The consummate contributor

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

So maybe, by your criteria in commentators, he isn't awesome, baby. Fair enough. To each his own.

But what can't be debated about Dick Vitale is his contribution to the meteoric growth of college basketball, the very criteria (not broadcast career) for which he is being considered for enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The Class of 2004 will be announced at April's Final Four.

"A contributor is somebody who makes an incredible contribution to the enhancement of the sport of basketball," Hall of Fame spokesman Howard Davis said.

Vitale, with his soapbox, celebrity and promotional energy has done that. Without argument.

On Saturday, Vitale will be in perhaps his favorite place, Cameron Indoor Stadium, to call another North Carolina-Duke game. Although much of the drama and action will come courtesy of the players and coaches, Vitale's voice adds the perfect, definitive narration.

College basketball is a two-hour burst of youthful energy and emotion and no one understands that more than this balding 64-year-old.

"I realize I work with the guy," says ESPN's Dan Shulman, who often plays Vitale's straight man, "but when you think of college basketball, the exciting atmosphere, the students on their feet, he is part of that scenario."

But for a quarter century Vitale has been more than just the lead commentator for ESPN. He's been college basketball's rock star, its tireless promoter.

Walk through an airport with Vitale and watch strangers scream his name. Watch him work an arena before the game, arriving hours early because fans want autographs, players' moms want to hug him and local media want a quote. See him on campus speaking to classes, doing charity lunches and visiting with starstruck players.

A guy who always is positive about the game, who neither harms nor big-times anyone, who admittedly is "64 and acts 12," is understandably a national phenomenon.

"Just [Wednesday] a woman came up to me and said, 'Can I give you a hug and a kiss?'" Vitale said. "Then a guy asks if he can rub my bald dome. I'm shaking my head. It's just amazing. I just love being with the people, and I love the reaction I still get from young people."

Vitale would be forgiven if he acted like a jet-lagged millionaire who no longer needs the job. But the son of two New Jersey coat factory workers can't help himself. College basketball is the beneficiary.

In the mid-1980s, when Vitale was just starting, the Final Four was played in small markets such as Albuquerque, N.M., and Lexington, Ky. The sport has so outgrown those places it's laughable.

That isn't just because of Vitale, but only the most naïve would discount his impact. In a sport where the players are around for the briefest of times, where coaches can't seem to avoid scandal, he is the sport's de facto commissioner, its defender and its constant cheerleader.

He never turns down a chance to promote college basketball. Never.

Shulman recalls the time last year he and Vitale arrived at their hotel in East Lansing, Mich., at 1:30 a.m. They had just flown in from another game, and both just wanted to get to sleep when the phone at the registration desk rang with a TV producer trying to set up an appearance on a local early-morning show. Vitale, ever gracious, agreed.

So he'd only get four, five hours of sleep. It's a big game, baby!

"He can't say no," Shulman said. "You can't imagine the demands on his time from media, people at the colleges, charities."

The cynic says Vitale is just promoting himself and he's gotten wealthy from doing it. But at this stage he doesn't need to get his mug on TV in Lansing, the nation's 110th largest market.

But no request is beneath him. He is a regular with the lowly campus media (Jim Rome still swears by him because Vitale was a guest on Rome's student radio show at UC Santa Barbara in the 1980s). He continues to give impromptu motivational talks to women's soccer teams. He is famous for getting a cab driver's address and sending an autographed book.

The contributor category was created for guys like Vitale. He wasn't a great coach, but he has meant so much to his sport. If enshrined he would join men such as Danny Biasone, the inventor of the 24-second clock, and Chick Hearn, the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers broadcaster.

Vitale, college hoops' relentless, raucous and rollicking proponent certainly has contributed as much as them.

Turn him up or mute him out, it hardly matters. He undeniably is great for the game and unquestionably is Hall-worthy.

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