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As author and cancer crusader, Vitale tones down his act

His personal experiences with cancer have made Dick Vitale a reflective and engaging presence at his book signings. His personal experiences with cancer have made Dick Vitale a reflective and engaging presence at his book signings. (John marshall/Associated Press)
By John Marshall
Associated Press / January 11, 2009
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - This isn't the Dick Vitale you know from television.

There's no bombastic pronouncements, no frenetic arm movements or head bobbing, no shouts of "Awesome, baby!" or "Better get a T-O!"

It's just Vitale, sitting at a desk inside a bookstore, quietly signing copies of his new book for hundreds of fans in a line that snakes around the stacks to the back wall.

Who would have believed it? One of college basketball's most popular announcers comes with volume control. He still has the same emotion, same affability that comes across on the TV, it's just much more subdued.

"I have a great time doing these," Vitale said. "I love meeting people, talking to people."

Passion - for people, for life, for basketball - is at the root of Vitale's popularity among college basketball fans across the country after 29 years as an analyst. All the hyperbole, the shouts of "OHHHH! OHHHH!" with every big play is not shtick. Some fans might find it obnoxious, but it's just Vitale's natural reaction to the sport he loves.

That passion is there in the bookstore, too, evident in the interactions with every fan who has a story about their own struggles with cancer, friends or family who have battled the disease.

Vitale has been a dedicated supporter of cancer research since his friend, former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, died in 1993, and his resolve to fight the disease became even stronger with a throat cancer scare last year. Proceeds from his new book, "Dick Vitale's Fabulous 50 Players and Moments in College Basketball," go to the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

"This is for my brother, Ted, who's fighting colon cancer," one fan told Vitale as he set a book on the desk. "He's a big fan of yours."

"Thanks, I appreciate that," Vitale said as he signed the book with a black Sharpie. "You tell him I said to keep up the fight - don't give in to it."

Vitale's congenial nature has made him a favorite among players and coaches, the ever-upbeat Dickie V always there to offer a pat on the back, a bit of advice at practices or before games. He's always a willing participant with fans, posing for photos, signing autographs, hamming it up with the student section before games.

Vitale is the same inside the bookstore, intently listening to every story, treating each person in line as if they're a close friend. And about half the people have an I-met-you-once story, reliving the encounter as if it were yesterday and Vitale should remember. He rarely does - Vitale has met thousands of people from four decades on the road as an announcer and coach - but always plays along.

"We were at a Notre Dame several years ago and you picked up my son and called him a Diaper Dandy. Well, this is the Diaper Dandy," said a middle-aged man, putting his arm around a 10-year-old boy wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey.

"Is that right?" Vitale said with a chuckle. "So you're the Diaper Dandy, huh? You've grown up."

"You want to pick him up now?" the man asked.

"I don't think I can," Vitale responded, eliciting laughs all around.

There's also a kindness to Vitale, a willingness to help a kid down on his luck, send a note of encouragement to a complete stranger who's sick. And he does it without publicizing it; recognition isn't his motive.

That compassion was evident as soon as Vitale entered the bookstore and stopped to make a handwritten poster for a North Carolina fan named Frank.

"Get well soon," he wrote. "Think positive. Go Tar Heels! You're awesome baby!"

Vitale's thoughtfulness was also there at the end of the signing, when he walked out and shook hands with a Salvation Army worker who had been standing outside the door for hours.

"Get this man a book," Vitale said just before signing the inside cover and handing it to the man. "Keep up the good work."

"Thank you very much, sir," the worker said. "You're a great man."

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