Coming from North Carolina, being a college basketball fan is in my blood, I grew up in a place where the ACC Tournament meant elementary school teachers would bring out the TVs so we could watch for a while because nobody was paying attention to class anyway with one earbud hidden up our jacket sleeves for the second half of winter.
And the voice and face I've connected to college basketball all my life is ESPN's legendary broadcaster Dick Vitale, who has been the play-by-play firehose of praise for "diaper dandies"and "primetime players" since I could dribble a ball. And in the age of social media, the 77-year-old Dickie V is even happier...and louder...than ever.
At Le Colonne, an Italian restaurant in Sarasota, Florida, there’s a young woman who sits near the outdoor hostess stand and sings karaoke. One Sunday night last month, she was drowned out by a bald man at a nearby table, who was performing his own hits from the ’80s, the ’90s, and today.
“Hi, everybody! Dick Vitale here. What a night in college hoops!”
For nearly four decades, Vitale has looked into the red light of an ESPN TV camera and spoken those words. Tonight, he was looking into his smart phone, recording a video for Instagram. Howie Schwab, the former ESPN producer and star of Stump the Schwab, held Vitale’s phone aloft. Lorraine, Vitale’s wife of 46 years, looked on with the indulgent expression of someone who has seen many dinners — and even life itself — come to a halt so her husband can talk.
To date, the marriage of 70-something sports announcers and social media has mostly been a loveless one. Brent Musburger told me his sons discourage him from logging on at night after he’s had a few drinks. But for Vitale, who is 77, social media provides two things he desperately craves.
One is a microphone that no producer can switch off. Vitale used to do color commentary only on college basketball. Now, he does color on his own life.
“Hey, baby,” Vitale said in a March Periscope video he recorded in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel. “Just arrived. Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas …” This is one of the more accomplished entries in the Vitale cinematheque. Another recent video had Vitale walking down his driveway in Sarasota while a camera swung around wildly as if it were attached to a linebacker’s helmet. “We laugh our asses off behind the scenes about how he uses the phone,” said Dave O’Brien, a frequent ESPN play-by-play partner.
The second thing Instagram and Periscope offer Vitale is more important. It’s a method for Vitale to absorb the adoration of the masses — to be held aloft digitally as he is by the Cameron Crazies. As Vitale told me, “I like the fact that I can exchange feelings with people.”
Vitale and his companions were dining in Sarasota on the first Sunday of the NCAA tournament. There were games on — including a thriller between North Carolina and Arkansas — but Vitale wasn’t watching. He seemed just as happy to meet fans. Some sports broadcasters skip restaurants to avoid the endless line of selfie seekers. Vitale eats every meal out, seven days a week, so he’ll never miss them.
On this night, Vitale brought autographed copies of his books to the restaurant, which he handed to startled admirers. “People come over and say hello,” he said. “I give ’em a book.”
One recipient was a middle-aged woman who stopped at our table after the appetizers had been cleared. She said her son had heard Vitale at one his many paid speaking gigs.
“Did he like me?” Vitale asked.
“He took a picture with you,” the woman said.
Lorraine Vitale had an idea. Vitale and the woman could take a picture, and the woman could text it to her son, thus completing a selfie circle of life in which everyone in the family had their picture taken with Dick Vitale.
Now, Vitale pointed to another woman three tables over who’d been eyeing him. “C’mere!” he said. The women told Vitale that she knew Steve Prohm, the basketball coach of Iowa State. She and Vitale took a picture, which she promised to send to Prohm, thus extending the Dickie V brand deeper into the heartland. “People are so nice,” Vitale said.
“One of the beauties of traveling and doing games with Dickie V,” said Musburger, “was the fact you never — as in ever — had to call ahead for a reservation at a restaurant. Dickie V would always lead the way. He would burst through the door, and everybody would look up and there would be smiles all around. Anybody and everybody would get us a table. Dickie V would obligingly sign all the autographs. Then it was 50–50 whether the restaurant would pick up the check or bring it to me.”
I really enjoyed this profile of the man. He's been a part of my life since the amazing runs of the ACC teams of the early 80's, Michael Jordan and Dean Smith in 1982 and Jimmy Valvano and the Cardiac Pack the following year, and the eternal war between Duke and Carolina. I got a kick out of this one, and yeah, I expect Dickie V will be back this winter for another season.