Dick Vitale has millions of reasons to continue sometimes-painful battle against pediatric cancer

Sporting News

We begin with a story some have heard before, because Dick Vitale has been a warrior against pediatric cancer for the better part of two decades, and it all began with Payton.

Payton was a lovely 4-year-old girl from Vitale’s neighborhood, and by now she should be a college student attending afternoon classes and weekend football games. Except, she was killed by cancer about a year after her parents, Patrick and Holly Wright, heard the most horrible four-word declarative sentence. And Vitale could not shake that memory if he wanted.

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“They were up at Sea World, and they’re on a vacation having a great time,” Vitale told Sporting News, “Payton started screaming about pain in her knee. Well, you know, who thinks about cancer? It was pain in the knee. They said, ‘We’ll go home in a bit.’ She said, ‘I want to go home now. I want to go home now. I can’t take this pain. It’s killing me.’

“They went home. They went to the orthopedic doctor. He looked at it, and he said, ‘Nothing.’ The word ‘cancer’ was never part of the conversation. He said, basically, she’s got growing pains. They came home and she’s like banging the walls, screaming, the pain is worse than ever. They go back, they did an MRI. And Patrick tells the story that his life changed when the doctor came in and said, ‘I want both of you to sit down. I’ve got the worst news in the world.’”

Your child has cancer.

“It changes your life,” Vitale said. "The way you think, the way you act."

Vitale has told this story often enough he can make it through without tears now, but as he sits in a breakfast joint talking with me by telephone, there’s no way he’s getting through the entire half-hour without his voice breaking. He is in public, and his emotion overcomes him here or there, but that is just part of the process of waging the battle he accepted during Payton’s illness, and especially subsequent to her death.

At her funeral, he promised Holly and Patrick he would raise $1 million in her name over the next six months to help fight pediatric cancer. It was only the beginning. Since 2006, the annual gala Vitale stages in Sarasota, Fla., has raised nearly $30 million, including $4.3 million last May, when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, former NBA coach and player Avery Johnson and ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler were honored.

Vitale is at the beginning of his 41st season broadcasting college basketball for ESPN, and will be heading to the Bahamas in a couple weeks to call the Battle 4 Atlantis. He is not the first broadcaster to continue to work nationally past his 80th birthday, but he already has been honored with induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor, has been awarded the Hall’s Curt Gowdy Award as a broadcaster and has been inducted to the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. Most recently, there was the Sports Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. There’s not much more to accomplish.

So I asked if any part of his continued role at ESPN is connected to the desire to maintain a high profile to aid in his work to raise funds for pediatric cancer research.

“I love working,” Vitale told SN. “That’s stealing money, for a basketball junkie like me. ESPN has basically given me a lifetime contract. The new president has been phenomenal to me, Jimmy Pitaro. I will tell you: I’ve made enough money. I’ve earned enough honors and awards, all that stuff. ... But because of that popularity, it gives me entrée to a lot of super-smart corporate guys to reach for money. You know, you’ve got to go through a lot of bureaucracy to get money. I can go right to CEOs, and there’s name recognition.”

Next year’s gala is May 9 at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, with Gonzaga coach Mark Few, Tampa Bay Bucs coach Bruce Arians and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith to be honored, as well as Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and former Sixers and Magic GM Pat Williams. It is a popular event that generally draws an audience of 900 or more, including a lot of college basketball figures.

If preparing for and executing that gala were all Vitale did in support of this fight, it would be a ton. He cannot leave it at that, however, and as he approaches his 81st birthday in impossibly good health, he tries to explain why he is hawking books and hats and tweeting various fundraising strategies. He acknowledges he perhaps can be “annoying” in this effort.

Only 4 cents of every dollar spent by the federal government goes to research causes, treatments and cures for cancer addresses pediatric cancer. Vitale knows this statistic better than he knows the Duke starting lineup.

“If I don’t do it, who is going to do it?” Vitale says, his famous voice crumbling into pieces. “Sometimes I feel lost, because it’s so difficult.” He is talking a little about the work, but mostly he is talking about what might occur if he doesn’t continue, and about what still does even though the money that goes through the V Foundation and directly into pediatric cancer research has led to so much progress.

Vitale tells the story of Tony Colton, who for six years battled cancer “gallantly” and never seemed to allow his circumstance to diminish his love for life. “Never, ever did I meet him without a smile on his face.”

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At a spring training baseball game one March, Vitale ran into Tony when he was 15 or 16 and told him he was looking great. “He goes, ‘Oh, Mr. V, to be honest I just got bad news. The cancer’s spread all over.’ And here, he’s smiling. I asked him if he could come to my gala if he could make it. And he came. He became almost adopted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, so we put him at a table with the Lightning coaches, people that were there, one of the players, Ryan Callahan. The next day we had a gathering at my house, and he came, and while we’re there Tony asked to speak to the crowd.

“So he gets up, oh my God, a smile on his face and said, ‘Look: Listen to Coach V, what he’s telling you. Please, I beg you. It may not save my life, but it could save the life of so many other kids. Don’t let them suffer. I’ve gone through hell, and I’m not trying to get sympathy, but I’m just telling you.’ There was not a dry eye after that.’“

About a month later, Vitale got a call that Tony was in the hospital. Tony’s voice nearly was inaudible now, “But he called me to the bed, and I went to the bedside and he told me, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing Mr. V.’ I get choked up,” Vitale said, literally choking back tears. “Think about it. He’s laying there, and I said, ‘Tony, I’m going to promise: Until my last breath, I’m going to beg, I’m going to plead, everywhere I go, to raise money to help kids. I’m going to do that.’”

There can be no doubt this brings more pain into Vitale’s life. More important, though, more germane to how he chooses to spend his days, it brings more purpose.

As Vitale prepares to return to Atlantis, the vast Paradise Island resort that will be the site of a tournament Nov. 27-29 involving six top-25-level teams — Gonzaga, Iowa State, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon and Seton Hall — he recounted a story that continues to remind him why he drains so much of his not-really-endless energy supply to raise money for pediatric cancer.

On a previous trip to the resort, Vitale had with him his delightful wife Lorraine, their two daughters and their husbands and their five grandchildren. Atlantis has a vast collection of water slides that adorn the center of the property, and he was watching the kids entertaining themselves going up and down.

“They’re having a blast,” Vitale said. “All of a sudden, the phone rings. ‘Dickie V, Dickie V. This is Patrick. I hate to bother you, but I’ve got such good news I’ve got to share with you.’ I said, ‘That’s great, Patrick, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, Payton’s been at Duke’s hospital for quite a while now. And they finally gave me permission today that I could take her out of the bed in the wheelchair down for breakfast.’ I said ‘Patrick, I’m so happy for you.’

“When I got off the phone, I just started sobbing. My wife says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘We’re watching our kids, they’re coming down slides, they’re having a blast and he’s excited he’s taking his little girl to breakfast in a wheelchair. Life is not fair.’ And she sort of motivated me. And from that moment on, I’ve dedicated myself.”

Even these 30 minutes we spent on the phone were part of the process. We talked very little about basketball. It was more about promoting next year’s gala, underscoring the need for more pediatric research and providing an explanation for the endless hustle toward another dollar to fuel the fight.

Vitale spent 20 years or so as a fast-climbing basketball coach who made it all the way from a high school varsity to the Detroit Pistons in the space of a decade. He was an instant smash and enduring star upon entering the world of television. He has been a fundraiser against childhood cancer for a brief period compared to all of that, but he might not mind at all if that becomes his legacy.

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