There's No Stopping an Obsessed Dick Vitale

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Dick Vitale is fresh off the tennis court. The routine morning workout has done nothing to sap what seems like a bottomless tank of energy. And we're talking singles, not doubles, for the 81-year-old.

"I wake up with a purpose each day, something to do," he says. "I think what happens a lot of the time is people get stale when they get older."

We talk for 45 minutes. He fires fast as he always does. In a million directions as he always does. There are open-ended questions but Vitale may have the market cornered on open-ended answers.

He is — against all odds — even more passionate than he typically is on air, even in the throes of a Duke-Kentucky classic. Ask him about the V Foundation or his annual eponymous gala for pediatric cancer research and the floodgates open, a deluge of facts, figures and deeply personal anecdotes.

"I'm obsessed with it," Vitale says. "I've been doing it for 15 years. We think that after this year we're going to have 38 million that we raised for cancer research. If you told me that back when I first started I'd have thought you were crazy."

COVID forced Vitale and the V Foundation to draw up a new play this year with large, in-person gatherings off the table. The effervescent broadcaster concedes that the realization dampened his enthusiasm.

"I was down," he admits. "We make a lot of money on the seats and donations during the event. I was down about the fact that we weren't going to have a live group, to have my group of All-Courageous Kids there. The audience feels the emotion. They feel the passion. I talk from my heart to them about what we mean and why we mean it."

He then relates the story of the day he was fired by the Detroit Pistons and how he ever-so briefly abandoned the can-do attitude that had driven him from the lowest ranks of coaching to the top of the mountain. How his wife helped him re-embrace those principles. The past 40 years and 14 Hall of Fame inductions speak for themselves.

So it should come as no surprise that, in the midst of unprecedented times and challenges, Vitale and the others who work so hard organizing and fundraising for the event have risen to the challenge. The virtual gala is tonight. It's already set a record for donations, blowing past the $5 million goal set pre-virus.

"I could jump with joy," he says. "We're going in with $7.1 million. That makes me feel like I did when we won state championships in high school or when we beat Marquette — this is even better than that. I'm flying high, buddy. I can't believe we got $7 million in a pandemic."

Leon Bennett/Getty Images

The 15th Annual Dick Vitale Gala will be am mix of taped and live segments. Vitale will be in his Florida home. Kevin Negandhi will emcee from ESPN headquarters in Bristol. Bruce Arians, Mark Few, and Stephen A. Smith will be honored. Jim Kelly will receive the John Saunders Courage Award. Mitch Albom will be a special guest.

It will be, as it always is, a star-studded affair. Vitale rattles off an impressive rolodex of SEO-friendly names who have give generously. Stephanie McMahon and the WWE. Mark Cuban. He highlights the support from Cindy and Mark Pentecost.

He name-drops like a snare drum about celebrities and athletes who have given of their time. Derek Jeter. Jon Cooper. Bill Belichick. The list goes on and on. But it's when he speaks of the kids he's met doing this — and the ones he hasn't yet — that his voice has the most pride.

Weston with Dick Vitale and Derek Jeter
Weston with Dick Vitale and Derek Jeter /
Mikari /
Jarious /

"I don't need the press but these kids do," he says. Vitale clips media coverage of the gala and the children involved and sends them out. He is constantly learning their stories, sharing in their struggles and celebrating in their victories.

"My wife says she's never seen me as driven as when I'm trying to raise money for kids," Vitale says. "It frustrates me at times because I don't think it should be as tough at is."

He mentions Weston, a 13-year-old hockey star in his fourth battle with cancer who is still collecting points at a Connor McDavid pace. There's Jarious, also 13, fearlessly fighting Ewing Sarcoma. There's Mikari, a 16-year-old actress who was Nala in Disney's national tour of Lion King before being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Vitale knows these stories without notes. This is 24-7 for him. And not without a personal toll.

"I've gotten to know these people. I've spoken at funerals. Those have been the toughest speeches of my life. A lot of people come up to me and say: Dick, what you're doing is fantastic. No. It's not fantastic. If it were fantastic we wouldn't have kids dying. "

He's not immune to brutally obvious disconnect in priorities, observing that in the big-money world of college athletics, such a figure could be pulled together just to keep up with the Joneses, but it's more of a challenge when the endeavor is saving the lives of children.

"It really gets me," he says, recalling a deathbed promise he made to keep doing this work until his own final breath. "I get emotional about it."

He's effusive in his praise for the others aiding him in this quest, singling out Mary Kenealy, Janet Allen, Rebecca Atherton. He's excited to work with ESPN producers Bill Graf and Rob Lemley on the virtual gala tonight.

"Sometimes athletes they don't understand that it's a team, man," he points out. "It's a team."

Vitale's motor doesn't quit. It never has. A global pandemic isn't stopping him from doing the thing he cares about the most and doing it well, albeit differently. And he's already setting goals. The competitor in him is looking forward to next year, and hopefully a new benchmark for funds.

He won't stop until no parent or grandparent or brother or sister has to see their loved one battle pediatric cancer. It's lofty and long-term but don't tell Vitale it can't eventually be done.

"Why believe it can't?" he asks.

It's a question, for once, that doesn't have an expansive answer.