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Commentary | Vibrant Vitale puts Lakewood Ranch, Manatee County on national stage

LAKEWOOD RANCH

When ESPN decided to do an “All-Access” piece on one of its own people, there was only one candidate.

To some, Dick Vitale is the unofficial president of the United States, minus the bodyguards and dark-tinted limousine. He is the World Minister of College Hoops and self-made philanthropist who has worked tirelessly in his fight against pediatric cancer.

Dick Vitale defies the laws of human nature, says nearly everyone who has spent time with him.

He is 72 years old going on 25. If he could bottle and sell his energy, Vitale might be able to raise enough money to rid the planet of all its ailments.

Vitale is an all-access person. It’s one reason he adopted the Broken Egg Restaurant in Lakewood Ranch as his second home. He conducts his business there, calling around the country to get the latest updates on what’s going in the world of sports while he puts together the final pieces of his seventh annual gala to fight cancer, which raised $1.3 million last year.

“People don’t know what goes into preparing for a game. You can’t just show up and do it,” Vitale said.

If you want to know what’s going on in the world, you don’t need to turn on your television or computer, just follow Dick Vitale around.

People tell him things they don’t tell others, and he just might tell you.

Vitale received good news Friday when he learned The Spinners, a popular Motown group from the 1970s, agreed to perform at a post-gala party after this year’s formal dinner.

“Awesome, baby. I love them,” Vitale said with his patented grin.

ESPN has been following Vitale this week for a half-hour “All-Access” special that will air on the ESPNU network on Feb. 8, a few hours before he calls his 40th North Carolina-Duke basketball game.

The network wanted to do something special for the occasion, and Vitale is special.

It will air another 10 to 20 times, and parts of it will be shown on different segments of various ESPN shows. At least half of the “All-Access” segment will focus on Vitale and his home life in and around Lakewood Ranch. His only demand was that it include his grandchildren because he didn’t want to leave anyone out.

“People want to see me, and I don’t want to disappoint them,” Vitale said Friday at the Broken Egg in Lakewood Ranch as patrons waiting to get a picture and autograph of him.

After he grants his admirers their wish, Vitale gets up and strolls down the sidewalk where he meets in another building with his staff that is putting the final touches on May’s gala.

In the meeting, his face seems to illuminate when it’s announced The Spinners have agreed to perform at his gala, which will be held at the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton. Like a kid, he shouts to ask a committee member what is his favorite song from The Spinners.

“RubberBand Man,” is the response as everyone laughs.

This is the first time the gala will have live entertainment, which will be held from 10 p.m. to midnight after the dinner.

It’s not a bad idea, some might argue, because the dinner can get very emotional as Vitale describes the lives of the cancer-fighting kids his foundation has touched.

Vitale notes that the work of the gala is never over.

“You have no idea how hard it is raise a million dollars, especially during these times,” he says.

Hang around Vitale, and you just never know what kind of news you will hear.

He even breaks an exclusive on the hiring of new Tampa Bay Buccaneers head football coach Greg Schiano, the surprise choice who coached the last 11 years at Rutgers.

“I went to high school with his mother, Rene. She was our cheerleader, and I had a crush on her, but she wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Vitale says, not worried his wife Lorraine might feel a tinge of jealousy. “I had no chance, but I told people when he got the job at Rutgers that if he had half the enthusiasm of his mother and father (Barry), he would be a success.”

Though a lot of Bucs fans are feeling anxiety because Schiano has very little NFL experience, Vitale is not one of them. He says coaching success is all about creating enthusiasm and energy.

When Schiano was an unknown basketball assistant at Rutgers, he recruited the key players that enabled the program to go to its only Final Four and have an undefeated regular season.

“I have nothing against the veterans the Bucs interviewed, but I like them bringing in new blood. I see a lot of fire and spirit in Schiano, and he understands football,” Vitale says.

Vitale has had a lifetime of memories broadcasting basketball games, but the moment of his life that stands above the others came at the Broken Egg in Lakewood Ranch when he met Holly Wright, the mother of Payton Wright, who lost her life to cancer at the age of 5 in 2007.

“I sat here in the restaurant with Holly and the conversation just brought tears to my eyes,” Vitale said. “My wife and I made a promise this little girl would not die in vain, and we would do everything to help other children. I said we would raise millions of dollars in her name, and that is when I started pushing and pushing, and now all my fundraising is for pediatrics.”

His work for pediatric cancer and showmanship doing college basketball games on television made it easier for ESPN to select him for its “All-Access” show.

“You can only do this for certain individuals, but Dick is a person you can do an entire show on because of who he is,” ESPN producer David Kraft said. “He operates at lighting pace. You get out of breath just watching him. If you told him to slow down you will be telling him not to be himself.”

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