, doesn't have to worry about currying favor with Vitale. Calhoun came because he knows Vitale is doing something important. He may have three national titles, but Calhoun also has a 3-0 record against cancer. "He's the best point guard you could possibly have to run that," Calhoun said of Vitale.

Last week, Vitale dished out plenty of assists. He also introduced the crowd to more heroes. The highlight of the night was a speech from Kurt Weiss, who defied the odds to beat osteosarcoma as a teen. Now, Weiss is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh doing research that may someday eliminate the bone cancer that could have killed him. Later in the night, someone asked if anyone was willing to donate $50,000. Three hands shot up. In seconds, another $150,000 was raised for cancer research. But Vitale wasn't done.

"If you are able, and you have a healthy child, and you have someone you love -- a grandchild -- and you can give, I WANT THOSE RESEARCH DOLLARS IN THE HANDS OF PEOPLE LIKE DR. WEISS!" he screamed. "So when the day comes -- GOD FORBID! GOD FORBID! -- there is that cure."

That sounds a little like something Jimmy V said in 1993. "It may not save my life," he said. "It may save my children's' lives." It may have. Jim Valvano's daughter, Jamie, is a breast cancer survivor.

Before we go on, a quick confession. I used to love watching the Jimmy V speech. Then, in 2006, cancer took my mom. Like everyone else who sees the disease up close for the first time, I learned it is a brutal, merciless, indiscriminate killer. And I thought it couldn't be beaten. So for the past few years, I've changed the channel when ESPN has replayed the speech. I couldn't watch a man who was about to die radiate so much hope for the defeat of an unbeatable foe.

But I was wrong. Cancer can be beaten, or at least beaten back. I realized that last Friday at Vitale's gala. There are people out there who will not rest until there is a cure. We're lucky Vitale is one of them.

"I'm 71," Vitale said. "I act about 12. But I am obsessed. Until the day I go to my grave, I will fight and fight. ... I'm in the fourth quarter of my life. It's going to be the best quarter I've ever had. And I'm not quitting, man, until I keep raising dollars and dollars and dollars. It's not going to happen in my lifetime -- a cure for this disease. Not in my lifetime, but it'll happen. It'll happen. Because the V Foundation will not quit. As Jimmy V said, don't give up. Don't ever, ever give up."

 
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