Longtime college basketball voice Dick Vitale is known for his catchphrases. "Awesome, Baby." "Diaper Dandy." "PTPer."
But the 82-year-old has made it his life's mission to be remembered for one word, above all others: Cancer. Vitale, a 43-year Hall of Fame analyst for the sport, has leveraged his fame to raise more than $44 million dollars for pediatric cancer through his annual galas and fundraisers.
That unyielding spirit to help others is why several young children reactively reached out to Vitale this fall to offer their support when he was diagnosed with cancer.
"The disease I've dedicated my life to defeating for kids, now I'm battling it, too," a choked-up Vitale told USA TODAY Sports in an emotional interview. "The Dickie V team, these cancer survivors, I've gotten so many inspiring messages from all of them. I had one kid who has been through 1,200 rounds of chemotherapy who told their Dad, 'We gotta go see Dickie V and make sure he's all right.' If that doesn't tell you how blessed I am, I don't know what does."
Vitale said his spirit has undoubtedly been shaken by a cancer diagnosis that kept changing. Originally believed to have bile duct cancer with a questionable treatment success rate, doctors told Vitale in October that he actually has lymphoma, which has a 90% cure rate. He's had four chemotherapy treatments already and will continue until May.
'I can't believe I'm sitting here': Dick Vitale breaks down in tears as he returns to booth amid cancer battle
"Doctors were mystified about what it could be before they finally told me it was lymphoma," said Vitale, who is three months removed from undergoing surgeries to remove melanoma.
"When I was first told it's bile duct cancer, I started thinking about my mortality, like, 'the party's about to be over.' It was devastating. I was thinking about never seeing my grandchildren again. I truly feel for all the cancer patients around the world who have to think about that. The emotions that just drain your spirit. Then you have test after test. It's emotionally exhausting to go through."
On Tuesday, an emotional Vitale was back courtside calling the game for ESPN between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA alongside Dave O’Brien. The longtime analyst said getting back to the sport he loves was the perfect "medicine" and "therapy" to keep his zest for life and signature energy alive. He's been given the OK by his doctors to call games in between his chemotherapy throughout the 2021-22 season.Results from a body scan scheduled Nov. 29 will reveal what his full course for chemotherapy treatment will be and whether to intensify the drugs.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, sitting by my second (college basketball) family," Vitale said.
It's been that fraternity in the sport that's uplifted Vitale's spirits. Colleagues from ESPN have sharpied "DV" on their hands to honor him. Kentucky coach John Calipari messages him saying he's lit a candle while praying for him in mass. Baylor coach Scott Drew had his reigning national champion team send a video of support from the Bahamas. Villanova coach Jay Wright and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo are texting Vitale regularly to keep his spirits high.
"Just about every coach in the country has reached out to me," Vitale said. "That means the world to me. People will tell me what I mean to basketball. All that support and on social media, it helps give me the right mental attitude to fight this, to beat this."
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who is in his last season coaching the Blue Devils, considers Vitale a longtime friend. Coach K said he texted Vitale words of encouragement: "I said, 'I'm so proud of you. You doing this shows the thousands of people with cancer that you're going to fight it.' "
Current ESPN and SportsCenter chairman Jimmy Pitaro also chimed in."Given all that he’s going through, this is especially meaningful for Dick to be back calling games," Pitaro said. "He has our full support, and we can’t wait to hear his unmistakable combination of energy and insight."
Vitale has been having his treatments near his home in Sarasota, Florida. A die-hard Tampa Bay sports fan, Vitale was ecstatic in 2020 when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and then the Rays reached the World Series. The Lightning have been a staple in Vitale's fandom. So much so that Lightning coach Jon Cooper came to visit Vitale and his wife recently to offer his support.
Vitale said he felt heartbroken to notice people sitting next to him during a chemotherapy treatment all by themselves. He'd go to his own treatments with the support of his wife, Lorraine, and two daughters, Terri and Sherri.
A proud grandfather of five, Vitale said his family support has been the major difference-maker in keeping his psyche in the right place.
"My wife told me now I have to take my own advice, to think positive and have faith," Vitale said. "And it's not just about cancer. Everybody has something they're going through, whether someone you love is sick or your marriage didn't turn out or people aren't supporting you with something difficult. It's about how you handle it, how you fight and how you have faith."
Vitale's words mirror those of his old friend, the late Jim Valvano, who before dying of cancer in 1993 told the ESPYs crowd, "Don't give up! Don't ever give up!". Vitale continues to honor the former North Carolina State coach through the V Foundation by raising money for cancer research.
Fellow ESPN announcer Mike Patrick once said: "The day we cure cancer, Dick Vitale deserves a standing ovation. He has been relentless in raising money for research and to keep Jim Valvano's message alive."
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dick Vitale on cancer: Started thinking 'the party's about to be over'