National Sportcasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame to induct Dick Vitale on Monday

Sports media group to induct legend on Monday

jlembo@bradenton.comJune 9, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Dick Vitale remembers the date the same way he remembers his wedding anniversary.

Nov. 8, 1979.

At the time, he considered it the worst day of his life.

Four decades later, he considers it one of the best.

That was the day the Detroit Pistons relieved Vitale of his head-coaching duties, a development that nudged him toward a fledging sports network called ESPN.

The Lakewood Ranch resident is now one of the most famous and quotable commentators in all of sports. On Monday, the soon-to-be 74-year-old will be inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.

The ceremony will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the association's headquarters in Salisbury, N.C.

"To get paid doing something that you love, especially for a sports junkie, I would have given anything just to be in the arena," Vitale said. "And I get

to leave with a paycheck, and they treat you like royalty. I am so blessed.

"I love what I do."

This marks induction No. 12 for Vitale, one he didn't see coming all those years ago during his meteoric rise up the coaching ranks.

In the span of eight years, Vitale went from coaching high school hoops in East Rutherford, N.J., to an assistant coaching gig at Rutgers to serving as the head men's coach and athletic director at the University of Detroit.

In 1978, eight years after his prep stint in New Jersey, Vitale was piloting the Pistons.

"My career just exploded," Vitale said Friday morning.

But his stay in the NBA didn't last long: Vitale was fired in '79, just 12 games into his second season.

"Jimmy (Valvano) always said, 'Never mess with happy,'" Vitale said. "I ran to the NBA, and it was a disaster. I didn't belong, my personality didn't belong; if I stayed with coaching, you and I wouldn't be talking right now because I would have been dead by 50."

Yet Vitale said he was "devastated" when the Pistons cut him loose and initially balked when an executive at ESPN offered a him gig handling the network's first-ever broadcast of a college game: DePaul vs. Wisconsin.

"I was really down. I wanted to get back into coaching college," he said. "Then my wife, Lorraine, said, 'You're down. Go and do the game. Have some fun.'"

It went awesome, baby.

Vitale has become the face and voice of college basketball. He has heard his name chanted during those memorable Duke-North Carolina battles, has penned 12 books and appeared in movies, such as "The Naked Gun" and "Blue Chips", and even scored an appearance on "The Cosby Show."

And his seven-year-old, star-studded gala has raised more than $10 million for cancer research.

"I pinch myself," Vitale said. "The best thing that happened in my life was those four letters -- ESPN."

These days, however, Vitale appreciates his career more than before. In 2007, he underwent surgery in Boston after doctors discovered pre-cancerous lesions on his vocal chords.

The operation was performed by Dr. Steven Zeitels, a renowned Boston-based throat and voice specialist who still sees Vitale for annual check-ups.

"Instead of worrying about the games or the players, I was worried about what was coming out (of my mouth)," said Vitale, who missed work for about two months after the surgery. "I was getting letters from people asking me, 'What's wrong with your throat?'"

Vitale turns 74 this weekend. Monday night, he will be inducted into yet another hall of fame, with ESPN president emeritus George Bodenheimer handling the honors.

"Like Frank Sinatra said, I did it my way," Vitale said, who then recalled one of the many lessons passed down to him by his parents. "When you have passion plus a good work ethic plus good decision making, it equals a win in the game of life.

"When you start your career, nobody ever, ever thinks about the hall of fame. This is way beyond my dreams and has succeeded any dream I've ever had. Most of all, I'd like to be a hall-of-fame husband, father and grandfather, because that's the most important."

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