Dick Vitale Discusses His Early Career In Broadcasting And The Iconic Figures Who Inspired Him

Getty Image

In the pantheon of legendary sports broadcasters, Dick Vitale is right near the top. He’s been calling basketball games on ESPN literally since the beginning, and he’s carved out quite a niche for himself with his bombastic personality and a genuine enthusiasm for the game.

His inimitable voice and iconic catchphrases are as much a part of college basketball as anything that happens on the court. Beyond that, Vitale is an entertaining presence on social media, where the avid music fan has been sometimes known to live tweet concerts like Billy Joel and Barry Manilow.

And as a veteran analyst, he’s never been shy about voicing his opinion. He’s been a vocal critic of LaVar Ball’s antics and even called out his own network for their recent coverage of Ball’s attempts to undermine Lakers coach Luke Walton.

On Wednesday, he will join Mark Jackson and Ryan Ruocco to call the Celtics’ game against the Clippers at TD Garden as part of ESPN’s crossover initiative that will mix and match NCAA and NBA broadcasters and analysts. We caught up with Dickie V earlier this week to talk about his early years in broadcasting, as well as some of the highlights of a career that has spanned more than four decades.

UPROXX: Let’s start by talking a little bit about this crossover broadcast you’re doing at the Celtics-Clippers game on Wednesday.

Dick Vitale: I generally think we’ve been doing this now almost every year. Last year, I did a Cavaliers game with Bill Walton. I was telling people it’s a little different now. Going from Bill Walton … it’s like Carrot Top, then going to Mark Jackson, who’s Mother Teresa. So I’m really looking forward to it. I covered Mark when he played in college at St. John’s.

And with the Celtics, it’s like walking into this building with this unbelievable tradition. They have 17 titles, 35 Hall of Famers have worn their uniforms. It’s special. It’s tons of fun. It’s a breakaway from the college game, and it’s a lot of fun to see college guys that I covered as pros to see how they’ve developed.

How is calling an NBA game different from calling a college game? Do you have to kind of approach it a little differently than you normally would?

No. I go there, I leave the real analysis to the guy who covers the NBA, and I just try to add little sidebars, a little interest. It’s basketball. It’s basketball. You’ve still got your big shots, you’ve got to set screens, you’ve got to rebound, so I talk about these parts of the game.

You’ve been a coach, both at the college level and the NBA level. Do you think that informs your broadcasting style a little bit, you know, being able to sort of see the game or analyze the game from that perspective? Does that give you a unique approach to it?

I think I have a little experience being part of that, and seeing that certainly lends to it. It helps. But I just love basketball. I love all kinds of basketball: high school, college, pros. And it’s still certain skills that happen for you to succeed, and I try to talk about that, shot selection, defending as a team, blocking out, doing all the little things, no matter what level you’re at, moving without the ball. Those are all vital ingredients and elements to winning, and I wanna share that.

I wanted to talk a little about your early career. I read that you were a bit reluctant to become a broadcaster at first. Was there a particular moment when it kind of clicked for you and you thought, “Hey, I think I’m pretty good at this, I can see myself doing this as a career?”

It wasn’t that I thought I wasn’t good enough, but I fell in love with what I was doing, really. It was something initially, obviously I wanted to get back to where I thought I belonged. I made a mistake going to the NBA. My personality did not fit that lifestyle. You know, every game to me was like a national championship.

That’s why you’re not at a collegiate level because you’re out playing 80-some games a year, and I realized that I made a mistake. I should have been a college coach, and I wanted to get back. I wanted to get back coaching in college where I was able to have some success. But then ESPN came aboard and changed my views.

My former boss, the man that signed me, Scotty Connal, he told me right out of the gate, he said look, I’m telling you, you’ve got three things we can’t change. He said your enthusiasm is off the charts. He said your knowledge of the game is there, and you’re not afraid to share an opinion. He said don’t jump to a job coaching. You could make a lot of money, he said, and you can have a great career in broadcasting.

I thought that was just words, words, words. And the first time where I really felt the impact of what he had said was I went to the Final Four for the very first time for ESPN. They assigned me to the Final Four in ’83, and that was the year that Jimmy V cut the nets down and won the national title. And while I was there, people were coming up to me for pictures and autographs.

Scotty told me, he said, “Didn’t I tell you? You have a gift that you connect. Whether they agree with you or disagree, there’s only a handful of announcers that make people go to the water cooler the next day and they say, ‘Hey, did you hear what he said, did you hear what he said up there?'”

And he said you have that gift. Don’t give it up to go coach college. And then from that moment it started taking off for me in terms of speaking engagements, commercials, books, and got to a point where I could not even think about going back to college coaching.

Who were your inspirations as a broadcaster early on?

I used to love, oh my God, how could you not like Al McGuire? I loved Al McGuire. So real, so genuine. Coached against him. Had my biggest win ever as a coach against him. We beat them and won the national championship in Milwaukee. Just a regular guy, man. And then I loved all the great ones; I mean, Dick Enberg, unbelievable, Keith Jackson. I mean, how could you not love those guys?

Curt Gowdy. You got Curt Gowdy, legendary broadcaster. He did my last game as a college coach. We played Michigan. They were number one in the country. We played them in the Sweet 16, and we were like David to Goliath. NBC televised the game, and Curt Gowdy was the announcer, and the analyst was John Wooden. So I was on cloud nine knowing those guys were doing that game. And the guy that was executive producer to NBC that was Scotty Connal.

Because of that game I got into television, because when Scotty came to me at practice the day before and said “I’d like you to spend a few minutes with Coach Wooden and Curt Gowdy,” I was blown away knowing they were doing my game. I’m in my 30s, young 30s, and called my team over and I gave them a little speech about greatness. I said, listen, right now, I said we use greatness an awful lot. People on television, radio, in general conversation. I said this truly embodies greatness right here. Curt Gowdy, all kinds of Emmys, awards. John Wooden, 10 national titles. This is greatness.

Well, we got beat in a real tough game in the last minute, 1977 I guess it was. We got beat by Michigan. It was a heck of a game, it came right down to the wire. But anyway, after the game, I did not know this until I got a phone call from Scotty when I got fired by the Pistons. He said, when we left the arena, he said Coach Wooden and Curt Gowdy said to me, said “Man, if you ever get an opportunity, I’d give that guy a shot. I love his spirit, I love his enthusiasm, his passion.”

He said that’s why I’m calling you up today. I just read you got fired by the Pistons. He said I’ve just been named the head of a new network, ESPN. And I actually said to him, because he always told people the story, I said ESPN? Sounds like a disease. What is ESPN? A lot of people don’t realize this. I did the first game ever in the history of ESPN.

That’s incredible.

1979. I’m going on my fourth decade now, 39 years.

I was just talking with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst a couple of weeks ago about LeBron’s game against Oak Hill in 2003. It was kind of his first real debut on national TV, and you and Bill Walton were on hand to call it. Do you have any memories from that game?

I do. I have a lot of memories. I got ripped like crazy after the game by the national journalists because I said during the game, I turned to Bill Walton … first of all, I didn’t want to do the game. That’s the only game ever that the networks ever assigned me where I called my boss and said, “Come on, man, we’re making this kid into a, like he’s the greatest thing ever, to put Walton and I on the game?” I mean, it’s unbelievable. “No, no, we want you to do it.” I’m a team player. I said sure, “all right, I’ll do it.”

So I go there, and I’m talking to Walton before the game. I said, “Man, this kid can’t be as good as everybody’s saying.” After about five minutes of the game, he was making a bunch of kids with division one players and playing a tremendous team, Oak Hill Academy, he had all these division one guys. After about four or five minutes, I turned to Bill Walton. I said, “Bill, let me tell you this: he is better than advertised. Instant star. Instant star. There isn’t no doubt in my mind.”

Well, I got ripped for saying that the kid was going to be an instant star. Well, all I simply say, check the records out, man. He did it right away.