“No child should be going for chemotherapy and radiation treatments. They should be playing ball or at the beach.”
Those are the words of ESPN college television analyst Dick Vitale.
Unfortunately, the iconic college basketball figure knows that what should and should not be are often at odds. It’s why Vitale has been an active participant in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which tries to bring joy to children who are battling debilitating, life-threatening diseases.
For three decades Vitale has been a “wish come true” for many of those youngsters who wanted to spend time with him at college basketball’s biggest event, the Final Four or just hang out with him.
On Wednesday, the Make-A-Wish Foundation will show its appreciation to Vitale when it presents the Lakewood Ranch resident with its Icon Award, recognizing Vitale’s longstanding support and participation in the program.
“This means a great deal to me because it involves kids,” Vitale said. “If I can help bring a smile to a child’s face, I will do it instantly. It crushes me when I see a young kid suffering. There is no greater gift than bringing a smile to a child’s face.”
Vitale will receive his honor at the 21st Annual Chris Greicius Celebrity Awards at the Disney Coronado Resort in Orlando. Others who will be honored for their exceptional efforts to help grant wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions include the New York Yankees organization, Monster Jam legend Dennis Anderson, Corbin Bleu and the Jonas Brothers.
The Chris Greicius Award is named in honor of the 7-year old boy whose wish to be a police officer inspired a group of caring volunteers fulfill his dream in 1980 and later create the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Vitale doesn’t just grant a wish. He tries to stay in touch with many of the recipients. One of those is Mark Kelly, who Vitale and the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano met in 1992 at the Final Four in Minneapolis when the then 17-year-old was battling cancer.
The two remain close friends, and Vitale helped him get a position with ESPN, though he had to give up the job about three years ago because of another illness from all the treatments he received.
“There are not too many people in this world who are more genuine, considerate and caring than Dick Vitale,” Kelly said. “I don’t deserve a lot of the things he has done for me. He has gone above and beyond for me, and I am more than grateful.”
Vitale felt like he was the person being honored when he first met Kelly and stayed in his life for nearly two decades.
“I was shocked when I got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 1992, and they said there was a sick young man who wanted to spend time with me at the Final Four,” Vitale said. “I told them there are a lot bigger celebrities that he would prefer to be with, and they said no, he chose me. He was battling a real serious case of cancer and had seven operations. I just felt affection for him.”
Kelly recalls that weekend vividly, remembering Valvano telling him how his back was really hurting. It turned out to be cancer, and he died in 1993. His passing inspired Vitale to create the Jimmy V Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research.
Kelly believes if the V Foundation had been around when he first got cancer, there might have been other options and treatments that likely would have spared his body the damaging side effects that he now suffers.
Make-A-Wish Foundation spokesman Brent Goodrich says Vitale has gone way beyond expectations in helping children.
“He has for years enhanced the wishes of our kids who go to the Final Four,” Goodrich said. “He generously takes time during a busy weekend for him to meet the kids and their families, as well as introduce them to coaches and TV personalities who are at the arena. He always shares an inspirational message with the kids, and I know the courage these kids show in the face of their illness inspires him.”