A phone conversation with Dick Vitale goes exactly the way anyone with familiarity of the longtime and legendary college basketball analyst would expect.
It’s a delightful verbal hurricane of anecdotes and platitudes, all delivered with more energy than any 78-year-old should be expected to muster.
Sometimes, but not often, a question even gets asked. It is, in short, a riot — and an informative and entertaining chat.
I caught up with Vitale earlier this week in advance of Wednesday night’s Celtics-Clippers matchup on ESPN. Vitale, switching over to pro hoops for the night, will join Ryan Ruocco and Mark Jackson on the call.
Here are some of this thoughts on various basketball topics I brought up during our chat. Best just to get out of the way and let him go, for the full and enjoyable Dickie V. effect.
On Brad Stevens and what makes him such a good coach: “He doesn’t get too high or too low and that’s fantastic and hard to do, especially in the NBA. Having coached in the NBA, I can tell you I would have never lived to age 50 if I stayed in the NBA. This is my 39th year calling college basketball, and I’m undefeated in 39 years! I’ve coached Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, and I never lost a game!
“With Brad, I was surprised he made the transition to the NBA. Not that I didn’t think he could do it, but I didn’t think he would do it. I heard a few rumors at the time that made me think he was definitely going to stay at the collegiate level. I saw him as a college coach, a lifer, I really did. He’s done a great job in Boston, the players love him, and I can see why.
“When I talk about my life, it’s always about a boy, a ball, and a dream. I imagine that’s how it was for Brad, too. He wasn’t a big-time player, a superstar, a major, major name. He made this opportunity for himself. I think that’s why it’s so easy for him to relate to so many different kinds of people, from all walks.
“And to get the final game [in the NCAA Tournament] twice while at Butler, that tells you how good he was right there. That’s a coach’s dream to do it once in a lifetime. He did it in back-to-back years.’’
On Kyrie Irving, who played just 11 games of college ball at Duke: “The first time I saw him I knew he was a superstar. I’m almost sure I did his first game on national television, and I did a few of the few games he did play. Let me tell ya, I was well aware of Kyrie Irving. He played at St. Patrick in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I grew up in New Jersey and it’s always been part of my life, and a buddy called me up and said, ‘Wait until you lay eyes on this kid.’ And I remember Mike Kryzyzewski speaking to me about him before he got there and he said, ‘Dick, this is as special as it gets.’ And Kyrie hasn’t disappointed at all. He’s lived up to every expectation.
“I’ll tell you this though because I’m going to admit it on the broadcast. I was dead-wrong about the trade [when the Celtics sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, a No. 1 draft pick via the Nets, and Ante Zizic to the Cavaliers for Irving]. I thought Kyrie and Isaiah would be a wash. Isaiah was the most clutch performer of anyone in the NBA last year with the Celtics. I thought that would work with the Cavs. I did. Crowder is a coach’s dream, with his toughness. And throwing in that Brooklyn pick, with so many quality kids likely coming into the draft this year? Thought it was a no-brainer for Cleveland. I was wrong there, though in fairness, I think Isaiah got a bad rap from Cleveland, and that’s unfair. That hip takes more than 7 months to heal. He’s not right, not yet. We haven’t seen the real Isaiah Thomas this year. Fifteen games in Cleveland is not fair, though trading him has definitely rejuvenated Cleveland.’’
Watch: Kyrie Irving and Brad Stevens talk the Celtics’ struggles
On Al Horford, who was a crucial part of two national championship teams at the University of Florida: “I like Joakim Noah a lot. But when he was at Florida, everyone was saying, ‘Noah! Noah! Noah!, he’s the best they have!’’ And I came out and said, ‘Hold it. Give me Al Horford.’ That guy was solid in the post, played within the realm of the team offense, unselfish, wonderful passer, everything he is right now. He is absolutely a perfect fit for the Celtics, as I’m sure smart Celtics fans know.’’
On his infamous trade with the Celtics while he was with the Pistons: “We had M.L. Carr. I loved M.L. Carr. He’s about to become a free agent. He tells me, ‘Dick, I want to stay, I love playing for you. But they’re not offering me any money, and the Celtics want me.’ So he signed with the Celtics. In those days, there was something called compensation, where when you lose a player to free agency, you go to battle with the team that signed him and you battle for compensation for what you lost.
“So we talk compensation with the Celtics and they want to give us Sidney Wicks or Curtis Rowe. My owner, Bill Davidson, says, ‘I’m going to take care of this. I’m going to make a deal with Red [Auerbach]. They’re going to sign M.L., I’ll give them two first-round picks [in the 1980 draft], and they’re going to give us Bob McAdoo in return.’ I said, ‘Mr. Davidson, you do not want to go in that direction. I love McAdoo, great scorer, but we need those picks.’
“You know how it turned out. The Celtics traded those two first-round picks to the Warriors for Robert Parish and a pick that became Kevin McHale. So in reality, they got Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and M.L. Carr for Bob McAdoo. A few years later I was at a banquet honoring Red and I got up to speak and said, ‘Red, I gave you McHale and Parish! They’re honoring you, but when do I get my championship ring?’ It was a great time. Not a great trade, though.’’
On his gratitude for the career he has had: “I tell people, November 8, 1979. That is a date my life changed. I lost my eye as a kid, poked it with a pencil, and I thought that was a terrible moment, obviously. But coming up through the coaching ranks as a nobody, a college coach at Detroit, then getting the Pistons job and getting fired so quickly in my tenure, my second year after 12 games, I thought it was the end of the world. You call people up, they don’t call you back, no one returns a call, it feels like it’s over. My wife always said, ‘Dick, you have a lot of friends, but they’re associates.’ And man, was she right. All of a sudden ESPN calls me, and this career happens. I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t shoot, I’ve got a body by linguine, but I’m in 13 Hall of Fames! No one needs to tell me how lucky I’ve been.’’