Did you know legendary college basketball announcer Dick Vitale was almost the star of a Hollywood sitcom?
In a recent phone interview, Vitale told me about his flirtation with Hollywood:
“I am going to tell you something that almost nobody knows. I mean, I’ve written about it but no one has ever asked me about it or talked to me about it. When I had been at ESPN a bit, some tv bigshots wanted me to do a sitcom. I mean they really wined and dined me. I was told, you know, Bob Uecker did it and that I’d be great and all that.”
Hearing this, I figured Vitale was exaggerating. Nope. Apparently, this was a real thing. Some television executive really did want to make the Dick Vitale version of Everybody Loves Raymond:
“I flew out there to visit with some of these guys and one of them was like ‘you know, the money is in a completely different world than what you are doing [calling college basketball games for ESPN].’”
So why didn’t it happen? Well, it turns out Vitale turned it down because he...really really loves college basketball:
“the minute I get away [from the tv wooers] and am talking to my wife, I told her, you know, it’s not for me. I’m a basketball guy. No sitcom guy. I don’t care about all that jazz. I care about basketball. It’s not me. And I stayed with what I did, and I’m very proud that I did that because I make a great living and I’m lucky and I get to be involved with the thing I truly love, and that’s the game of basketball.”
Vitale did not always have the discipline to resist the temptation to leave for greener pastures. In the late 1970s, Vitale left his position as head basketball coach and athletic director at the University of Detroit to become head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Things did not go well, and he was fired a few games into his second season. When I asked Vitale to discuss it, he was unusually candid in discussing a very personal failure:
“I should not have taken that job. I made a bad, bad decision. It had nothing to do with the Pistons. It had nothing to do with ownership. It was my fault. In that case, I took something that I could not handle because my personality was not geared to 100 games [82 games in the NBA regular season+ potential playoff games]. But I was like a kid in a candy store. And I made a mistake.”
Over the past thirty years, Dick Vitale has morphed into something of a cultural icon, and Vitale occasionally plays along—Vitale’s publicist offered me the interview so Dickie V could talk about the ingenious publicity stunt devised by Allstate in which Vitale went head to head with an actual dolphin in a bracket contest.
But the core reason I wanted to talk to Vitale was to try to figure out whether Vitale is a phony…or whether he is the rarest of creatures in the modern media culture: sincere. Without my even asking, Vitale more or less answered my question for me:
“People may disagree with what I say…with my style. And that’s totally their prerogative. But no one is ever gonna say ‘man, he’s not fired up, he’s not prepared.’ I still love the game. I still feel like I’m a 25 year old. I really still love the game and feel as enthusiastic about the game as I ever have felt about it.”
After talking to the man, I find myself convinced that television Vitale is more or less the same person as real life Vitale. As he himself acknowledges, basketball fans really can quibble with the style, but those who question the sincerity of Dickie V’s enthusiasm now have to answer the following question: if Dickie V is an act, then why did he not go the way of Matt Leblanc and Baby Bob and make a lot of money making a horrible sitcom?
It’s not like basketball would not have taken him back…
Jeb Golinkin, a law student at the University of Texas, is a columnist for The Week and a frequent FrumForum contributor. Follow him on Twitter.