Vitale's childlike wonder at the game of basketball, his addict's absolute obsession for it, his treatment of the sport as a primal source of being—"my soul has always been in basketball, I will die in the game," he says—has done far more than ultimately rescue him from that dreaded hell of washed-up, no-name coaches, Neverwasville. Moreover, he is long past being just another sports announcer or even another mere basketball maven, those being a dunk a dozen. What little Richie Vitale has become, as bizarre as this may seem, is the first and, as yet, only sports-celeb to emerge out of that life-force of the modern age, cable TV.
He recently re-upped his ESPN contract for a term that will take him into the 1990s. That, taken with his part-time duty on Indiana Pacer telecasts, his radio call-in show, newspaper columns, prediction specials, scoops, phrases, "All-" teams, clinics, banquet speeches and preseason magazine...and now with his freshly signed contract to do ABC's Sunday college games (finally delivering him from the exclusive clutches of cable)...'means that Vitale has an excellent chance to become, if he isn't already, the single most prominent and influential spirit and voice in his game.
Mr. TV Basketball? Why not? Does Al McGuire do the pros? Does Billy Packer write a column for The Daily Market Digest, a Midwest financial sheet? Do either of them do weeknights on national TV? So many weeknights? What seems like every night? Does Dick Enberg or Dick Stockton or Tom Heinsohn or Bill Russell or even Gary (Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb) Bender have a contract calling for 65 basketball events? Can any of them claim to be a one-man placement bureau? Vitale's relentless promotion of former Boston College coach Gary Williams was bound to help Williams get a more visible job somewhere. (Not that Williams couldn't have become a Prime Time Performah at Ohio State on his own.) What other basketball announcer has a contract with a basketball shoe company?
Vitale finished second to McGuire in a recent poll conducted by Sport magazine asking respondents to "pick one sports-caster as your only link to basketball." But, in response to the question, "If you could slap one sportscaster with two technical fouls and eject him from the broadcast table, who would he be?" Vitale was the overwhelming winner.
While McGuire and Packer together on NBC from 1977 to '81 were probably basketball's alltime, all-broadcasting, legendary, cream of the crop Rolls-Roycer team—see, even a few minutes of thinking about Vitale will do this to you—apart they have lost a lot. NBC's McGuire, never all that knowledgeable in the first place, seems to have gone corporate with a street-slang act grown stale while CBS's Packer is a high-gloss X's and O's technocrat somewhat overbearing in his self-righteousness. Which leaves only the pro hoop announcers to go O-O-O, one-on-one, with Vitale. Which is a real M-and-M-er.
"Dick is the people's announcer," says Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike promotions man who signed up Vitale as a speaker and clinician for the shoe company. "The bartender, the bellman, the hoop junkies out on the street—his constituency is everywhere. Even the ones that hate Dick love him."
Not that Vitale goes unnoticed uptown. It was only a few years ago at a Detroit supper club that Piston star Bob Lanier urged the headliner, Lola Falana, to introduce Vitale, who was in the audience. Peering out at the bespectacled, gnome-like character with the James Watt hairline and orbs, Falana said, "Are you supposed to be somebody?" But since then Vitale has shared dinners with Peter Falk in New York City and with writer Willie Morris in Mississippi. Once, at the Spectrum, Bill Cosby said hello. "Can you believe the Coz knew me?" Vitale asked his wife in disbelief. "Big deal," said Lorraine. "The President probably knows you."
An inveterate, shameless, "stargazer," as he puts it, Vitale led a family excursion to California last summer during which he spent much of the time studying the celebrity-homes maps and then directing his daughters, Terri and Sherri, teenage tennis stars in their own right, to knock on the celebs' front doors. Spanning the century, they tried everyone from George Burns and Lucille Ball to Michael Jackson, but nobody was home. Ultimately they had to make do with an autograph from Burt Young, who was walking his dog.
As for basketball...Vitale was in the Madison Square Garden college crowd the night in 1958 that Oscar Robertson scored 56 points for Cincinnati, outpointing the entire Seton Hall team, the team little Richie couldn't even make. Then last March at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Vitale saw Robertson again. As they talked at courtside a group of kids gathered around asking for autographs—asking Little Richie, the scrubbeenie, not the Big 0, one of little Richie's alltime heroes. "Who're you, Willis Reed?" one kid asked Robertson.
The irony of all this is that—members of the Sylvester Stallone fan club, Cincinnati chapter, aside—fully as many Americans might recognize Vitale these days as they would Oscar or Burt (Rocky's brother-in-law, Paulie) Young. But as windy as he may appear on the tube; as loud, proud and renowned as he is off it, Vitale realizes full well that he is a fluke of the television age. And in a medium in which, as TV critic Gary Deeb has written, "so many talent-free twits also are disgusting human beings," it is refreshing to discover that Vitale is neither.