The Voice of College Basketball Takes on Melanoma, Lymphoma, and Vocal Cord Surgery
by Ashley Hubbard
“Awesome, baby, with a capital A!”
Chances are that if you’ve tuned into ESPN anytime since its start in 1979, you’ve heard this phrase, or one of Dick Vitale’s many other Vitale-isms – the legendary sportscaster’s unique lexicon.
For nearly 45 years, Dick Vitale, or more affectionately Dickie V, has been a staple at the network. Easily one of the most animated commentators in all of sports, his name – and voice – is synonymous with college hoops.
Carving Out His Own Lane
Dickie V wasn’t always a man with a broadcaster’s headset and a unique vocabulary, though. Before ESPN, he was a basketball coach. Within the span of just eight years, from 1971 to 1979, Dick went from being a New Jersey high school basketball coach to the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, with stops along the way as an assistant coach at Rutgers and at the University of Detroit.
However, in November 1979, Dick found himself unemployed, after being fired from the Pistons, and struggling with depression. Yet, in a reversal of fortune, this demoralizing blow ended up being the catalyst that changed the entire course of his life. He would soon receive a call asking him to commentate one of the very first college basketball games on ESPN, Wisconsin vs. DePaul on December 5, 1979. The former coach said yes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It wouldn’t be the last time he would face a setback, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time he would come back out on top.
Two Cancer Diagnoses within Months
In August 2021, Dick announced that he had gone to his dermatologist for a routine exam, where a biopsy revealed melanoma. Due to its early detection, all the cancer cells were able to be removed using the Mohs procedure.
Then, just a couple of months later, Dick shared more dismal news – he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Following several urinary and gastrointestinal issues, he was first diagnosed with bile duct cancer. But before his scheduled bile duct surgery took place, a confirmation scan was done, and the diagnosis was changed from bile duct cancer to lymphoma.
His medical team assured him this was a much more treatable form of cancer. Still, his treatment program included six months of chemotherapy, along with continuous scans and bloodwork to monitor the tumors.
Giving His Voice a Time-Out
The cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy were one thing, but it was the vocal cord surgery that threatened Dick’s entire professional identity – his voice. For a man known as “The Voice of College Basketball,” asking him not to speak for several months was like asking for a miracle.
In an attempt to repair precancerous dysplasia and ulcerated lesions exacerbated by his cancer treatment, Dick’s vocal cord surgeon informed him he would need the surgery twice, once in February 2022 and again that June, with several months of voice rest following each procedure.
While his audible voice may have been on bedrest, Dick never stopped speaking out. Throughout his cancer journey, Dick has regularly shared his experience on social media.
“I tried to be transparent,” Dick shares with Coping® magazine, “to let people know what cancer patients go through.”
Giving and Taking Inspiration
If you take one look at the responses to his social media posts, it’s clear that Dick has inspired countless individuals. But he might argue that he’s the one who has been encouraged by his fans and followers.
“The prayers and messages sent my way were so important, especially in some of those dark moments lying in bed after a chemo treatment,” Dick recalls. “Those messages lifted my spirits, knowing so many cared.”
Dick also knows he couldn’t have done any of it without certain special people in his life.
“I was blessed to have fabulous caregivers, starting with my wonderful wife of 51 years, Lorraine, plus my immediate family,” Dick says. “I consider ESPN to be my second family, where I’ve had the time of my life for 43 years. Starting with President Jimmy Pitaro and extending to all of my colleagues on and off the air who were regularly sending me encouraging messages. Also, the entire college basketball landscape, from coaches and players to fans and media, were so kind to me.”
Not a Stranger to Cancer
His recent diagnosis may have been his most personal experience with cancer, but it wasn’t his first. After losing his friend and colleague legendary college basketball coach and broadcaster Jim Valvano to cancer in 1993, Dick was forever changed.
“I was inspired by the words of my late buddy Jimmy V’s legendary speech of ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up!’” Dick says, recalling what helped him get through his own cancer diagnoses. “I heard those words often.”
Even before his double cancer diagnoses, Dick dedicated a sizeable portion of his life to raising cancer awareness. In 18 years, the annual Dick Vitale Gala, benefitting the V Foundation for Cancer Research, has raised nearly $55 million for pediatric cancer research.
“No mom and dad should have to go through what I went through with all these tests, bloodwork, and scans, watching their child do that,” Dick exclaims. “Are you kidding me!?”
Ring the Bell, Baby
On April 14, 2022, Dick rang the bell symbolizing he is cancer-free. As the first person to start and finish treatment at Sarasota Memorial’s new oncology tower, it was an extra special moment.
At 83 years of age, Dick is the first to acknowledge he’s living his last chapter of life, but he vows to never stop raising awareness and dollars for cancer. As an epic second-half play, he says he’d love to be the first broadcaster to call a game at age 100. If there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Dickie V.
You can keep up with Dick at DickVitale.com or follow him on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Instagram. To learn more about Dick’s personal battle with cancer, you can watch the documentary Dickie V on Disney+ or ESPN+.
Cover image by EPSN Images.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2022.