Dick Vitale has felt like Clark Kent these days, but without the ability to transform into Superman.
The Hall of Fame college basketball broadcaster’s superpower — his literal voice that’s captured fans for 43 years — has gone quiet as he recovers from surgery on his vocal cords to treat lymphoma, which he’s been fighting since October.
“Not being able to communicate has me crying my eyes out,” Vitale, 82, told USA TODAY Sports through text messages. “I love speaking with people – at lunch or dinner, with my wife and family, and especially with people in public when they come up to me for a conversation.”
The longtime ESPN announcer experienced a major victory last week: After a grueling six-month cancer fight – one that first started with a melanoma diagnosis in August – all signs point to cancer being in remission. His doctor, Rick Brown, the head of oncology at Sarasota Memorial Hospital near Vitale’s Florida home, will have him do just two more rounds of chemotherapy.
Vitale will have an evaluation to check his voice on March 16 – the day before the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament.
“This was the start of my own March Madness bracket as this gets me to my personal Final Four,” Vitale said. “Now I get to cut down the nets and get my voice back. Getting back my ability to speak would be my national championship.”
Vitale said he is missing his voice not for playcalling but because he can’t call potential donors for his annual gala – a subsidiary of the V Foundation – that has already raised $43.5 million for pediatric cancer.
“My goal this year is to raise $7 million by our May 6 Gala to get to $50 million total raised,” Vitale said. “I will beg and plead to help young kids until my last breath.”
Yet Vitale is learning that his greatest superpower lies beyond his voice. The heart won’t be silenced. His fingers get sore from texting, and he carries a whiteboard to express his feelings when fans approach him in public. And yes, he writes things like, “you’re awesome, baby, with a capital A.”
“I lost vision in my left eye as a young kid, and I thought that was tough, but I grew up in a home filled with so much love. My parents always taught me to live life thinking optimistically,” Vitale said. “I think back to my Mom and Dad and I hear their words telling me, ‘Richie, don’t stop chasing your dreams.’ Every time I get down, that’s when I lean on family.”
Vitale said his wife of 50 years, Lorraine, two daughters and five grandchildren have lifted his spirits with their unyielding support over the last six months.
“As many cancer patients know, the love and support of family gets you through,” Vitale said. “There are many moments where you need to have your spirits lifted – mentally and emotionally. They’re my team, and my wife is truly a Hall of Famer. They constantly sent me caring and loving messages, which mean so, so much.”
Vitale has stayed close to his “second family,” as he calls the men’s college basketball community. Kentucky coach John Calipari spent the day with him prior to the SEC tournament last week, and Vitale was honored by the conference with a standing ovation on Saturday in Tampa. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes sends Vitale a daily prayer. Villanova coach Jay Wright sends him videos praying with the team chaplain. Baylor coach Scott Drew and Iona coach Rick Pitino regularly offer caring messages. Texas coach Chris Beard and Longhorns player Andrew Jones – who had his own bout with cancer – check in, too.
Vitale said he was “eating his heart out” as he was unable to attend this year’s Duke vs. North Carolina game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but he was moved to hear from coach Mike Krzyzewski, who told Vitale he was on the sideline in spirit for Krzyzewski’s last home game.
Cancer is a nemesis Vitale has studied and knows all too well after years of raising funds to fight pediatric cancer.
“I often think about the many courageous youngsters from my foundation and who we pay tribute to at my annual gala,” Vitale said. “They are a key reason why I have been transparent about my battle, because I have now learned firsthand what these kids and their families deal with.
“I just hope they can see now that they’re not alone, because I’ve fought this disease, too. I’d do anything to fight it for them so they don’t have to.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.