His Garden State buddies swear that the guy they call Richie, Rich, or Dick, who grew up on Madeline Avenue in Garfield, is just one of them. But that’s hard to believe when a Grand Rapids grandfather takes off his sweaty T-shirt—over Richie’s breakfast plate of fresh fruit—and asks him to autograph it. You’ve just entered the Dickie V zone, where grown men, college kids, and world-famous coaches momentarily lose their minds over college basketball’s walking exclamation point.
“Is that somethin’ or what?” Vitale says of the scene at the Broken Egg, his regular haunt in Siesta Key, Florida. “Hard to believe a guy outta Jersey can get that kind of attention for 27 years. I get that kinda thing a lot. That’s just a way of life now. I don’t even think about it.”
No matter how many people approach the oldest child of the late Mae and John Vitale, of the Elmwood Park Vitales, he never loses his trademark exuberance. A few days earlier, the 66-year-old Vitale—“Papa” to his five J. Crew catalog–worthy grandchildren—is cavorting with Villanova co-eds in the student section before broadcasting a game, and he isn’t even worried about how to explain the blue and white face paint all over his shirt to his wife of 34 years, Lorraine, or Lolo, as the kids call her. It’s probably easier to explain how a bald, one-eyed former elementary schoolteacher came to be ESPN’s loudest and most enduring figure, mentioned in the same breath as icons of American sportscasting such as Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, and John Madden.
His guys all live within fifteen miles of where they first met Vitale in the late 1960s, when, through dedication, handmade posters, handwritten notes, and lots of wins, he was turning East Rutherford High School from a football school into a basketball school. Charles “Duffy” Alberta, a tough fireplug of a point guard, who married the cheerleader and made a bundle in printing, lives in Paramus; Bob Stolarz, a dutiful assistant coach and retired educator with an encyclopedic memory of New Jersey sports—specifically Vitale minutiae—is in Clifton; and Lou Ravettine, a player-turned-school-principal, resides in Mahwah; Tommy Longo would be here for the Vitale gabfest at the Meadowlands Diner, but his father is ailing, and you know how it is with family. For more than two hours, they tell lies, swap stories, and offer a view of Vitale through Jersey-colored glasses.
“I just think Dick enjoys being from New Jersey,” says Stolarz, who took over when Vitale left East Rutherford High for an assistant coach job at Rutgers in 1970. “These are the people who knew him when.”
“The thing about Dick is he feels very comfortable with Duffy, Bobby, Tommy, myself,” says Ravettine. Vitale always hangs with his guys when he’s in town for a game. They also convene at “the House,” the 13,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home near Sarasota, Florida, where Vitale and his wife spend most of their time. It’s a long way from the apartment in Lodi that the newly married couple first shared in 1971. The guys also attend plenty of Notre Dame football games, where Vitale’s bald dome is as familiar as the school’s golden dome (Vitale’s daughters, Terri and Sherri, attended the university). Duffy still raves about a night at the ESPY’s, ESPN’s awards event, where he spent time backstage with Sidney Poitier and other celebrities. “Crazy,” Duffy says. “Dick loves meeting celebrities. He’s like a little kid around them.”
“We’re his link to his past, like we’re part of the family,” says Ravettine, who recalls the first time he met Vitale. “It was 1956, and I was having a good season on the freshman basketball team.” Now a well-respected basketball referee, Ravettine jumps into the diner’s crowded aisle to set the scene. “At the time,” he says, “Augie Lio [of the Passaic Herald News] was one of the most renowned sportswriters. He played [semi-pro football] with the Paterson Panthers and with our coach, Kenny Sinofsky, who Dick adored and emulated. Augie had a column called The Cracker Barrel. If you make Augie Lio’s column, it’s something big.
“My name appears in Augie’s column….That week I got myself a good seat at the varsity game, and in comes Dick—well, then he was still Richie—Vitale. I didn’t know him, but he comes in and he’s got a stick in his hand. He climbs up, and I’m wondering who the heck this is….That shtick he does now? This is the beginning of what he does: He comes up into the stands and comes right at me, using the stick as a microphone, ‘LOU RAVETTINE, STAR OF THE FRESHMAN BASKETBALL TEAM! TELL US HOW IT FEELS!’ He’s interviewing me, and it’s the first time I ever met him! I’m thinking, Who is this guy?”
Vitale was just out of high school, attending college at Seton Hall’s former Paterson campus, and an insider in the tight-knit North Jersey sports scene. Alberta, Stolarz, Ravettine, and Vitale were linked to Sinofsky, especially Vitale, whom Sinofsky had persuaded to finish high school.
During his senior year, Vitale had served as Sinofsky’s manager/assistant coach. After graduating from Seton Hall in 1962, Vitale taught at Mark Twain Elementary School in Garfield and coached middle-school football and baseball for the Garfield Benignos in a league equivalent to today’s American Legion. His buddies say Vitale took over the East Rutherford team because nobody else wanted the gig; Sinofsky had been coaching the team only to keep an eye on his football players during the off-season.
Every day, Vitale looks at a black-and-white photo of his parents that sits next to a Bible, a crucifix, and some prayer cards to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. (His mother died in 1983, his father in 1997.) He says his charity work is related to his lingering self-consciousness over a teenage incident about whose details Vitale remains vague: He was blinded in his left eye after being poked with a pencil, an injury that cost him his junior year of high school. Surgery as an adult corrected the subsequent drifting, but as a teen, he says, “I had no control of my left eye, and it used to drive me nuts. It was something I couldn’t control, and it did bother me.”
Controlling the career of a basketball prodigy named Leslie Cason is a bittersweet linchpin in Vitale’s story and psyche. The 6-foot-11-inch center from one of Vitale’s best East Rutherford teams, Cason was a can’t-miss college and professional prospect. As Cason’s coach and a knowledgeable, passionate hoops mind, Vitale earned a national reputation.
In the 1969–70 season, Cason led the team to a 28–0 record as a senior, scoring 2,870 career points. Vitale, who had coached his alma mater since the 1964–65 season, was closing out a streak of four state sectional championships, two straight state titles, and 35 straight wins. He vetted the more than 300 college coaches who were recruiting Cason, committing his star to California State University, Long Beach, and a coach named Jerry Tarkanian.
Vitale, too, was on the move, landing a job as a Rutgers assistant coach.
“Garf”—Howard Garfinkel, the godfather of New York City’s amateur basketball scene and owner of the prestigious Five-Star Basketball Camp—“had asked me as a favor to interview Dick, even though I had a list of candidates I was looking at,” says Rutgers radio commentator Dick Lloyd, then the Rutgers head coach. “We had lunch together—my wife and his wife and the two of us—and he is exactly today what he was back then, right down to the idiosyncracies, talking with the hands, and the smile. He was just so intense. Dick Vitale is not an act. He’s a genuine person.” Lloyd couldn’t resist hiring Vitale. “You just don’t find a guy who’s more intense, and for recruiting, that was huge,” he says.
At Rutgers from 1970 to 1972, Vitale was largely responsible for bringing in elite recruits, most notably Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney, who made up the core of Rutgers’s 1976 Final Four team. But he couldn’t motivate Cason, who failed to qualify academically for Cal State, went instead to a junior college in Texas, and then enrolled at Rutgers; he was coming as Vitale was leaving to become head coach at the University of Detroit. Cason played parts of two seasons and scored 3 points in his final game for Rutgers, an indifferent end to a career and a sad foreshadowing for the young man’s future.
“Leslie was my biggest failure as a coach,” says Vitale, who reconnected with Cason in the mid-1990s. “I always felt this weight on me, that here I am, I’m making it, and this poor kid—who without him I probably wouldn’t have become the college coach I became—this poor kid is screwing up with drugs and bad decisions. I told him that, and that I would always be indebted to him. Before he died in 1997 [from AIDS-related complications after two decades of heroin use], he said in an article, ‘Coach did everything he could to help me.’ ”
Vitale likes people to know that he made it to the NBA, where he coached the Detroit Pistons for the 1978–79 season and one month into the next season, before being replaced by friend and fellow Jersey guy Richie Adubato. The bio at the bottom of his ESPN.com column reads, “Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN’s first college basketball game in 1979.”
As Vitale began his ascension, he lost his first marriage. His wife, Joanne, claimed he was more passionate about the game and Cason than about her. Vitale turned that loss into what he calls “the biggest W.” In 1970, he and some fellow coaches were hanging out at the Blue Swan Inn in Rochelle Park, when he spotted Lorraine McGrath. She wouldn’t dance with him, but he didn’t stop asking. She wouldn’t give him her phone number, but he didn’t stop pitching. He tracked her down, wooed her at a Dionne Warwick concert at the former Garden State Performing Arts Center. A year later he married his cherished recruit, who provides the balance Vitale readily admits he needs. “She’s the best thing that ever happened in my life,” he crows. “My mother loved her. She said, ‘Don’t lose her, Richie. Don’t lose her.’ ”
Vitale’s motivational instincts may have come from his mother, Mae, who told her oldest child—Vitale has a younger brother, John, and sister, Terry—“Someday you’re going to make it, because you’ve got spirit, Richie.” Television industry insiders peg Vitale’s annual salary from ESPN at more than $1 million. And along with his countless free speeches, he also keeps a schedule of about 30 speaking engagements each year for the Washington Speakers Bureau, at $45,000 a pop. He endorses products from frozen pizza to fire-red Pontiacs and receives royalties from film and TV appearances. “I truly have never seen a check from ESPN,” he says. “They go straight to Lorraine.”
Vitale is a steady donor for the Sarasota Boys and Girls Club, where a bronzed statue of him stands, and for the V Foundation, which is dedicated to raising money for cancer research on behalf of his good friend and coaching legend, the late Jim Valvano. While those are the visible charitable endeavors, Vitale works behind the scenes for literally hundreds of others.
“I have a difficult time saying no. Everyone’s cause is legit, man,” Vitale says.
Vitale always makes time to grab a bite at the Broken Egg, which is as close as he can come to recapturing an old haunt, Flenner’s luncheonette on Paterson Avenue in East Rutherford, which closed in 1967. “I’m lost if I don’t come here,” he says. Vitale has no ownership in this genial rich-man’s greasy spoon, although many Vitale-endorsed items are available for purchase at the counter.
If ever there were a celebrity who was secure in his position with his employer, it’s Vitale. After all, he still gets laudatory post-game calls from his bosses. Vitale covets that feedback; he confesses that he has an almost insatiable need to be loved, not simply liked and respected.
The Dickie V zone turns average games into student-body uprisings. “You are never more invisible than when you walk into an arena with Dick Vitale,” says ESPN’s Dan Shulman, Vitale’s regular play-by-play straight man. “I know I connect with the public,” Vitale says, “and I’ll be honest: I am very sensitive to criticism. I don’t apologize for that. I think that’s a good trait to have. Who wants to be ripped? We all care.”
While not incendiary in his comments, Vitale can be as polarizing as Cosell. His upbeat style and his many catchphrases, delivered at fever pitch, draw some college hoops fans to turn down the volume on the TV and make others wonder whether Vitale is genuine. Vitale is stung by the claims. “Dick doesn’t have that ‘governor’ to shut himself off, and it turns some people off,” says Boston Globe columnist and friend Bob Ryan. “I remember, in January of 1985, being in Larry Bird’s mom’s house, and she says to me, ‘I can’t stand that Dick Vitale.’ ”
“I’ve always been sensitive,” Vitale says. “You may disagree with me about my style, you may disagree about how loud I am and how much I talk, but nobody has ever written that I’m not prepared and that I’m not knowledgeable about what I talk about.
“You don’t last 27 years at ESPN with just ‘Awesome, baby.’ You just don’t do it. The public knows. Like that guy taking his shirt off for me—if I wasn’t connecting, would that be happening? Be realistic, man.”
See? Even a guy with a bobblehead likeness bleeds if you cut him, and sheds tears, or at least wells up, when he discusses his life or the lives of others. “I look every day at the obits, man,” he says as he pores over his daily stack of newspapers from around the country, “and what I do is pick a hero of the day. Here’s a reverend. He was 98. Look at the ages, man—28, 34, 45, 42. You know how lucky you feel in life when you see that? It scares you, man.”
With that fear—maybe because of it—in four hours time, Vitale will board what the ESPN minions have dubbed Air Vitale, an eight-seat private jet that he uses on time-share out of the Sarasota airport. “This has made all the difference,” he says from his customary (read superstitious) seat in the last row, co-pilot’s side. “It’s expensive, but it allows me to eliminate all those travel hassles, man.”
Usually an hour before a game, Vitale and Shulman meet with the coaches for about 10 minutes, digging for information to toss out during the game. But Vitale’s main cell-phone buddy is ESPN’s Howie Schwab. They speak about three times a day so that Vitale can dictate columns and pick Schwab’s brain for national trends, hot players, and up-and-coming coaches.
For a Saturday noon game in Ann Arbor, Vitale leaves Sarasota around 3 pm on Friday. He eats a snack and reads whatever papers, stats, and game notes he hadn’t already scoured at breakfast. Picked up by a Town Car at the airport, he rides to his hotel and to dinner with some behind-the-scenes folks along with Shulman and sideline reporter Doris Burke. He never loses the smile, signs about 300 autographs en route, and always engages and takes interest in the student drivers who shuttle him from hotel to arena. The game ends just after 2 pm. He’s whisked to the airport so he can be home for a 6:30 dinner with Lorraine.
“The clock is running on me,” Vitale says. “This is the last chapter of my life, man, and I want to make it the best chapter of all.”
David Scott has covered sports on the national level for fifteen years.Click here to leave a comment