It is 4:25 in the morning, and Dick Vitale is about to do something so incredible, so unthinkable, so unbelievable, baby, that you will scarcely believe your ears. He is going to shut up.
Vitale, 54, posts up St. Jude on the bedside table, boxes out the standing lamp and begins to pray. Five minutes every morning and five minutes every night—Marriott or Holiday Inn, Chapel Hill or West Lafayette—100,000-watt Radio Vitale actually goes dark. Of course, in five minutes the phone will ring and The J.P. McCarthy Show in Detroit will be ready for Vitale's twice-weekly visit, and the red light on Vitale's life will flip on again and you will offer to pay for silence like this.
It is important that Vitale get up at such a skinny hour to do Detroit radio, lest somebody in America not hear him today, with or without electricity. First thing you have to know about Dicky Vee is that he never turns down an audience or a paycheck, on account of his belief that the Big Ride could end tomorrow. For the same reason, this year he will do 50 college basketball games for ESPN and 15 for ABC, 30 or so speaking gigs, half a dozen appearances for Adidas, at least 30 interviews a week, promos for his three books and his computer game, a once-a-week Indianapolis radio show and daily one-minute national radio spots. He also has his own college hoops magazine, not to mention the columns he writes for Basketball Times and Eastern Basketball, which he has done for 15 years and for which he gets a whopping $50 a column.
But right now there is nobody hanging around but God, so Dicky Vee gives Him an earful.
Second thing you have to know about Vitale is, he worries more than any three Brighton Beach mothers, and this morning is rich with fret. He will pray for the earthquake victims here in L.A. and the freezing victims back East; for his tennis-playing daughters at Notre Dame, so they won't get stuck outside in the snow; for Jimmy Valvano, so he'll save Dick a place Up There; for his mother, who never should have had to go through what she went through; for his wife, so the lump won't come back; for the kid in Tampa, so he'll live long enough to use the tickets; for the kid in Indianapolis, so he won't have to have that 61st operation; and for himself, so he won't be fired again. Especially that last one.
Al McGuire always said that Vitale "never had the good inside. If he did, he'd still be coaching." McGuire was probably right. The outside, of course, has always been cake for Vitale—the famously bald head, the orange turtlenecks under bright blue suits, the lime-green convertibles, the voice that could make runs in a pair of nylons 100 feet away, the distinctive call of a big basket: "Ohhhh! Oohhhhhh! Unbelieeeeevable, baby!" Dicky Vee's outside has always been as subtle as a Macy's parade.
This was the East Rutherford (N.J.) High School coach who celebrated his first state championship by riding through the streets on the back of a fire truck, yelling louder than the siren. This was the University of Detroit coach who would be introduced last at games, running out under a single spotlight and swan-diving into his players' arms. This was the Detroit Piston coach who would disco-dance on the floor after a rare win.
These days Vitale's outside is bigger than ever. He is the hottest thing in college basketball since body paint. On campuses they put up signs at games he's not attending: WHERE'S DICKY V.? If Vitale's in the house, the occasion is large. This year a newspaper columnist pooh-poohed a big Oregon-Oregon State game by writing, "If this game is so big, how come Dick Vitale's not here?" That means Vitale not only covers the biggest games but also defines them. He's kind of a human Goodyear blimp. "I guess you could say that," says Oklahoma basketball coach Billy Tubbs. " 'Course, Vitale's got more hot air."
But all that honking and waving and trash-can-beating on the outside has always been a way to keep anybody from getting a good look at that inside. Dicky Vee worries. He fears. He bleeds. At East Rutherford he lost five pints of blood through his stomach in one night of worrying about a loss. He didn't have one bleeding ulcer. He had three. Man coached the New Jersey state high school basketball championship game in 1970 with a half-gallon of milk next to his chair. Typical Dicky Vee. Never let 'cm see you bleed on the outside.