Cancer fight keeps Dick Vitale from Champions Classic for first time, but he plans on being back soon
NEW YORK — Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale will not be present in Madison Square Garden when ESPN’s 2021-22 college basketball season commences with the annual Champions Classic, a doubleheader he has called every year since its introduction in that same venue 10 years ago.
Don’t think that means the event will proceed without him. As Vitale battles lymphoma with a weekly chemotherapy regimen, which he receives on Monday of each week, he will not be recovered in time from his treatment to make the trip from his home in Florida to New York City for Tuesday’s games. There will be a Vitale presence, though, during the network’s broadcast of the doubleheader that commences with Sporting News No. 6 Kansas against No. 21 Michigan State, then No. 7 Duke against No. 8 Kentucky.
And he will not be away from the microphone for long, not that he’s ever really needed one to be heard. Two rounds of chemo to date have not muted his voice nor his enthusiasm for again sitting courtside and delivering his uniquely insightful and entertaining brand of college basketball analysis.
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“They have to give me chemo, for example, on Nov. 8, and the games in New York are Nov. 9, so there’s no damn way humanly possible I could go to a game the day after chemo,” Vitale told Sporting News. “Because it takes 2-3 days – usually it’s a 72-hour period, they said – for recovery.
“That’s opened the door for me to the UCLA-Gonzaga game, which I’ve been assigned to, that’s No. 1 and 2, the 23rd, absolutely is definitely possible. They’re going to get me to the Kentucky-Louisville game. They’re going to get me to Baylor and Villanova. They’re going to get me to a tournament near the house here – rather than do the Bahamas, I’m going to do the one up in Orlando, semifinals and finals.
“They said to me, ‘Dick, leave the chemo, leave the cancer to us. We want you to be active. You’ve got a great appetite, your heart is in great shape, all your organs are in great shape. Just go live your life. Because we think the best medicine for us is getting you on courtside.”
Only months after treatment for – and recovery from – melanoma that required multiple surgeries, mere weeks after he walked out of his annual physical with grades stellar enough to get him into Harvard, he began to experience a series of symptoms that were annoying, frightening and debilitating: discolored urine and stool, a yellowing of his skin tone and a ferocious itching that no treatment he attempted could mitigate.
A barrage of tests revealed no clear answer, then another indicated a blockage near his bile duct that doctors feared was cancerous. “It just floored me,” Vitale said, trying not to become emotional. He got a second opinion that concurred.
Vitale chose to undergo a robotic surgical procedure to remove the growth rather than a traditional approach the second group of physicians suggested. But one last CAT scan from the group at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa was sent to Vitale’s gastroenterologist, Dr. Stephen Kucera, who called him at 7 a.m., not long before the surgery was to take place.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, Dick. We looked at the CAT scans you took up at Moffitt, we studied them intensely, and we firmly believe – and we have to verify it – we don’t think this is bile-duct cancer, which would be an incredible Christmas present if that’s true,” Vitale told SN.
The same day, the staff at the Moffitt center conducted a regular review of challenging cases, in this instance, Vitale’s. Their consensus, as well, was he did not have bile-duct cancer and likely had lymphoma. Tissue tests confirmed that diagnosis. Vitale still had cancer, but lymphoma is a disease with a high cure rate that would not require surgery that potentially could impact his liver.
Vitale will need six months of chemotherapy, and given his age – 82 – doctors aren’t saying this is an open layup. “Handling chemo is going to be major,” Vitale said. “But they’re so optimistic and so good. I’ve got a great team. I had my first two chemos these past two Mondays. Instead of getting nauseous, fever and chills you can come down with, the first time I had a lot of fatigue and exhaustion for the first day or two. And then, the one I had Monday, I didn’t have anything. Tuesday, I felt better than I have in weeks.”
Vitale identifies his doctors by the college basketball teams they support. Dr. Rick Brown, his oncologist, “He’s a big Michigan fan.” Dr. Kenneth Meredith, a surgeon who has been involved in his case from the start, is a Kentucky fan who served an internship at UK’s College of Medicine. When UK coach John Calipari learned this, he called Meredith and told him, “If you don’t take care of my man, you’re going to be in trouble.” The doctor was thrilled.
Vitale is blessed to have both his daughters and their families living in the same neighborhood and his wife of a half-century, Lorraine – all offering support both logistical (traveling back and forth to all the diagnostic tests, chemo sessions and follow-up appointments) and emotional.
“It’s an incredible, life-changing situation for not only me, but my family,” he said. “The things they’ve got to do … I’ve got such a great family, and it gives me a great mental lift.”
He says the hospital staff has treated him “like royalty.” There have been gift baskets, fruit baskets, blankets, cards all sent from friends and fans of his work through 42 years at ESPN. He has tried to answer all of the supportive texts. He has heard from Jay Wright, Tom Izzo, Bill Self, Mike Krzyzewski. Jay Bilas, his ESPN colleague, “has been off the charts,” Vitale said. His ESPN “family” has been there for him.
A number of notable people from the sports world who dealt with cancer themselves, including ESPN colleagues Holly Rowe and Chris Mortensen, Ernie Johnson of TNT, former Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams and former NFL star Merrill Hoge, have offered advice. Rowe, who has beaten cancer twice, told Vitale to be sure he didn’t remain sedentary after chemotherapy, that activity would help deal with the impact. Cancer survivor Robin Roberts of ABC News sent a video message telling Vitale, “You got this.”
Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Cooper, who has worked with Vitale on fundraising in the past, after returning from a game in Pittsburgh the night before, drove more than an hour to surprise Vitale at a restaurant lunch. That’s another thing his doctors have loved seeing from Vitale: His appetite has not waned.
Vitale has had plenty of company from family at his two chemo sessions, which last four or five hours and require basically an 8-to-5 day from the time he arrives at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. He aches for those he sees nearby who endure lengthy treatments by themselves, asserting such a difficult process should not be faced alone.
Vitale’s battle with cancer did not begin with his melanoma treatment or this latest illness. He has worked for decades with the Jimmy V Foundation, and after a young neighbor, Payton, suffered from a painful cancer and ultimately passed away, he pledged to raise $1 million in six months to fight childhood cancers. He soon launched the Dick Vitale Gala, an annual event feting sports heroes whose proceeds go directly to pediatric cancer research. The 2021 event, though impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, raised $6.5 million, pushing the total for the event’s existence past $40 million. He now is hearing from many of the children he has encountered as a result of that work, kids who have cancer now or beat it in the past, and they are offering encouragement to him.
His goal for the 2022 gala, May 6 in Sarasota — in addition to piling those funds for childhood cancer research higher than ever — is to stand up and announce he’s cancer-free.
“There’s three things I’m hoping to achieve with my situation,” Vitale said. “I’ve always been a transparent guy; I’ve shared my life because the people have made me who I am. Without the fans, without the people – they’ve given me a career and a life that’s exceeded any dream I ever had. So I always felt an obligation to share with them what’s happening in my life – the good and now, obviously, the bad times.
“But I’m trying to inspire and motivate, which I must be doing, because you wouldn’t believe the messages I get. And let’s make it clear: There are people who have it way worse than I have, especially those kids. The second thing I want to do: I want to raise more money than ever, and I think this is going to help me raise more money than ever. And the third thing I have to say, all the messages and all the prayers and my God, the gifts, it’s been overwhelming, totally overwhelming … It’s medicine to you. I get so much love.”
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