“When bad things happen in your life, just turn the page and start a new chapter. Don’t close the book.” Latoya Jackson
November 8, 1979 – Detroit, Michigan: NBA Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson drove to coach Dick Vitale’s house and without beating around the bush began with, “Dick, we’re making a coaching change. You’re fired.” It was the low point in 40-year-old Vitale’s life. He had never failed in a coaching job. He felt like his life and career were over.
Dick Vitale grew up in a large blue-collar Italian family in Garfield, New Jersey. He became a sports fanatic from listening to his eight uncles debate the greatest sports heroes at family gatherings. He loved any sport that involved a ball.
Growing up Vitale played all sports despite having lost sight in his left eye from an accident at age 4. Because his left eye drifted, he was often bullied. When Vitale pitched in Little League opposing players shouted, “Watch out! Ole one-eye can’t see where he’s throwing the ball.” His mother routinely consoled him, “Richie, don’t listen to them. God made you special. You have too much passion for anyone to ever hold you back.” Vitale dreamed of being a basketball star but there was just one problem – he wasn’t very good.
His first job was teaching sixth grade and coaching basketball at his high school alma mater in Garfield, New Jersey. After seven seasons and two state championships, he became an assistant basketball coach at Rutgers University in 1971. To the surprise of some, two years later Vitale became the head basketball coach at Detroit University. At 34, he was the youngest basketball coach in the country.
After two NCAA tournament appearances, Vitale’s meteoric rise in the coaching ranks continued. He became coach of the NBA Detroit Pistons. His first team won 30 games but lost 52. Vitale was not accustomed to losing and didn’t handle it well. During the season, he was hospitalized for a week with stomach ulcers. Twelve games into his second season, Davidson showed up at Vitale’s house.
After losing his job, Vitale sat on the sofa watching soap operas, whining to his wife, Lorraine, and pondering his future. A month later, he got a call from TV sports producer Scotty Connal who was starting a new network called ESPN. Connal wanted the coach to be an announcer. Vitale burst out with, “ESPN? It sounds like a disease. What is ESPN?” Connal explained his plans for the all-sports channel and Vitale reacted, “Absolutely no way. I know nothing about TV. I want to get back to where I belong, college coaching.” He hung up.
With Lorraine’s encouragement, Vitale reluctantly called Connal back and accepted a position with the fledgling sports channel until a college coaching position came open. On December 5, 1979, Vitale was on TV as the color commentator for the first college basketball ESPN aired between DePaul University and the University of Wisconsin. He had a lot to learn, but his colorful coverage of players and his passion for the game won fans over. After the season, with no coaching openings of interest to him, Vitale agreed to stay on for another season.
In 2008, three decades after Dick Vitale, fondly known as “Dickie V,” accepted a temporary job at ESPN, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2019, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports at the 40th annual Emmy Awards, the highest honor in broadcasting.
In August 2021, Vitale underwent multiple surgeries to remove a melanoma. Three months later, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, then a few weeks later with pre-cancerous dysplasia on his vocal cords. He missed his first ESPN basketball season in more than 40 years. On April 14, 2022, after a successful vocal cord surgery and six months of chemo to treat his lymphoma, 82-year-old Dick Vitale rung the cancer-free bell.
“Getting fired at Detroit was the best thing to ever happen to me,” Vitale said. “Bill Davidson opened the door for me at ESPN. Look at me, I have one eye, I’m not the best-looking guy and I make a great living announcing a game I love. It has been awesome, baby!” Vitale plans to return to ESPN in the fall of 2022 for his 43rd season.