Green: Ex-Pistons, U of D coach Dick Vitale recovers after ‘toughest seven months of my life’

Detroit News

There were just two of us in the car, two young guys starting out with high ambitions. Dick Vitale had no wheels, so he hitched a ride with an ink-stained wretch.

We were headed from Calihan Hall on the University of Detroit campus to Catholic Central High where Vitale’s basketball team would practice. His Titans were a pretty good club.

Vitale had been an unknown, with New Jersey roots, hired for his first college head coaching job. And you could tell that he was a showman, with some unique ideas — a pitchman with a gravelly voice and a vast knowledge of college basketball.

It turned out on the drive that I learned that I — a newspaper guy — was making more dough than Vitale, a college coach. I thought then that was a cockeyed standard of values.

This was nearly 50 years ago, but I recollect Vitale said he was earning $7,900 bucks a year to coach major college basketball.

Vitale eventually would make it up.

We got to the Catholic Central gym, and Vitale latched on to some basketballs.

“I like shooting free throws,” he said.

So, he stood at the free-throw line and started popping them in. One after another, swish, swish, swish. He must have hit on some 20 or 30 in a row without a miss.

A master showman in the making, for certain.

“I want to play the University of Michigan,” he confided, proving despite coming here from New Jersey he knew a bit about sports history.

Michigan, somewhat haughty, had seldom deigned to play U of D in anything. That didn’t stop Vitale.

Rare, great warrior

Dick Vitale is one of the rare, great warriors. And the near half-century later after the ride to CC, he is recording some of his greatest victories.

An octogenarian now at age 82, he has defeated cancer, but it was grueling.

And perhaps tougher for him, he has defeated silence. He is a victor on this weekend, his weekend, of the Final Four and the NCAA national basketball championship.

“I recently was given permission to speak,” Vitale tells me.

And there was spoken a wondrous irony, for in this country and in much of the basketball conscious world, Dick Vitale has been celebrated as an enchanting, enduring, knowledgeable speaker. Stories of his plight have gone national and international, the agonies of silence and the repulsing of cancer.

“I’m in the healing stages, so I can’t do games,” Vitale says. “For 3 months I felt totally trapped not being able to speak. I have been eating my heart out not being able to be at the big games.

“I was scheduled to do the Final 4 on ESPN International which is seen in over 200 countries as CBS has the USA rights.”

You do not have to be a rabid college basketball fan to appreciate Dick Vitale. Since 1979, after he left four rousing, successful, character-building seasons at U of D and a short tenure coaching the Pistons, Vitale has been the powerful image of ESPN.

It is my solid opinion that Dick Vitale did more for the creation of ESPN — which bills itself as the worldwide sports leader — than any other broadcaster. Or producer, director, camera-lugger or executive.

The guy who earned less money as a mid-major college coach than a young sports columnist with a car back in 1973 and 1974.

He might belong to the USA — and the celebrity-gripped citizens of the world — but he belonged to Detroit and Michigan before all the hoopla (word intended). Plus, New Jersey, which shipped him out to Michigan.

U of Detroit days

As part of the irony of Vitale’s statement about this weekend, we did not communicate by voice or hand signal. It was via text from his home in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., near Sarasota. I texted him a sampler of questions, primarily about his U of D days, that was supposed to reach him overnight, considering his recovering condition from various maladies.

I received his text responses around 2 o’clock the other morning. Vitale being Vitale, and me being my usual, nocturnal self.

“. . . u r taking me down memory lane,” he started out by text.

The Michigan game that he coveted took me down memory lane.

Vitale set the stage: darkened Calihan Hall; as flaming hoop; and his Titans players announced one by one; and jumping through the hoop.

At least to my recollection from December, 1973.

And final score: Detroit 70, Michigan 59.

Vitale’s teams went 17-9, 17-9, 19-8 and 26-3.

The seasons was highlighted by a 21-game winning streak and a victory near the end over Marquette on the hostile court in Milwaukee.

After Detroit won at the buzzer, Vitale jumped onto the court and treated the crowd to what I called at the time, the boogaloo. A joyous, swiveling, gyrating dance performed to rock ’n’ roll.

“I loved the Motor City as fans treated me like Royalty!” Dick said in his text. “My Players r constantly sending me texts with words of encouragement/We communicate regularly as my days as Titan coach were some of the happiest of my career.

“Yes the 21 game win streak was really special especially beating one of my idols Al McGuire & Marquette in Milwaukee. Yes I did a Disco Dick dance with the team & cheerleaders after Dennis Boyd hit the game winner at the buzzer …”

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His last team made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament, when the tourney still consisted of 32 teams.

“Great memories/we then went to the Sweet 16 & and lost a heartbreak to #1 MICHIGAN in Rupp Arena Lexington, Kentucky,” Dick texted. “I used to tease Coach (John) Orr who was a terrific coach & person that we took so much out of them emotionally that it caused them to get upset by North Carolina Charlotte which denied them to go to the Final Four.

“Marquette a month & a half after we beat them won the national title. I really felt with Terry Tyler, John Long, the late Terry Duerod (broke my heart when his wife called to say Terry had passed due to cancer) Dennis Boyd, Ron Bostick, Wilbur McCormick, Wilbur Ross, Kevin Kaseta, David Niles that we could have been NATIONAL CHAMPS if we beat the Maize & Blue . . I had great assistant coaches DAVIS SMOKEY GAINS (passed a few yrs ago) MICHAEL BRUNKER.

“However that game changed my life. It was televised by NBC with Curt Gowdy doing play by play & John Wooden the analyst. Scotty Connal was executive producer.”

Pistons revitalized

His text continues through his coaching of the Pistons and the marketing of “re-VITALE-ization.” Vitale and the NBA did not last long. He, as so many Pistons coaches had been, was fired. Vitale used the word “ziggy,” which is an exclusively Detroit word for firing

“Scotty called a couple of weeks after I was fired & said he wrote my name down after the UM game because both Gowdy and Coach Wooden said they loved my passion, spirit and knowledge of the game. Scotty then said I am now head of talent & production of a new network ESPN & I would like you to do our 1st big Game # 1 DePaul vs Wisconsin.

“At 1st I said I wasn’t interested & ESPN sounds like a disease. I told him that I wanted to go back & coach in college. Luckily for me he called back & have been at ESPN for 43 years …”

Vitale goes on and on. About wife Lorraine and more than 50 years of marriage, daughters Terri & Sherri, sons-in-law, grandkids, his charity work and his constant battle vs. cancer.

He also had praise for those in his career, for the interviewing skills of the late J.P. McCarthy on WJR and the Detroit sports media of that era.

His is a story of courage and determination … and it is tinged with some sadness.

“It has been the toughest 7 months of my life. For 81 years I was so blessed and healthy as can be.”

Vitale has weathered a bile duct blockage, melanoma around his nose and lymphoma, according to his text …

The enforced silence — “8 weeks of non speaking” — and after surgery — “another 4 weeks of voice rest” — until the voice has been liberated.

“My last PET SCAN which checks your entire (body) brought good news as my cancer Dr Rick Brown told me that no cancer was seen anywhere. However he wants me to finish the planned cycle which leaves me with my last chemo treatment April 14.

“I want to ring the bell which is done when cancer patients finish treatment.”

And much better than cutting down the nets.

Jerry Green is a former sports writer with The Detroit News.

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