Dick Vitale, also known as Dickie V, is a wildly popular college basketball broadcaster for ESPN. Sports fans know and love him for his unbridled enthusiasm, charismatic delivery, and iconic phrases like “Diaper Dandy” and “Awesome, baby.” Dick started his coaching career in junior high basketball and quickly moved up the ranks to coach at Rutgers University. This was followed by the University of Detroit and the NBA’s Detroit Pistons—and eventually a sportscaster at ESPN, where he has spent the last 40 years with no signs of slowing down.
I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside the broadcasting Hall of Famer on an upcoming documentary about his life—and as a huge fan, I was shocked at how much I never knew about his life. He recently joined me on my “Now to Next” podcast to share some of these never-before-heard stories, including his biggest failure as a coach, his family’s support during a childhood affliction, and how he fights against pediatric cancer through the V Foundation.
The Player He Lost
While it’s hard to associate Dickie V with a career outside of the realm of sports, his first job post-college was in accounting. His workdays were slow and tedious, but he found excitement during the summer months as a part-time baseball coach. Here, he shined. He recruited the best high school players in the area, and they won the state championship. Their victory got the attention of a school administrator who offered Dick a teaching job. He accepted and started coaching high school football, baseball, and basketball.
Dick couldn’t play football as a kid, but he understood kids and how to motivate them. His team did not lose a game for two years, which impressed his former high school principal—now the superintendent of schools in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He offered Dick a job as head basketball coach at the high school, and Dick jumped at the opportunity.
East Rutherford was a football school, which was evident by the tiny gym set aside for the basketball team and the amount of time they spent on the road. The basketball team finally earned some respect during Dickie V’s first year, when they won the state sectional championship. In his last two years in that role, they were undefeated and won the state championships.
A kid named Leslie was the star player during those years. When Dick first met him, he was just a tall seventh-grader who had never played basketball a day in his life. Still, Dick saw his potential and spent time practicing with Leslie every day. By the time Leslie entered the ninth grade, he had the skills to lead the team to state championships.
As Leslie’s talent grew stronger, the amount of attention he received grew right along with it. By his junior year, he started skipping his classes and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Dick noticed the change and took Leslie aside and told him that the choices that he was making could mess up his life. Unfortunately, the close coaching relationship they once had was gone. When Leslie moved on to college, he developed a drug addiction that took his life too soon. Dick often thinks of Leslie and views his star player’s downfall as the biggest failure in his career.
Early Adversity and Family Love
Another thing I didn’t know about Dick was that he lost vision in one eye because of an accident when he was around four or five years old. From that time, his eye would rove, and he couldn’t control it. He couldn’t look anyone straight in the eye and got teased like you wouldn’t believe.
Dick shook off the teasing pretty well from the other kids, but what got to him was the parents in Little League. He was a hard-throwing pitcher and a good athlete, but parents in the stands would say. “Look at his eye! Where is he throwing? You can’t see where he is throwing.” He would hear them shouting from the stands as he pitched, and it tore his heart out so much that he would cry about it at home
Fortunately, Richie, as they called him back then, had incredible parents. His mom would tell him multiple times a day, “Richie, don’t ever believe them. You can be whatever you want to be, even with one eye. That’s nothing compared to what people have. You have so much spirit! Don’t let people hold you back – you have so much energy!”
Many years later, Dick was coaching at the University of Detroit and just starting with ESPN. His wife took their daughters to the eye doctor. The doctor saw her last name and asked, “Are you related to Dickie V?” The doctor had seen Dick on ESPN and knew he could fix his eye. Dick came in for a consultation, and the doctor told him, “I can correct your eye, but I will tell you this upfront – I will have to operate on the good eye to fix the roving one. There is always a chance in surgery like this that you will lose vision in the good eye.” Dick felt like it was too much risk.
Sometime later, in the ESPN studio on a Sunday night, he walked by the reception desk and asked if there were any phone calls. The sportscasters knew if people were calling in that they’d hit on some good material. The receptionist said, “No, not really any calls. There was just one guy screaming at me. He wants the name of the president of ESPN. He wants to get you off the air because he can’t stand looking at your eye.”
After hearing that message, Dick was ready to go back to coaching full time and leave ESPN behind. He called his boss Steve Anderson and told him, “Steve, I’m done.” Steve calmed him down and assured him with the reminder, “We did not hire you for the eye. We hired you for your energy, enthusiasm, and knowledge.”
After a couple of sleepless nights, Dick went back to the doctor and said, “Please, I don’t want to lose my vision.” Fortunately, the surgery was a success and ended up changing Dick’s life in more ways than one.
The V Foundation
One of the things that I did know about Dickie V before working with him was that he has spent the past 15 years raising money for child cancer patients through the V Foundation. It started as a modest fundraiser that he held in his home and grew into an annual event of more than 900 people raising close to a million dollars at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota, Florida. To date, Dick has raised 37 million dollars for pediatric cancer. On his desk, you’ll find a photo of every kid who attended the event, along with pictures of kids who have passed away. Dickie is committed to honoring their memory in every way possible.
This year, with the pandemic, the V Foundation was hit with a real challenge and had to go virtual with its fundraiser. During this time, he called upon sage words from his mom, “Richie, be good to people, and they will be good to you.” He has always found her words to be true, and this year was no exception. Mark Pentecost told Dick he would give him one million dollars if he could match it with other donations in a week or so. Dick called up all his friends, including me, to help him meet his fundraising goal.
With my encouragement, he even made a quick video for Mark Cuban explaining how he helped kids and why he needed these dollars. I sent the video to Mark, and within a short time, I called Dick and told him to check his email. The response from Mark Cuban was, “You don’t mess around, DV. I’ll put up 500K.” Other donations flooded in after Mark’s and Dick raised one million dollars within seven hours.
Mark Pentecost doubled his offer, saying, “I’ll give you another million if you raise two million by the time of your virtual gala.” Due to the support of many amazing people, the V Foundation finished this year’s event with seven million dollars for kids battling cancer.
You can find out more about Dick Vitale and the V Foundation on his website. You can also purchase his new book, The Lost Season. Every dollar earned from the book is going directly to young people fighting cancer. Get an autographed copy or donate at DickVitaleOnline!
To catch the full interview I had with Dick Vitale, you can watch it on YouTube or your favorite podcast listening platform. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly with any questions you might have! Plus, stay tuned for our forthcoming documentary!